Long before an NFL star bulldozed his way through defenders to earn millions on football fields, he met a woman named Cassie Nicholson. She sold hamburgers and fries out of her home. Marshawn Lynch was one of her customers. “She used to really hook me up when I was younger with the fries and the burgers for pretty much free,” says Lynch, an Oakland native.
Three years ago, Lynch got the chance to repay Nicholson’s kindness. He bought the building that housed Scend’s, the soul food restaurant she operated for decades on Oakland and Emeryville’s border. “What made me interested was I heard she had some situations going on with the restaurant finances and stuff like that,” Lynch says.
The former running back for the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders knew where to go with his playbook for opening a restaurant. His aunt Kecia Johnson was the perfect person to execute his game plan. “I jumped at it. It felt right at the time. It still feels right,” says Johnson, now the general manager and executive chef of Rob Ben’s Restaurant & Lounge. “I unconditionally love my nephew. We would do anything in the world for him because he’s such a good person, and he’s there for all of us.”
Johnson not only stepped in to help her nephew with the transformation of Scend’s into Rob Ben’s, but she also chose to take on the responsibilities of cooking and managing the restaurant. Lynch’s aunt Shawny Capla worked at Scend’s for 10 years and delivered the owner’s request to her nephew. “She had other buyers, but she wanted him to buy it,” Capla says.
Rob Ben’s opened in December of 2018. Capla and her sister have turned their nephew’s vision into a popular soul food establishment by working 17-hour days shopping, cooking and serving hungry patrons and indigent residents. “My sister is an awesome leader, and I’m her little commander. It just works,” says Capla.
A Tribute Built on Traditions
Outside of professional football, Lynch has gained respect as a businessman in Oakland. His decision to become a restaurateur saved one of the few Black-owned businesses still in the area. “It’s a lot of gentrification, especially around there, the Emeryville, North Oakland and West Oakland area,” Lynch says. “Actually, across the street from the restaurant, they just put some apartment homes up.”
An article in the Mercury News reports that Oakland and San Francisco experienced the nation’s highest gentrification rates between 2013 and 2017. A study released this year by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition documents the impact on lower-income residents pushed out by expensive housing sought by high wage earners. “It’s important to keep the restaurant in that particular spot because it’s right here where I grew up,” Lynch says.
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The name the Super Bowl champion and five-time Pro Bowl player gave his restaurant also reflects his respect for history. Gunfire took the life of Lynch’s close friend in 2007. Rob Ben’s honors what Robert Benjamin meant to Lynch. “I wasn’t really worried about appeasing anybody with the name. I just wanted to go with something important to me and the rest of the family members.”
Family comes first with Lynch. He demonstrated it when he made sure Johnson would be financially sound after transitioning from her job as a legal analyst for California’s State Bar. She retired from her 20-year career three months ago but still has a 401(k) plan.
In her new job, she oversees the kitchen, payroll, invoicing and contracts. “It is a lot, and it helps tremendously having my sister coming in,” says Johnson. “It is so easy and calming because we don’t get in each other’s way. We don’t have to ask. We know mentally what needs to be done before we open the doors.”
Capla came into Rob Ben’s from the technology field after working a host of second jobs at Scend’s from bartender to bookkeeper. “I’m the manager and the head bartender. I basically run the front of the house. This was before corona. I did the schedules for the waitresses and for the bartenders,” says Capla.
The two sisters grew up with the tradition of having each other’s backs. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, they worked in tandem to keep the doors open. “She would do the front end, take the orders and go to the cars and do the curbside service. I cooked all of the orders. She would come in and pack them,” Johnson says.
The restaurant closed for one week before Johnson and Capla took over the takeout operation by themselves. “After all the things that I normally do, I always ask her what else can I do for you? She has so much responsibility that I try to do everything I can to lessen the weight on her,” Capla says.
Reputation for Superb Cooking
The demands of preparing quality soul food for customers never worried the two sisters. Johnson had a catering company for 12 years while working her corporate job. Capla often joined her in the kitchen when they prepared family meals.
Johnson’s sons were not the only young men with regular seats at her dining table. “On Sunday, she used to cook during the season, not only for us but for other people on the team, other athletes who were away from home,” says Lynch.
