Qiana Di Bari, Owner of Sale Pepe in Lahaina, On Racism in the Food Business and Why She Feels At Home On Maui
The restaurateur used to manage the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest before opening her own restaurant in New York, then moving to Maui in 2013.
This is part of a series on perspectives from Black food-business owners in Hawai‘i.
Photo: Mykle Coyne
HONOLULU Magazine: How did you get into the restaurant business?
Qiana Di Bari: As a college student at NYU, I worked part time at Moomba, a celebrity hotspot in the West Village. I happened to be in the right place at the right time: I was just a little kid who was a hostess, and I started managing the place after a few months and met a lot of really famous and interesting people. That led me into the music business, where I was invited by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest to come and work as his assistant. I ended up being Q-Tip’s manager and I managed the band. And I was with him for 20 years before Michele (Qiana’s husband) and I met at his restaurant—it was love at first sight. We had an immediate connection—but we never spoke to each other directly for five years because he moved away to open a restaurant and I had a boyfriend at the time.
Michele and I opened our restaurant, Va Beh’, which means “it’s all good” in Italian, in Brooklyn, about six months after we had our little girl. We opened that together because we both knew that I was going to make my way out of the music business to really focus on family. It was a cute little restaurant—20-seater, some of the same philosophy and aesthetics that we have here at Sale Pepe.
HM: What’s your ethnicity?
QDB: I am—I’m—I feel like I’m American. I’ll just stop there.
My family has been here since pre-American times. I’m part of the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. And they were part of a group that sold the first bead to the Dutch at Manahatta. We have been here in America for hundreds of years. We know the Dutch woman that married the Native American man on the Jersey shore from 1620. So we go back a long way. I’m also obviously African American and we are generations and generations of hapa people. There’s some British, there’s some Dutch. We’re a mix of everything but I think that’s what Black is in America. We’re all kind of melted and molded and assimilated in different ways. So I would say that I’m Black, but I know that my heritage is a mix of almost every race.
For me, Black means mixed. I’m actually more comfortable with Black than African American because I don’t feel like as a culture, we are connected to Africa—we created our own culture here being as mixed up as we are. Even coming right off the slave ships from Africa, we were mixed, purposely—different tribes mixed with other tribes and Black people from different countries and regions mixed with others. It just continued when we got to America—we mix with our neighbors and our masters and the natives around us. And so for me, Black is a unique term for a really unique experience.
SEE ALSO: Sale Pepe Brings a Taste of Italy to Hawai‘i
HM: Have you experienced racism in the food business?
QDB: I’ve dealt with it in every aspect of my life and every facet of my life. In the food business in particular—I’ll tell you two short stories. More than one time people have come in and I’m normally at the door at Sale Pepe and on the floor, Michele is in the back of the house. And they’ll say to me, “Where’s the boss? Where’s the real Italian? You don’t really know Italian. What do you mean you’re the owner, where’s your husband?” That kind of thing. And, you know, in America, you can be any race and open any sort of restaurant and represent any cuisine as long as you know it. Sometimes I’m a little bit marginalized because of my race and the kind of cuisine that we’re serving.
And then another more overt thing happened two years ago: Someone posted Pepe the Frog (a cartoon appropriated as a racist hate symbol) drinking a salted margarita on our Facebook page and said something derogatory on it. I had to have that flagged and blocked. That was pretty overt and creepy.
But it’s never locals. I will tell you that very clearly. It’s always people from other places.
Another time, I was crossing the street on Front Street in front of Bubba Gump with my 6-year-old at the time, and someone in a rental car drove by and made monkey sounds. And even my little 6-year-old instinctively knew that wasn’t right. I had to have a talk with her about how some people are just that way, that some people just don’t like other people because of the way they look.
But I never felt that from any local ever. If I’m honest with you, I feel like it’s kind of like a reverse situation: I remember when we first started opening the restaurant and dealing with construction workers and vendors, a lot of the locals were giving me eye contact and not wanting to engage with Michele. So he’s like, OK, you deal with these guys because they seem to want to talk to you more. If anything, I feel more embraced here than I have anywhere else in the world. Maybe Brazil, I felt as normal and as free to be myself. That’s the only other place I could think of where I felt as comfortable.
HM: I remember when we first talked a few years ago, you mentioned that when you came to Maui it just felt like home. Is that why?
QDB: Yeah, I feel like I can be myself, relax, let my guard down and just let my words and actions speak for themselves. I don’t feel people giving me a double take or second look. I don’t feel people giving me doubtful or strange energy at all. I have never felt more like myself than I do here. And you’re not really aware of how much you carry emotionally and physically on your body in terms of just being on guard from things like racism, or, you know, crimes, all the things you have to worry about over there. You don’t carry those with you here.
HM: So then how does it feel being here and not having to deal with it while watching what’s happening around the U.S.?
