This post was originally published in pacificcommunityventures.org.
In 2010, the dream of Reem’s was born at the doorstep of a street corner bakery in Beirut, Lebanon. Founder Reem Assil says, “The scent of za’atar, yeasted bread, and sweet orange blossom syrup right out of the oven and the sounds of laughter and chatter in Arabic all around me conjured up memories of my childhood and my yearning to create home and community in the US. It was in watching the bread flying out of the oven, literally into hungry people’s hands, and witnessing the life inside those bakery doors despite the political turbulence outside of them that I realized my people are masters of bread and hospitality: the lifeline of our history and what has kept us resilient over many generations despite colonization, war, drought, and famine in the Arab world.”
On a soul-searching trip to Lebanon and Syria, Reem decided to bring this experience to the Bay. She wanted to bring more than just a bakery. Reem wished to recreate the sights, sounds, tastes and aromas of the streets of Damascus and Beirut, and at the same time a space that feels familiar and inviting to all cultures. She wanted to create a sense of home.
Reem’s business truly began in 2014 when she participated in many pop up shops selling baked flatbread to go. In 2015, she officially launched her business as a participant of La Cocina. Her one farmers market location grew to five. Soon enough, they were serving bread and street food fare to hundreds of people a week. Looking to expand given the bakery’s rapid growth, Reem entered and won the national OpenTable contest to fund a dream restaurant. Six months later, Reem’s California was open. In 2017, Reem opened her first bakery at her dream location: a corner of a transit center in the heart of the Fruitvale in one of the most diverse communities in Oakland.
Since then the restaurant has been the subject of local and national acclaim. It even became a Food & Wine Magazine Restaurant of The Year for 2018, partly through adapting to her customers’ tastes. For example, she wanted to establish a vibrant breakfast and pastry menu, but her pastries and breakfast items didn’t take off in Fruitvale as she had hoped. The bakery stopped opening for weekday breakfast service. Reem stated “we wanted it to be this morning bakery, but people didn’t understand Arab breads and pastry to be a breakfast food. They wanted something more like lunch. So we pivoted and met customers where they were at. And we became this vibrant lunch and brunch spot. And right around 2019 we got this opportunity that we weren’t necessarily looking for, but we were looking for bigger kitchen space because our catering program by then had grown.”
Reem received her first loan from Pacific Community Ventures in December 2019. Initially, she had not met all qualifications for a loan upon opening her first location. In March 2020, Reem earmarked the 2019 loan for an opportunity that became available to open her second brick & mortar restaurant in San Francisco. The location was on 24th St. Mission District, which was a former community anchor, Mission Pie. This opportunity came 3 days prior to the country shutting down due to Covid-19 pandemic. The Reem’s team faced the challenge of identifying the best options to keep production running. They were unable to maintain it as a restaurant.
Reem then gained an opportunity to partner with World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization. The idea was to become a feeding hub for the community for about a year. The partnership produced over 100,000 meals in a year for the houseless populations, frontline workers. It also provided employment to those who needed it on the Oakland side. During this time, in December 2020, the main oven in Reem’s Mission location exploded, and it was beyond repair. As a result, the restaurant temporarily paused its operations. It started conducting a series of Pop Up services, farmers markets, and meal kits while they replaced the oven. Reem eventually used the funding from PCV for working capital, hiring new staff, and equipment.
Thoughtful Expansion: Creating More Jobs and Building a Stronger Business
Reem’s commitment to her community is exemplified by the quality jobs she provides for her employees. The bakery and kitchen invests in employee training and development plans. It gives workers opportunities to grow and advance within the company. Their second location is open from 9am to at least 9pm six days a week and serves their famous mana’eesh and wraps for lunch and dinner. Reem is excited to offer an extensive Arab pastry program, which includes khobz sim sim, baklava, and kenafah.
Reem has shown incredible business acumen and conducts thorough analysis of both her market base and business finances. That’s why she was thrilled to become a PCV Good Jobs Entrepreneur Fellow in April 2023. She joined a group of 14 like-minded business owners who are committed to promoting racial and gender wealth-building outcomes through their businesses.
Reem wants to grow her business while creating opportunities for her employees to advance within the company by transitioning to a cooperative model and preparing for worker shared ownership. She plans to do this by providing training and development opportunities through a core salaried team. This will free her as the owner to focus on the vision and marketing aspects of the business. To support her growth strategy, Reem has multiple small business advisors, including Mike Vanecek, CFO at TMC Financing, and CPA Miles Mochizuki. Reem has also invested in a strategic operation focused on the recruitment, development, and training of her employees.
Part of the growth strategy is to build a winning team to free me as the owner to be the visionary and marketer and allow me to do the time‐intensive work to drive a customer base to Reem’s. I am one of the biggest assets (in terms of my brand identity) to the business and I need to be able to do that better. And of course related to this part of the growth is to build my capacity and skill to be an effective leader.
As a restaurant, Reem’s has received a tremendous amount of recognition from local and national publications. This includes features in over 60 articles in major publications like the New York Times and Bon Appetit Magazine. Reem’s was also voted as one of Food and Wine’s Top 10 Restaurants in 2018. She earned back-to-back James Beard Nominations for Best Chef: West. Reem’s media presence has helped to build a platform for her brand centered on Arab hospitality and the intersections of food and social justice. This has attracted visitors from all over the country who are eager to experience the brand and her story.
Reem is currently working on obtaining funding through The Real Peoples Fund for a new project and wants to create strategic partnerships that can help her have social impact. She wants to reach those with the most barriers to employment while creating economic opportunities for those in need.