No coaches, girlfriends or other parents were invited. Johnson saw the Sunday dinners as a chance for Lynch and her sons to bond. The pro baller and one of her sons went to the University of California, Berkeley. They made almost every decision about college football together.
High school and college football players were later replaced by some of Lynch’s NFL teammates who had the privilege of eating Johnson’s cooking. “I used to always be like, ‘I’ll just slide by auntie’s house and snatch up a plate or something.’ They always used to be like, ‘I’ve eaten at a lot of places, but this is really good,’” Lynch says.
Rob Ben’s reputation for serving exceptional meals with the taste of home helped the restaurant land a contract with the World Central Kitchen. The service the two women provide feeding the needy keeps them busy Wednesday through Saturday. They get it done with Johnson’s husband, Randy, delivering the 1,100 donated meals the sisters prepare each week. “We are among the top restaurants that have been able to stay on board with them. We’re very proud of that because it has just been my sister and me doing the World Central Kitchen,” says Johnson.
Rob Ben’s general manager also feels good about the restaurant being one of the few to work alongside the World Central Kitchen staff when wildfires swept through Sonoma. They brought relief by feeding devastated families and exhausted firefighters. First responders can count on getting a 24% discount when they order food from the restaurant. The percentage represents Lynch’s number while playing in the NFL.
“We’re happy to be able to take our talents and bless our community with it. Just being able to give back is a blessing to us,” Johnson adds. Preparing food for the nonprofit organization made it possible to bring on two more staff members, including one of the restaurant’s most dedicated employees, Laura Jackson.
Lynch’s uncle, Cullen Bennett, is also cooking in the kitchen. He was an executive chef with Kaiser Permanente before the COVID closures. “He knows what his childhood favorites are,” says Johnson. “I think it’s comforting to Marshawn.”
The two women’s charitable commitment extends to people who lack the funds to pay for a meal. “If somebody wants something to eat, we go in our pocket, and we pay for it,” Capla says.
A collection jar for struggling families sits on a counter at Rob Ben’s. Johnson and her sister never want customers to think they can’t order what they want, even if they are short on cash. “We’re feeding souls, but it makes our souls so much better when we’re seeing the smiles and how happy our customers are,” says Johnson.
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Her son, Robert Jordan, is there to help his mother close the restaurant at the end of the day. Together they deliver leftover meals to the homeless and residents of the California Hotel. Jordan handled the comedy shows and music as the event manager at Rob Ben’s before the pandemic. He also assisted his father with the outdoor dining setup before California recently shutdown that option again.
Another nephew in the family, Maurice “Rell” Reed, arranges repairs and deposits for the restaurant. The shrimp po’boy sandwich on the menu is named after him.
Specials Stay in Demand
Other dishes on the Emeryville restaurant’s menu are named after family members or Oakland history. All the offerings are specialties soul food lovers enjoy. Capla and her sister are adamant about maintaining quality and consistency.
“I tell people it’s not something you learn. It’s something you have if that stove is in your heart. The first time I ever cooked gumbo, I nailed it with no errors or anything,” says Capla. “A lot of times, I will challenge myself to do something I’ve never done before.”
Capla always wants her sister to taste anything she makes, whether a staple on the menu or something new. “It makes me proud because she has so much confidence in me. I’ve gone from working at a restaurant to being involved in the restaurant,” Capla says.
Johnson calls Capla her rock and the person she counts on the most to keep customers coming back. “It’s soul food when it touches your heart. When I walk through the dining room, and I’m seeing people close their eyes, or I see them slap their hand on the table as if to say, ‘Damn that’s good.’”
Rob Ben’s continues to serve a full menu for takeout on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Johnson chose not to condense the selections because patrons still ask for all of their specialties. “With everything that’s changing around here and around the Bay area and things shutting down, we wanted to keep something the same,” Johnson says.
The self-taught cooks get frequent requests for Johnson’s oxtails and Capla’s gumbo. They often have to remind customers which specials are offered on a particular day. They’ve even had regulars ask if there is any oxtail gravy left at the bottom of the pot. “They love our food. It’s such a good feeling,” says Capla.
Some of the biggest hits are the smothered meats, shrimp and grits and seafood dishes. On the barbecue specials day, patrons can order ribs, chicken, brisket and beef links. There is an extensive list of traditional sides, including green vegetables, beans, potatoes, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. Peach cobbler, banana pudding and cake are available for dessert.
