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Sambo's, which once had 1,100 restaurants, changes name amid protests

NBC News logo NBC News 6/6/2020 Phil McCausland
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Sambo's, once a chain with more than 1,100 restaurants that traded in racist iconography, will change the name of its last remaining site amid the national protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Once a chain that boasted locations across 47 states, it is now down to one family-run restaurant in Santa Barbara, California. The owners said they decided to change the name from "Sambo's," a racist term for people of African descent, to something undetermined.

"Our family has looked into our hearts and realize that we must be sensitive when others whom we respect make a strong appeal," they said in a statement on the restaurant's Facebook page, which still carries the "Sambo's" name. "So today we stand in solidarity with those seeking change and doing our part as best we can."

The restaurant said it would temporarily cover its sign "with a message of peace and love as soon as possible and we are looking to work with the community to determine how we go forward."

The owners decided to go quite literal with this intent, putting a peace symbol with the words "& LOVE" over the "Sambo's" sign, though they hadn't quite completely covered it by Friday evening and said they would have to start over again after failing to secure the new letters to the sign's structure.

"We are starting over and will try again until we get it done," the restaurant said in a statement. "In the meantime out of respect, we have covered the SAMBO’S sign."

The owners, Chad and Michelle Stevens, told the Santa Barbara Independent on Friday that they inherited the restaurant from Chad’s grandfather, Sam Battistone, and his partner, Newell Bohnett. The two founded the restaurant more than 60 years ago and claimed the name came from combining the two founders' names.

The owners agreed to change the name after a local activist petitioned for the change.

For years the restaurant's many locations were known to carry artists' depictions of “the adventures of Little Black Sambo,” according to a history of the restaurant.

In the 1970s, the name and the racist depictions began to take a toll on the business as numerous lawsuits were filed against the then-multimillion-dollar company.

By 1981, some of the chain's restaurants in the South and the Northeast attempted to change their name, but the business went bankrupt by the end of the year, closing hundreds of stores and laying off thousands of employees, according to The New York Times.

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