Twelve years ago, I embarked on a journey that would change my life forever. I physically traveled across oceans and countries to stand on the soil of my father’s homeland and learn about the memories of my parents’ childhoods in Syria and Lebanon. There, the food spaces brought me to life in a way I had rarely felt in America.
Within bakery spaces that studded the streets of Damascus and Beirut, people were joyful, connected, and nourished despite the political turbulence outside of those doors. I had a realization of a model that has been tried and true: Bakeries have served as a crucial lifeline for Arabs over many generations despite colonization, war, drought, and famine. The bakeries and street corner spots are where revolutions are born. They are essential places where people come together and get fed regardless of socioeconomic status. They are the ultimate connectors.
For years after, I became obsessed with recreating those spaces in what would eventually become Reem’s, a nationally acclaimed restaurant that celebrates the warmth of Arab bread and hospitality. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of food spaces to play a positive role in communities. They are vital third spaces for people outside of home and work. They are job generators that keep dollars in neighborhoods. They are conduits between rural farmers who grow our food and urban dwellers who are nourished by it. But none of these things is guaranteed.
In an industry that is plagued with inequities, within cities and neighborhoods that are rapidly gentrifying, how does a business owner like myself ensure I’m living out my social justice values and survive as a business? When the prices to run a business have gone up, how do you balance paying your workers well and not pricing out your community? How do you ensure that your success is not being used as a tool to drive up prices in residential real estate around you? Grappling with these questions over the years has exhausted me.
I had an opportunity to go even deeper into these questions in the year leading up to and through the pandemic by writing my first cookbook, Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora (Ten Speed Press, April 2022), to share with the world a profoundly personal story about my journey to find my purpose as a changemaker. Arabiyya, which translates to “Arab woman,” is a reclamation of who I am and an homage to my Arab roots, which helped me find my way to being a community-builder through the medium of food. In writing this book, I realized that understanding the virtue of Arab hospitality by learning about our foodways gave me the wisdom and motivation to be the community-builder that I am today.
People often want to know my secret for being a great restaurateur. How, they wonder, did someone with no business background open a restaurant with two locations in a relatively short time? Reflecting on this question, I go back to my roots in community organizing. The many years I spent on the ground working in different communities to build power and leadership among them was simply to prepare me to run Reem’s.
Organizing is about bringing people together to collectively change the conditions in their lives and fight for systemic change. While it hasn’t always been easy, Reem’s success is a result of the organizing approach to structuring a restaurant sustainably.
Building a base of supporters is all about outreach. Since its inception, Reem’s has been a grassroots campaign. From our early days launching Kickstarter campaigns, we’ve recruited employees and customers from all walks of life who understand our mission to build strong, resilient communities through our food space. This helps when the going gets tough.
Restaurants, like organizing, also require building people’s leadership skills so that they can execute your vision. I’m always wary of restaurant owners who are doing everything themselves; investing in people’s leadership does require one to let go and delegate, which can often be hard for chefs who want their food to be perfect. But I guarantee it will support the longevity of your business, and your employees will be happier and healthier when they not only believe in themselves but also see the fruits of their labor in moving up in their career path.
Last but hardly least, the Reem’s ethos is to ensure that we are in relationship to the spaces we are in. That means building partnerships with different stakeholders in the community—neighboring businesses, political leaders, community organizations, and progressive media. We try to meet our community where they are at and see how we can add value whether it’s through healthy food, well-paying jobs, or a sanctuary space for all.
In this new era, I am hopeful. I didn’t start Reem’s to have a restaurant but to build community and to create a space where people could imagine what a world could look like if we brought people from the margins to the center. While the aftermath of the pandemic has created challenges, it has provided so much clarity of what we need to rebuild to transcend the deep inequities that exist in our food system. I have witnessed the transformation of my workers into strong leaders in the last two years, and I know this will have ripple effects in their communities. I’ve experienced the change in the national conversation about Arab food and culture. I’ve let out deep breaths of relief to know that Reem’s survived two very difficult years because of the hard work and collective effort of my team. They are the ones who create magic at Reem’s. I’m simply the organizer.
While I don’t know what the future holds for restaurants in the aftermath of the pandemic, one thing I know for sure is that our food spaces will continue to play the role in building strong, resilient communities if we keep investing in the people who uphold them, from the farmer to the cook, to the server, to the customer. We are ultimately nourished when we nourish them.
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Reem Assil Reem is the founder of @reemscalifornia and author of ARABIYYA: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora.