Update, May 23: This post has been updated with new reporting. Scroll down to the end of the story to read the additional information.
In the 10 years that she spent as a community and labor organizer, Reem Assil faced numerous difficulties and fought hard to advocate for the people she loved and represented, but nothing has been as challenging for the young activist as her most recent endeavor for social change — launching an Arab street-corner bakery.
From pop-up to restaurant
“Opening a restaurant is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says the founder of Reem’s California, a pop-up-turned-eatery that opened its doors in Fruitvale Village (just outside of Fruitvale BART Station) this past Tuesday, May 16.
Reem’s pop-up has been making appearances around the Bay Area (including the Friday farmers market in Old Oakland and the Saturday market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco) since 2014, and is best-known for its man’oushe (plural manna’eesh), a traditional Arab flatbread that is baked on a portable dome-shaped saj, smothered with tasty toppings and rolled into grab-and-go wraps.
Splashed in lime green, hot pink, turquoise and yellow, the brick-and-mortar bakery is the embodiment of the Reem’s motto, “Feel the warmth.” The bakery’s walls are emblazoned with Arabic script and a striking mural of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, who wears an Oscar Grant pin. Sunlight and lively music pour through the space, which is fronted by an open-air kitchen and a dough room surrounded by windows.
“If you walk into any Arab street-corner bakery, this is sort of the scene you would see,” Assil said, as she showed me around Reem’s a week before opening. Seating varies from two-tops to community tables and benches to bar stools, with room for 30 people inside and another 20 on the patio. Though Assil created the space to maximize outdoor dining, one of her favorite features is the big screen in the back.
“I always imagined…wanting a place where all my peoples can come and watch the World Cup,” said Assil. “The years that I’ve lived here, the World Cup [has been] the thing that brought people from every culture together.”
An affinity for change
Coming together is central to the mission of the bakery, which, for Assil, is as much a form of activism as any of her previous work.
“Growing up, I always had an affinity for social change,” said Assil, who first experienced collective organization as a youth. She went on to study international relations and economics at Tufts University, near her hometown of Boston. Assil has had her share of disillusionment along the way, but hard work is one thing that has never deterred her.
“I think what gravitated me toward organizing was the sort of one-on-one transformational change that you see in people who are disenfranchised finding their power,” said Assil. After graduating from Tufts, she moved to the Bay Area, where she worked with women’s organizations, labor unions and policy development. Though Assil was devoted to the people, after ten years in the field, she grew tired of fighting en masse. “The organizing world didn’t allow for the deeper transformational work that I wanted to do,” she said. “A lot of our time was spent fighting against what we didn’t want and not building enough of what we [did] want.”
The origins of Reem’s
In 2010, Assil took a break from political organizing and spent a month touring the Middle East with her Syrian father. In addition to re-connecting with her roots and re-discovering Arab cuisine, Assil had an epiphany. “It was literally in a moment,” said Assil. “I walked into a street-corner bakery in Beirut and I just knew — that’s what my community needs.”
Assil saw the Arab bakery as place of respite and resilience, which was something that she wanted to bring back to the Bay Area.
“You walk into those bakeries and you would never be able to tell there’s war outside those doors,” said Assil. “It’s a place of life, a place of nourishment and sustenance.” Having spent a decade fighting for change outside, Assil decided to reposition to the other side of the counter.
“Food has always been a central component of organizing movements,” said Assil. “So I wanted to create an institution that would bring people together across cultures and be a place where the most marginalized folks feel at home. What better way to do it than through this gift of Arab hospitality?”
When Assil returned, she quit her job, enrolled in a baking and pastry program at Laney College and began working at Arizmendi in Oakland, where she not only learned how to bake, but how to run a business.
As Assil began developing a concept of her own, she landed on the man’oushe, the quintessential snack of the Levant, the region that encompasses Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Syria. Assil compares the za’atar-laced flatbread to the New York slice or the California burrito. “From the student to the worker to the rich person; everybody [in the Levant] eats it,” she said.
Assil built an entire business plan around the concept of the man’oushe and her experience in Beirut. She applied to La Cocina in 2014 (and will be graduating this spring).
“I would have quit this job if I hadn’t been at La Cocina,” said Assil. “I hit rock bottom with my business a good two times.” While in the process of trying to start Reem’s, Assil was also working up to four jobs to make ends meet. “I was super poor,” she said. “It was really scary.”
But whenever Assil was about to lose hope, La Cocina was there to support her with resources and encouragement she couldn’t have found on her own. After organizing others for over a decade, Assil was now the recipient. “It’s such an ironic thing,” she says. “I didn’t see my own power.”
Through La Cocina, Assil came to better see her own power, which was particularly important for a woman of color venturing into a white male-dominated industry. “La Cocina created legitimacy for me to be able to walk into those spaces with my head held high,” she said.
Community organizer to business owner
Though she’s moved from the role of activist to employer, Assil still sees herself as an organizer. “The way that I define organizing, is bringing people together collectively to fight against institutions that are impacting their lives,” she said. “And sometimes that means confrontation of power and sometimes that means creating their own institution.”
In this case, the institution is a bakery and Assil is the one at the helm. “I don’t see myself as a boss,” said Assil. “I see myself as a leader. I want to be a part of this new wave of business owners who are thinking of themselves as activists who transform this community.”
One way she’s looking to do that is by hiring people with barriers to employment, including refugees, women, people of color and those formerly incarcerated. Assil acknowledges that such ambitions require a lot of additional effort. Her first step has been speaking to other organizations that have experience in the area, including Planting Justice, 1951 Coffee Company and Beyond Emancipation.
