It’s a typical Thursday in Oakland when I sit down to talk with Ginger Espice (formerly Sofi Espice). Their dog, Waffles, is nestled at their feet underneath our table and the weather is perfect for showing off tattoos that would be covered up in cooler weather – like the THIS IS ALL A LUCID DREAM inked onto Espice’s thigh.
In 2009, Espice and their former business and life partner, Tiff Esquivel, began selling food on the streets after their move from SoCal to NorCal. Those recipes would eventually become Hella Vegan Eats and by 2016 they would be working with Classic Cars West (a bar and restaurant located in downtown Oakland) to cook and distribute their dishes. With menu items like the Mega Babe Burger and the Hellafornia Burrito, they quickly caught the attention of the East Bay.
After a dispute with the landlord, Hella Vegan Eats closed for good. Thankfully, Gay4U was born in the ashes. Espice’s flavorful vegan dishes are good enough to satisfy the most devoted carnivore, but the fact that they give free meals to all trans POC is what caught this writer’s attention.
The restaurant owner was born in Los Angeles, but spent their formative years cooking and rebelling against social norms in conservative North County, San Diego.
“I was always training myself to be like, it’s okay to be other and it’s okay to be different,” says Espice – who identifies as both Mexican and trans.
Because their parents were rarely in the kitchen, ten year old Espice taught themselves how to cook. Little did they know that what started out as melting cheese in the microwave to get the perfect melty yet crispy combination would one day lead to a Waffles’ Buffalo Fried Chicken Mac Burger or Miso Ramen Donuts.
At fourteen they landed their first of many jobs in the food service industry as a busser. Eventually they’d go on to work at McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks before moving to Oakland shortly before their twenty-second birthday. Upon their arrival to northern California, Espice sold tacos on the street, worked as a host at Brunch Drunk Love (a restaurant started by Top Chef Ryan Scott), and ran the Eat Curbside food truck at Oakland’s Off the Grid.
Clearly, Espice had the talent, experience, and drive to start Hella Vegan Eats and later Gay4U. But the space they hold for the queer community is what sets them apart. Written in bold letters on their Instagram and their menus are five simple words: TRANS POC ALWAYS EAT FREE. The inspiration behind Gay4U’s mission statement comes from the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, started by Oakland’s very own Black Panther Party in 1968.
“That has been a huge influence,” says Espice. “Having been in Oakland and always having reverence for that movement…it doesn’t compute as anything different [..] people before me did amazing things and I always want to take inspiration and give them their flowers.”
The Covid-19 pandemic claimed several Bay Area restaurants, but Gay4U was not one of them – something Espice credits to their constantly changing, get it while you can, menu. Despite finding new ways to keep customers coming in during the pandemic, they considered leaving to pursue their other creative passions, like the band they’re putting together or starting a YouTube channel to share their recipes. For now, the vegan restaurant owner is committed to feeding the community with food that’s not only good for you, but made with love. But eventually, Espice wants to bow out gracefully and for Gay4U to be a worker owned co-op, like Arizmendi, an Oakland based bakery.
“Food is my life’s work,” says Espice. “I used it to get out of my situation.”
Gay4U is currently open Saturday and Sunday from 10AM to 2:30PM at 1327 Peralta St. They also have a Go Fund Me to renovate their old kitchen space and expand the backyard dining area. Find them on Instagram at gay4u.biz.