QDB: I don’t get to talk about this enough. I talk to Q-Tip every day almost, and my best friend—we talk so much about how isolated I feel here in a way because I can’t really share my impressions or experiences with anyone in a resonant way about what’s happening on the Mainland in terms of Black Lives Matter. And some of the changes that we see happening. It’s very exciting for us. But when I step out into the restaurant on Maui or speak to my friends here it’s a more muted conversation. It’s not as relevant here, obviously. It’s like walking around with a million dollars in your pocket and you can’t tell anybody.
It’s really hard to stay as charged or indignant or angry or as active as I see my friends being.
I’m a little disconnected. I’m not judging myself either way, I’m saying that in a neutral way. It feels like I’m a little more objective. And I don’t get triggered very easily by what I see on the news. I’m upset. I’m angry, but I’m more thinking about how can we take all of this Black Lives Matter energy and channel it into voting registration or real political change or real systematic change. I’m not thinking about where I’m going to march next or who am I going to confront in a face to face conversation.
HM: So when you lived elsewhere, you had more of those immediate reactions?
QDB: Well, this is, you know, obviously not the first time this has happened, right. So, yeah, being with Q-Tip and with A Tribe Called Quest and in hip-hop, which is a very powerful movement in and of itself, anytime something like this happened in the past, we would hit the streets immediately. I mean, immediately, we would hit the streets. That would be the first thing. I don’t know how many rallies I’ve done. We’ve gone out with politicians and done rallies and been a part of Rock the Vote. So much music was made and so much of our message was about countering this kind of stuff. So It’s interesting to be in this position now because it’s very different. I feel like my approach is just more—I don’t want to say cerebral or intellectual—but those might really be the right words. Because my body is not in it as much as it used to be. There was one good rally here in Lahaina. My friend, Courtney Scott, pulled it together a few weeks ago, and that was amazing. It was electric. It was just incredible. But that’s the only thing I’ve done—physically—since all of this started.
Another aspect of it is where I’m putting a lot of my energies into educating my child, talking to her through what she sees on the news as a 9-year-old.
As a mother, I’m 40-something, it’s not the same as being a 20-something or 30. I see myself in those kids that are out protesting every day for 30 days in a row. That used to be me, but it’s not me anymore.
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HM: Do you think then since it’s such a different vibe here that having these conversations is relevant? That they have a purpose here?
QDB: I only can say yes. Because at the rally that I went to, I saw everyone. I saw locals, I saw transplants, I saw young, I saw rich, I saw poor people, I saw business owners and I saw bus drivers. And everyone was just as outraged as the next. There was one unified feeling there—we’re all feeling the same thing. We’re all wanting the same. We have the same desire. There is a desire here for systematic change. And I think it is relevant. We have a voice in the national conversation. Hawai‘i is relevant. There are Black people here, there are people of color here. They may not be experiencing the police brutality on the levels that they do on the Mainland, but these stories are part of our history.
Whether we came from somewhere else or lived here all your life, you know someone who this has happened to. And so for it to be called out, and for these changes to be demanded, is a very powerful thing to be happening here.
HM: How useful do you think the lists of Black businesses are?
QDB: I love these lists because I feel seen for the first time as a Black business owner. A really good friend of mine wrote to me recently and said, “Now I really have to apologize to you because I never saw you as Black. My daughter sat me down and made me understand why that’s not a good thing. I’m negating part of who you are by not seeing you as Black.” Her generation had been taught we don’t see color and all of that nonsense. So being on Black-owned business lists makes me feel seen and empowered and proud in a way that I’ve never felt before. That’s amazing. It’s really important because you either feel like a unicorn on this island because there are so few of us or you feel invisible because there are so few of us. So it’s really nice to be seen and celebrated in that way.
HM: Is there anything else you think that we should be talking about?
QDB: I think we don’t hear enough about the historical context of this whole Black Lives Matter movement. How what we saw happening to George Floyd was an expression of something that has been happening since slavery, since reconstruction, during the civil rights movements, in our prisons. It happened in the ’80s and ’90s with the war on drugs. George Floyd’s last words were a literal expression of our collective pain and frustrations over all of these years. This is not something that just popped up out of the blue—George Floyd was really the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I also want to say that the Black Lives movement is not an anti-cop movement or an anti-white movement. It’s not really about attacking policemen or anybody else. It’s about us saying that we matter. We just want the same thing that everyone else has and the promises that we have been sold since the founding of this country.
HM: Given this history, do you feel optimistic about this moment or that it’s the same as in the past?
QDB: I feel optimistic because I feel like there’s been a merging of the progressive movement with the Black Lives Matter movement. And then when mainstream Americans witnessed all the police brutality during the protests, it put a spotlight on the problem in a way that no one was able to really understand or that didn’t resonate as much before. I think this is a different moment. Things are not going back to normal. The length of these protests tells us a lot. And also the fact that our Senate today tried to pass a [police reform] bill addressing all of these things—it didn’t go through because I don’t think it was aggressive enough for the Democrats in the Senate, but the House is preparing to present a bill in the next few days—I think this is a different moment. People are responding and reacting and changes are being made really quickly.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sale Pepe, 878 Front St., Lahaina, (808) 667-7667, salepepemaui.com
Read more stories by Martha Cheng