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Traditional Arab Street Food Made with California Love

When participating in a farmer’s market, if the right customers aren’t there, a business can choose to stop participating, but once they’re committed to a space, they have to make it work.  Reem Assil, the owner of Reem’s California, an Arab street food bakery in Oakland opened its doors in May of 2017.  Reem found there was a steep learning curve between selling at farmer’s markets and maintaining her own brick and mortar location.

Reem chose to start an Arab bakery rather than a Middle Eastern restaurant, because she wanted to pay homage to a specific type of business found everywhere in the fertile crescent. She has family roots in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.  She wanted to honor her holistic Arab identity.  Growing up in America with a strong Arab identity was not without its challenges.  Reem has experienced racism first hand, but she hopes through her business she can help normalize a word and a culture that otherwise can be fraught with negative associations in America.

Although Reem had enough money for the build out of her new space, she needed additional money for working capital, payroll, and her grand opening.  Reem found the funding she was looking for through Main Street Launch, a local non-profit mission-based lender.  Main Street Launch was able to provide an SBA microloan for $50,000 which helped make Reem’s dream a reality.

Reem looked to the microlender who had helped her open her doors for marketing advice.  Microlenders that participate in the SBA Microloan program provide free technical assistance to all of their borrowers.  Main Street Launch, based out of Oakland, had advice for Reem on how to market specifically to her new neighbors in Fruitvale.  Reem struggled with the conflicting goals of encouraging new foot traffic to her location, while not gentrifying the space in a way that would be at odds with her values.

She also reached out to the Alameda County Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to get counseling on cash flow management.  She met with SBDC counselor Deagon Williams a dozen times over two years, starting in December of 2016.  Reem and Deagon discussed everything from paying employees a living wage and finding reliable qualified employees to understanding existing and potential revenue streams.  Deagon helped Reem to create a cash flow plan and apply for a Kiva loan.

Reem makes her menu fun and accessible for English speakers with items like the Pali-Cali (a roasted chicken wrap), but she also strives to educate her customers by offering a pronunciation guide for her most popular item the Mana’eesh (flatbread fresh baked to order, served with a filling rolled up into a wrap).  As the first generation of her family born in the United States, Reem is open to experimentation with local flavors and not totally bound by the traditional recipes that she honors.

Her customers are the local Palestinian diaspora, members of the neighborhood, community organizers, her farmers market faithfuls, and those drawn in by her media fame (Reem’s was named a Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year 2018).

Each employee starts at $15 an hour (minimum wage in California is $11).  Tips are pooled and shared evenly amongst employees based on hours.  There is less distinction between front of the house and back of the house.  All employees are cross trained to be able to handle both sides of the house, which keeps them engaged.  As much as possible, she hires locally.  She hires people with traditional barriers to work.  She also offers ongoing training for her employees.

Reem also supports other local small businesses.  She sources her ingredients from local farmers, and she collaborates with local, like-minded small businesses for beverages, like coffee and beer.

In April of 2018, Reem opened a second restaurant, Dyafa, with restaurateur Daniel Patterson.  It is a fine dining concept located in Jack London Square in Oakland.  This new location has allowed Reem to extend her brand in a new direction.  It also gives her the opportunity to tell her story and the story of her food to a different audience. 

Company Name: 
Reem's California