A version of this story was originally published on medasf.org.
Most Americans have sampled hummus, that creamy Middle Eastern blend that is the perfect complement for vegetables and crackers.
Well, the Bay Area is now excitedly trying new items like musakhan: pita bread with onions, almonds, and sumac. That’s due to Lamees Dahbour’s burgeoning catering business and food stand, Mama Lamees. She is serving unique, homemade food that she creates lovingly from scratch. It’s a veritable feast from the Middle East. In this case Ramallah, Lamees’ ancestral Palestinian village located in the West Bank, just six miles north of Jerusalem. She has fused her cuisine with food from the Middle East’s Gulf States region. She spent a few years there while working as an employee of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Many recipes are from her grandmother and mother – dishes rarely found in restaurants or markets in the U.S. Lamees has long shown a love for cooking. It all began when her mother had a medical issue and had to recuperate away from home for a month. This circumstance left the 10-year-old to step in and cook for the family, which she gladly did.
Cooking has continued to be a way to show love, and thanks. Even after Lamees permanently settled in San Francisco a decade ago.
When I didn’t have much money for gifts, I would do things like invite my children’s principals and teachers over for a big feast. They always enjoyed my food and stated that they had never tasted anything like it before.
Coming together to help
Her Mission District building manager, Lupe Gomez, echoed this sentiment, counseling Lamees to start her own business. So she went to La Cocina, who concurred that this business idea had legs. Now all Lamees needed was a business plan. That’s when she went to MEDA for help.
Business Development Coach Teresa Garcia began working with Lamees a little over a year ago. The budding entrepreneur participated in MEDA’s seven-session core training. The program teaches everything from marketing strategies and lease negotiation to personal finances and access to capital. Then, the main need was for Teresa to help Lamees refine her business plan and streamline financials.
After discussing what the best type of entity would be for Lamees, Teresa connected her to Legal Services for Entrepreneurs (LSE). The project is an economic justice and community empowerment arm of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. LSE matches experienced business attorneys from a variety of law firms with individuals who generally would not have access to specialized legal services. All work is done pro bono. In Lamees’ case, that match was Craig Miller, a partner with Mannat, Phelps & Phillips, LLC.
Once she secured her business and catering licenses, Lamees was off to the races. She hired her daughter Lubna to set up Mama Lamees’ social media presence. She also plans to make it a family enterprise by hiring her sisters Eman and Mayada.
Showing her food to the world
Mama Lamees’ food has been in high demand, having catered events for Opportunity Fund, La Cocina, and eatwith.com. In 2019, La Cocina helped Lamees secure a kiosk at the Emeryville Public Market. There, she’s been serving delicious Palestinian food even through the COVID-19 crisis. Two of her recipes were also featured in La Cocina’s cookbook, We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream.
“La Cocina, LSE and Teresa from MEDA worked really hard to create my business. I am excited to be offering my unique food to San Francisco,” said Lamees, grateful to the community of support that made her small business dreams a reality.