Baking with purpose: The incredible way this woman serves her community

Reem Assil - Studio 20160318-110web

Combining California flavors with a passion for social justice, Reem Assil has always wanted to positively impact her community.

Assil was only a teenager when she realized that she wanted to dedicate her life to building bridges of understanding in her community.

“I wanted to feel a sense of purpose and a sense of connection with who I was in this country and who I was as a child of immigrants,” Assil said. “And when I was a teenager I was sort of really struggling because you know I was feeling the effects of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia and all of the above and not feeling like I connected.”

“The anti-war activism sort of catapulted everything for me but I always knew I wanted to do some sort of work that was in service to my community.”

Assil went on to major in International Relations at Tuft’s University in Massachusetts, until September 11th happened. She then took some time off to join the anti-war movement in the Bay area.

“The anti-war activism sort of catapulted everything for me but I always knew I wanted to do some sort of work that was in service to my community,” Assil said.

After graduation, Assil moved out to the Bay area permanently and worked as a community and labor organizer for 10 years. After a decade participating in the “fight” for social justice, Assil became “disillusioned” and was looking for more out of life.

“I want to build something that’s an alternative because I felt after 10 years while I did see the transformation of people I didn’t want it to be just about the fight I wanted it to be about what is this alternative world that we’re trying to build.”

After a soul-searching trip to the Middle East with her father, Assil stumbled upon a corner bakery in Beirut, Lebanon where it struck her: the atmosphere, the hospitality, the fresh baked bread, the sense of community, it all made sense. Her love of food and baking came back to life and thus the idea for Reem’s was born.

After spending some time in unemployment, it was Assil’s aunt who really gave her the opportunity to explore her skills in the kitchen years ago.

“I just kind of learned and developed a passion and throughout my time, baking had always been a hobby because for me the art of it, you know there’s a science and an art, once you get the science down, it’s like taking matter that’s all separate and combing it into a completely different thing, it’s alchemy so I loved that. It’s like the nerd in me,” Assil said.

Her trip made it clear that sharing Arab street food is something she absolutely needed to, so she enrolled in a baking and pastry program and got some professional experience working in bakeries and catering programs before launching Reem’s officially.

Assil and her team now travel around the Bay area, participating in pop-up’s, farmer’s markets and food festivals selling their famous mana’eesh (Lebanese flatbread) and other Arab street food

As a Muslim and Arab American woman, Assil faced several challenges starting her food business and having her leadership respected.

“We have plenty of Arab and Muslim business owners here in San Francisco but they’re all men, it’s very rare that you see a woman at the forefront and perceptions that come with that and how people take you seriously or not take you seriously that has definitely been a big challenge for me.”

Another challenge was authenticity and staying true to the values Reem’s was founded on.

“I made a decision to not be apologetic and that means I call it Arab street food, I don’t call it Mediterranean, I don’t call it Middle Eastern I flat out say it. For some people that’s uncomfortable.”

Assil is no stranger to dealing with bigoted customers who make jokes drenched in Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry.

“We are very clear that we are in the business of…building and nurturing community, not breaking it apart so if somebody wants to be aggressive we are very clear that they can go elsewhere.”

Assil dreams of a permanent location for her anchor establishment-turned-corner bakery in Oakland, California where serving a diverse community would be an everyday reality.

She aims at making Reem’s a place where marginalized people, like refugees or those recently out of jail, can earn a living wage.

“I think that one of the things that I told myself that if I become successful I want to make sure that it has positive impact on the community. That positive impact that I wanted to have was in creating jobs for the community.”

“I think it was really important for me to show that you can have a business that can actually help the community and you can still be profitable.”

Assil also wants it to be a place where the community can grow through holding events and meeting new people, all while simultaneously getting introduced to new tastes and flavors.

Her vision for Reem’s was always to create a self-sustaining “ecosystem,” where giving back to the community resulted in the community giving back to her.

“I think it was really important for me to show that you can have a business that can actually help the community and you can still be profitable.”

Finally, her advice to people who aspire to change their community to the better is simply to “stay true to your values.” She emphasizes the idea that whenever you’re faced with a tough decision, always ask yourself if it’s aligned with your values. If it does, then you already know your decision.

“It’s easy to get carried away because you want to do everything. At the end of the day, you want to stay inspired, and motivated.”

With community at the core of her message, Reem Assil is on her way to changing the face of the food industry as a place that can be profitable and  helpful to the community it sustains.

If you would like to support Reem’s and keep up with Assil, check out her Kickstarter campaign and follow her on social media (twitter/facebook/instagram).

photo credit: Jung Fitzpatrick