Johnson welcomes vegan customers as well. “None of our sides have meat in them. I don’t have a vegan menu, but I’ll go back there and cook it for them the way they want it cooked,” Johnson says.
Lynch is impressed that the food his aunties cook kept customers coming even after the pandemic started. “We took a week to reflect and get the game plan right. Thankfully, the community got behind us, and we were able to have enough to-go orders. And then World Kitchen came into play right on time,” says Rob Ben’s owner.
Foundation of Faith
One Yelp reviewer describes Lynch’s place as a restaurant with pure heart. There were a few challenges in the early months of operation as various family members and other staff figured out what was expected of them. “That’s what happens in a business the first couple of years. It takes a while before you start seeing numbers going up and percentages. We’re really in a good place right now,” says Johnson.
One of the challenges came to light when Ben Rob’s was featured in an episode of Paramount Network’s “Bar Rescue” early this year. The money wasted behind the bar. Before the pandemic, the restaurant served an extensive list of specialty drinks, including the Beastmode Margarita. “After that episode, even though I was always conscious of the pours, it got better,” says Capla.
Few of the other changes “Bar Rescue” implemented are still in place. Johnson plans to restore the original logo and awnings that meant a lot to her nephew. “Marshawn worked with a designer on what he wanted in that logo. He put a lot of thought into what it represented,” says Johnson.
The sisters are thrilled about the new ice machine. Lynch’s auntie Kecia likes the tribute to his football career displayed in the dining room. “They did one big collage of pictures in between in a huge frame that has his early years leading up to his older years. And then my son’s and nephew’s football jerseys are on the sides.”
Perhaps, the best outcome from the restaurant’s participation in the reality show is the wakeup call it provided for family and staff who had not taken the venture as a serious responsibility. “We had to sit down and just talk to them. We’re not coming into this to waste money. We have to see a profit because, in a minute, this could be gone,” Johnson says.
That realization hit home for much of the restaurant’s staff when the pandemic forced the sisters to operate Rob Ben’s alone for months. They hope to rehire more people when the pandemic restrictions on restaurants are lifted. “I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve pretty much held it down since the COVID. Everything is taken care of,” says Johnson.
Pride in a Family Place
The sisters look for Lynch to drop by now and then when he is in town. Their nephew steps right in to answer the phone, handle curbside orders or go with Johnson to deliver meals to the homeless.
Even when he is away, Lynch doesn’t call to micromanage or question his aunties about the restaurant. They all look forward to the day when he and other diners can come inside again to enjoy the family atmosphere. That includes games for adults and children to play and a rule against cell phones at the tables. Johnson explains the principle behind Lynch’s No Cell Phones signs. “He wants people to sit down as a family and enjoy the good food. Be a family while you are here.”
Lynch involves his relatives in other businesses he has launched under his Beast Mode brand. His clothing line and stores carry the Beast Mode nickname. He reportedly earned it running over tacklers on the way to a winning touchdown in an Oakland Tech High School championship game.
The former NFL star sees his success as an honor that comes with a responsibility to help others, especially his kin. “I try to provide ways for them to learn and build a business pretty much on their own. That way if I give them a business and opportunity, I don’t really have to worry about coming out of my pocket,” Lynch says.
“He’s done all of this for us,” says Johnson. “Our goal is to make sure that he is not coming out of his pocket for anything. He’s already laid the foundation for everybody.
Lynch’s aunties want him to be proud of what they are building with Rob Ben’s. They appreciate that his generosity makes it possible for them to feed the hungry. “It’s brought us closer together as a family. It’s been wonderful knowing my nephew can finally let go and just trust. My aunties have got this,” Johnson says.
She would like to see other locations open if it becomes economically feasible after the pandemic ends. It would give Lynch, Capla and Johnson more opportunities to uplift others by teaching them how to prepare for greatness. “I’ve been working since the age of 14. I want each of my employees to take each brick I give them and build a wall of success for themselves,” says Johnson.
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Both Lynch and his aunties have faith in the future and feel blessed knowing there are smiles behind their customers’ masks. “For right now, I’m just happy with us feeding people and letting God guide us on the path where we need to go,” Capla says.
Check out Beast Mode Online for more information about Lynch’s apparel and https://www.fam1stfamilyfoundation.org/ for the Fam 1st Family Foundation. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter or Instagram.