Six years ago, Reem Assil found herself traveling in the Middle East in search of direction. After working on the front lines as a community and labor organizer, she felt she had hit a wall in terms of the impact she was making, and sensed that a loss of community was holding back the people she deeply wanted to help.
Reem, whose father is from Syria and whose mother is from Palestine, hoped that reconnecting with her family’s roots would help her find a way forward. “I was trying to make sense of what it was like to be a child of Arab immigrants in the U.S., feeling like a stranger in a strange land,” she recalls.
As she traveled along the coast of Syria and Lebanon with her father, she felt an affinity with the landscape, which reminded her of her home in California, and with the spirit of Arab hospitality she encountered in the people she met along the way. “They make you feel like you’re home even when you’re not from there.”
Her epiphany came in Beirut, amidst the sights, sounds, and smells of a bustling bakery. “I could feel the life of bread literally flying off the shelves and feeding hungry people, the chatter and laughing of all the people around me,” she remembers. “There was so much life even though there was political turmoil outside those doors.”
The seed for Reem’s had been planted. “I was like, ‘Ah, that’s what we need. I need to bring this back to the Bay Area, because there isn’t anything like it.’”
Back at home in Oakland, Reem resolved to recreate the sense of community she had felt in her journeys by starting a bakery where she could share the food and culture of her homeland. She enrolled in a baking and pastry program and took entrepreneurship classes, and for three years she honed her skills catering and working at the worker-owned cooperative Arizmendi Bakery.
In 2014, she was accepted into the competitive food business incubator program La Cocina, which served as a crucial next step in making her vision a reality. Through mentorship and a structured curriculum, the La Cocina program helped her take her ambitious vision and turn it into a sustainable business plan.
“Whenever I’ve wanted to give up, they’ve kept throwing resources at me left and right, which have paid off tenfold,” she says. “Coaching me through some of the hard times—that’s an invaluable experience that a lot of small business owners don’t get.”
In 2014, she launched Reem’s as a pop-up in restaurants and farmers markets like the Mission Community Market and the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Reem’s business is now eight employees strong, with a growing following of loyal customers. “Over half of our customers there are regulars. We’re part of people’s routine,” she remarks. “You can create a sense of home even in a temporary, outdoor setting.”
Mana’eesh, Made with Love
Reem’s specialty is a Lebanese street food known as mana’eesh (man’oushe, in the singular—“like goose to geese,” says Reem). It’s a soft, warm, fluffy, pizza-like flatbread, topped with za’atar (a savory paste of thyme, sumac berry, sesame seed, olive oil, and salt) and fresh vegetables, cheese, or cured meats. A “quintessential food of the Levant,” it can be eaten open faced or neatly rolled up for an easy, on-the-go snack.
Starting with this traditional base, Reem adds her own farm-to-table twist by using toppings from the local foodshed like cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and mint, or strawberries, arugula, and goat cheese. During the Warriors’ spring streak, her popular “Draymond Green” showcased roasted asparagus and green onions, and this summer, she is excited to roll out a man’oushe featuring charred eggplant, a staple in Arab dishes, in a shakshuka sauce.
“We like to play on the seasonal items and make it relevant to what people like in California,” she says.
Paying It Forward
Building on her experiences as a community organizer, Reem sees her man’oushe business as an engine for economic and social change. “We have a responsibility and a role to play in strengthening the community around us, which means making sure that we pay our workers living wages,” she says.
That can seem like a tall order in the food industry, which is notorious for its slim margins and low wages. The rising cost of living and minimum wages in the Bay Area have made it an especially challenging time for food workers and business owners. “I have bets going with people who say that $16 an hour is going to kill them as a small business,” Reem says. “I want to prove them wrong.”
As her business grows, she wants to provide job opportunities for people who face the biggest barriers, such as formerly incarcerated individuals or newly transplanted refugees. Inspired by the cooperative model structure of Arizmendi, she believes that taking time to value and invest in her workers will create loyalty for them to stay in it for the long haul.
“We want to be a pioneer and demonstrate a model where folks are not only paid a living wage, but also have a democratic say in a lot of business matters that will impact them,” she says.
In a city that is rapidly gentrifying (“It’s like development on steroids!”), she chose Fruitvale as a location because it has been developing more slowly, and she felt her business could integrate organically into the neighborhood. In addition to being a place where people can enjoy freshly baked mana’eesh, she envisions her bakery as a gathering spot for nonprofits and other grassroots groups. “We want to create physical space for people to build community across cultures, generations, and experiences,” she says.
In bringing mana’eesh to market, Reem must account for the true costs of sustainably made, socially just food, which is why it is so important that she and her team communicate these core values to their customers.
“Our customers know the cost is going to supporting local farmers and the wages of people who are making this food, and in turn those workers are really happy and the food is made with love,” she says. “We literally want people to feel the warmth of fresh, hot baked bread, and also the warmth of the people who make it.”
Find Reem’s at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. Learn more about her Kickstarter at her launch party in Oakland Monday, August 1.
August 1, 2016: Reem’s Kickstarter campaign is live.