Assil’s current staff, which is led exclusively by women, is comprised of 90 percent people of color, 50 percent women and over 50 percent immigrants or children of immigrants. Reem’s has one intern from Beyond Emancipation, an organization that supports foster and probationary youth in their transition to independent living, and is in the process of growing its team. Eventually, Assil plans to develop her own training program, which will equip employees to funnel into all parts of the business.
A key benefit that Assil offers employees, regardless of background, is what she refers to as “a livable wage.” With the rising cost of labor, ingredients and rent in the Bay Area, that can be a challenge, especially for a brand-new business owner. “The margins are slim,” said Assil, “But for us, we know that [our labor line] is just going to be higher.”
While the average cost of labor for a restaurant comes in at 25 percent, at Reem’s it starts at 35 or 40. It’s built into the model, so the difference is made up elsewhere, whether that’s using more local ingredients or cheaper plateware. “We figure out how to re-prioritize,” said Assil, who puts a big emphasis on the efficiency of her staffing.
“Workers are better at their job when they’re paid [well],” said Assil. “The more you invest in people, the more yield you get.”
For Assil, investing in her employees goes hand-in-hand with nourishing her customers. She wants Reem’s to offer more than man’oushe and coffee; to provide warmth and hospitality, a safe space where everyone is welcomed. “I think this community needs a space where people can feel at home,” said Assil.
There’s also a cultural component to the mission of the bakery. Assil hopes her business will break down barriers and misconceptions and provide an avenue for her culture to take more positive prominence. “All my life I had experience being the other,” said Assil, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and Syrian immigrant who grew up in a primarily white neighborhood. “And it created all sorts of love and hate for my own identity.”
Assil decidedly chooses to use “Arab” over “Middle Eastern” when describing her concept. “I wanted it to be political,” she said. “People are afraid of politics, but now more than ever people are asking. If my food can stir up a conversation — even if it’s a hard conversation — that’s what I want it to do. I welcome that in my space.”
Assil aims to serve all people, regardless of background. “When I think of Arab hospitality, I think of unconditional hospitality despite the odds,” she said. “At Reem’s, what that looks like is really going out of our way to make sure you get the best experience.” Assil blends this Arab warmth with her concept of Californian hospitality, which she expresses through music, dancing and general merriment. “We’re really fun here,” said Assil. “It’s a party up in our kitchen.”
Though the cultural education of Assil’s street-corner bakery was intended to target non-Arabs, she has been surprised to see many who share her ethnicity in line at her pop-ups. “People are hungry for the food of their homelands,” said Assil. “As an Arab woman I need to take up that space, because if I don’t [someone else will].”
The extended menu at Reem’s includes flatbread pizzas, poached-egg shakshuka, fattoush salad, fried potatoes and mezze shared plates comprised of savory dips and fresh-baked pita. There’s also coffee and soft drinks, beer and wine, Arab sweets and, of course, the signature man’oushe, a commuter-friendly food that serves any occasion.
When Assil was working as an organizer, food was the fuel that kept her going through difficult times. “It was always the place I came back to every time I got disillusioned with the job of continuously getting burnt out and not feeling like I was making the kind of change that I wanted,” she said. Although Assil didn’t know she was “going to end up as a baker” when she left organizing, with Reem’s she ended up creating the culinary and cultural home she had craved all along.
“This is a place where people can be unapologetically themselves and not have to worry about the sorts of fears that they feel out there, whether you’re an undocumented immigrant, or a black man feeling the impacts of racism, or an Arab feeling like you can’t speak your own language with anyone else,” said Assil. “It’s a little space for everyone, and we hope that it will be brought to light by the people in it.”
In addition to bringing themselves in, Assil is also hoping that her guests will take something out with them, whether it’s a challenging conversation, a connection with a friend, a change of opinion or a fresh-baked man’oushe.
Editor’s Note: After this piece was published on May 17, several Berkeleyside readers commented and emailed us about Reem Assil’s choice to include the mural of controversial figure, Rasmea Odeh on her restaurant’s wall. Odeh was convicted for participation in the 1969 terrorist bombings in Jerusalem, which killed two Israeli students from Hebrew University. Odeh spent 10 years in an Israeli prison before she was released (along with 77 others) in exchange with the PFLP for an Israeli soldier. In 1995, she immigrated to Chicago through Jordan, and in 2014, was convicted of immigration fraud for failing to disclose the conviction on her visa application. Odeh is scheduled for deportation this August.
We reached out to Assil for comment on why she chose Odeh as the subject of her mural:
“Three and a half years ago, the [U.S.] government was doing a sweep of Palestinian activists; trying to take civil cases and try them as terrorist cases. [Odeh] is the final frontier of that,” Assil said. She believes Odeh was a political prisoner and that she was sexually tortured into a confession, a piece of Odeh’s story that has been disputed by prosecutors.
For Assil, who is of Palestinian-Syrian descent, “[Odeh] embodies the resilience of Arab women fighting for justice in this country. She is an elder to a lot of us younger women who are activists and want to do right among our community,” said Assil, who compares Odeh to a modern day Malcom X. In addition to serving as a figurehead for pro-Palestinian activists, Odeh has also garnered support from humanitarian activists and members of the Black Lives Matter Movement. “[The mural] pays our respect to people like her who have had to endure,” said Assil.
When asked why she would bring such a divisive figure into a bakery that is meant to be a sanctuary space, Assil responded: “She is divisive because she’s an advocate for Palestinian self-determination and anti-Israeli government occupation. Any time you put up a Palestinian figure it’s going to be divisive.
“These are the kinds of conversations that we’re willing to have,” said Assil. “It may be hard but it’s the path we have to take if we want to be a principled business. If it’s not folks like us who are pushing the envelope then we’re not doing our job.”