Residents of San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood voiced major concerns after Jenny Niezgoda, a self-proclaimed “longtime food aficionado,” announced she was opening a “modern frutería” in the neighborhood. Locals were unhappy when Niezgoda launched a Kickstarter campaign for a cafe and juice bar, La Gracia, prompting significant online backlash. Niezgoda is also an avid Instagrammer, and according to her Kickstarter page, wanted to open a cafe that would “make everyone (our employees + customers + neighborhood) feel happy, healthy, excited and inspired” after she took a trip to Mexico and apparently came across fruterías for the first time. But residents of the neighborhood have made it clear they’re just fine without La Gracia.
The Kickstarter page itself is filled with cringeworthy moments that reek of gentrifying plans and cultural insensitivity. “What is a frutería, you ask?” a beaming Niezgoda asks the camera in her Kickstarter video. “It’s a Mexican-inspired juice bar.” Well, not exactly… in fact, not at all. A fruteria is a fruit store, typically a small shop where people can buy whole fresh fruit. What Niezgoda has in mind is a pricey cafe with prepared food and drinks. Critics noted on social media that Niezgoda wants to turn a profit by borrowing from Mexican culture, while demonstrating that she clearly isn’t even able to articulate what it is she’s borrowing.
Further, the location where Niezgoda plans to open up shop is largely Chicano and has a significant homeless population, according to Foodbeast, which certainly sounds the alarm for gentrification concerns. Alex Zaragoza, a writer for Mitú, reported that the largely Chicano population of Barrio Logan has a long history of warding off gentrification and advocating for the residents of their neighborhood. That is to say, this is a familiar type of fight for the Barrio. “Down the street there’s $13 hot dogs sold out of a lowrider” San Diego food truck owner Antonio Ley told Mitú. “[Niezgoda] just made the dumbest video ever. It’s the most racially divisive business that’s hit Barrio Logan because she made it completely white. She was here to take what we made and tried to run with it.”
Appropriating and profiting from marginalized cultures while simultaneously gentrifying neighborhoods is a pattern that stretches far and wide in the food industry in the United States. Last month, a tech startup got slammed online for announcing plans to create Bodega, a company that would make giant vending machines and effectively replace real bodegas. The backlash was swift, and the idea seems to have died out.
Then in June, a new New York City bar and sandwich shop, Summerhill, faced heavy criticism for its marketing of the new restaurant after circulating a tone-deaf PR statement. Chiefly, Summerhill was called out for trying to sell the restaurant based on a “bullet-hole ridden wall” which the owners seemed to suggest was a great photo-op for customers. It turned out that the wall, which did have some damage in the form of small holes, wasn’t actually by bullets, but Summerhill still tried to capitalize on a false idea of neighborhood violence in a rapidly gentrifying part of the city.
As for La Gracia, the cafe’s Kickstarter closed off for donations with only $812 banked from a sad total of 14 backers, and the project has been shut down by Niezgoda. Sometimes gentrification attempts just don’t pay off.