Reem Assil is a Palestinian-Syrian chef based in Oakland, CA and founder and owner of Reem’s California, a nationally acclaimed restaurant in Oakland and Reem’s California Mission in San Francisco, inspired by Arab street corner bakeries and the vibrant communities that surround them.
She has garnered an array of top accolades in the culinary world; has authored a book of 100+ recipes influenced by the vibrant flavors and convivial culture of the Arab world titled Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora; and spent over a decade as a community and labor organizer.
Reem sits at the intersection of her three passions: food, community, and social justice. She uses food to invoke the central virtue of her Arab culture — hospitality — to build strong, resilient, and connected communities.
Speaking at this year’s Bar & Restaurant Expo, Reem will be a panelist on the session, “Survival Strategies for Independent Restaurants: Collaboration, Community & Partnerships,” along with panelists Adrian Lipscombe, Adam Orman, and moderator Mikey Knab, on March 27th at 4:15 pm.
We caught up with Reem to learn more about her restaurants, her core values, and her thoughts on current trends. Read the full Q&A, below.
Bar & Restaurant: What led you to start Reem’s California?
Reem: Reem’s had always been a dream of mine. I just didn't know what it was going to look like until I launched it in 2015.
Previous to my culinary career, I was working in the nonprofit world, and my whole life's work and purpose had been in social justice. After working many years in the nonprofit world, I got burnt out and really felt like I had lost sight of what it was that we were fighting for. It was on a trip to the homeland with my dad, in 2010, where I suddenly had this epiphany of going to the street corner bakeries and seeing the vibrant communities that surrounded them. I almost became intoxicated with it— like, “oh, this is what I've been missing out on in the communities that I've been organizing, and what I've been longing for personally.”
So I came back from that trip, and I really wanted to replicate what I saw there. So I basically started a culinary career all with the hopes of opening, what would be Reem’s 10 years later.
In 2015, I launched Reem’s as a farmer’s market operation. Up until then, I had basically taken every entrepreneur class that you can think of, but it wasn't until I landed a program with an organization called La Cocina, and they're kind of like almost a boutique, you know, business development, consultancy, but for free. And they helped incubate my business and helped me kind of figure out my vision and what I wanted to do. So with their help, I launched it in 2015.
Tell me more about Reem’s core values of sustainability, social justice, and community building. How do you fulfill these values?
Well, obviously, the ethos of freedom is embedded in the tenants of social justice, which really is predicated on the idea that everybody has the right to stand in their own dignity no matter where they come from or who they are. And that is the ethos of Reem’s. We really focus on bringing people from the margins into the center—so people who have been traditionally shut out, left out, and have barriers. In the case of the US, it's BIPOC folks. We provide them living wage jobs with career pathways. So that's a big tenant of why we do what we do. That's part of our vision—to change the restaurant industry to be an industry that's dignified and considered a career. And putting people who've been at the bottom, not at the top, per se, but just at the center.
Then community building. A true core belief of mine is the power of food to connect to people. That we all are stronger when we're more connected, when we understand each other's struggles. And so a lot of what we do at Reem’s is really make a place accessible so that it feels like a sense of home for everyone at a time where home is sort of an elusive thing. Whether you get displaced from your homeland, but also just in your own community watching it change because of gentrification and whatnot.
What I consider to be the core gift that we bring at Reem’s is the Arab hospitality—to create the conditions for anybody to walk into our space and feel safe and a sense of belonging.
And then sustainability. This is a big one. We realized that we're not on an island as a restaurant. The industry itself is really unsustainable, so if we're not lifting up everybody else around us, then it’s not going to be sustainable. So what that means for us is supporting local, supporting our farmers, our vendors, local businesses in the neighborhood, organizations in the neighborhood. Everything that Reem’s is doing should be about lifting up everybody else around them. So that's kind of how we see sustainability is building these ecosystems that are resilient.
What have been some of your top challenges in the last year?
We’re coming off of this really, really intense two years of survival, and now we're trying to figure out how do we thrive in this new economy where there's things like a looming recession coming, and people are struggling, and inflation is at an all-time high.
It just costs a lot more to produce our products than it used to. The cost of our to-go containers have quadrupled in price. The cost of meat, the cost of flour—everything is just way more expensive, and the supply chain is a lot more unpredictable. So it's been hard to keep up with that because the margins are already so slim in the industry, and then to have this on top. And you have a customer base that you don't want to completely shut out, but customers have still not caught up psychologically with, “oh, this is what we're gonna have to pay for food.” So that's been our hardest challenge—we're just one price increase away from what feels like we're going to lose our customer base, but also we need to keep our employees. So that balancing act has been the hardest.
Street food is growing in popularity. What do you think is behind the increased interest?
I think there's a familiarity around it, a sort of nostalgia, because I think street food is accessible to everybody—from the rich to the poor. So people are looking for that experience that is not exclusionary. And it's also just super easy for the average American who is working full time and probably juggling that with a lot of other obligations to be able to get something fast and easy.
I think street food has been villainized or criminalized in the past, and that's rooted in racism. But street food actually means healthy, nourishing, part of daily life food. That's kind of how we explain our thing. Yeah, it's street food in the sense that it's found on the street it's with the people, but it's healthy and it's nourishing. And so I think that attracts the health-conscious individual who's really busy and needs something really easy and accessible. Why is street food considered cheap food? It's actually pretty sophisticated, it just so happens that it's accessible to everyone. That's why it's called street food.
Do you predict any particular types of street food will be trending in 2023?
My whole vision is to have the man'oushe trend for a very long time. I always joke that the man'oushe is kind of our trademark product. It’s something that you see on the streets of Beirut, the streets of Jerusalem. People are just eating this flatbread on the go, walking to school, walking to work. And it's like,” ah, that's like the next pizza slice or burrito here.” So I hope that that continues to trend where people can feel like, even if they never got to go to that part of the world, that this is a piece of that.
But yeah, I think a lot of the handheld filled things, the empanadas and that kind of thing, where it's easy grab and go, are trending.
What’s next for Reem’s?
We are in the midst of raising money for a flagship bakery back in Oakland, which we're really, really excited about. It’s where we had our first mortar. I just imagine that to be the mothership, to be able to really increase our wholesale line. We're really trying to diversify our revenue streams, and so we hope to be in many, many stores in 2023.
We just opened a kiosk in the Ferry Building, which is an iconic tourist attraction here, and things are picking up in that area of San Francisco. So we're really excited for that.
And then just continuing to strengthen the core internal operations of Reem’s. Hiring a new COO that can help us take the next step forward and allow me to be the creative visionary that I love to be.
We've been working for the last three years also on changing the model for Reem’s to be a worker-owned model, in which workers will be able to really get a share of the profits and take ownership in the decisions that are impacting their lives at the bakery and beyond. We've been really gearing up for that, and training our employees on all sorts of things, everything from how to communicate more effectively to how to read a profit and loss statement.
It will be a worker co-op model in which a body that is the co-op will be governed; it will be representative of the workers. And then the profit will flow from the co-op to employees based on what they decide and how they want to distribute it.
What I hope to do is once we do become a co-op, take those learnings and be able to share them with other people in the industry and share with other business owners that they don't have to be alone. And there can be a good exit strategy also for them if they're tired.
I think we are in a new era where people are shopping more with their values and frequenting places with their values, and that's what we're going to need to keep restaurants alive. We can no longer be seen as service providers; we're actually core tenants of neighborhoods and cities. If people want to keep them, they're going have to invest in them and be an equal partner in making sure that we survive.
Plan to Attend or Participate in Bar & Restaurant Expo, March 27-29, 2023
To learn about the latest trends, issues and hot topics, and to experience and taste the best products within the bar, restaurant and hospitality industry, plan to attend Bar & Restaurant Expo, March 27-29, 2023 in Las Vegas. Visit BarandRestaurantExpo.com.
To book your sponsorship or exhibit space at Bar & Restaurant Expo, contact:
Veronica Gonnello (for companies A to G) e: [email protected] p: 212-895-8244
Tim Schultz (for companies H to Q) e: [email protected] p: (917) 258-8589
Fadi Alsayegh (for companies R to Z) e: [email protected] p: 917-258-5174