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People Are Awesome: This Oakland Community Organizer Wants To Bake You Some Bread

by Jesse Hirsch

July 21, 2016
Courtesy of Reem Assil

We’ve relaunched a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome,” where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week’s Awesome Person: Reem Assil.

In 2016, it’s a familiar trope to read of the investment banker who decides to open a cupcake truck, the real estate broker who leaves the city to grow heirloom tomatoes. Like these people, Reem Assil also made a mid-career pivot into food, but she came from a very different background—community organizing.

Assil spent over a decade working on social justice issues in Oakland before hitting peak burnout. She was born here but her parents are from the Middle East; in 2010 she took a trip to Syria and Lebanon with her father. At one point she walked into a corner bakery in Beirut.

“Oh it was such a happy place. Bread was flying off the shelves, people were laughing and conversing,” she says. “Outside there was obviously much turmoil, but you wouldn’t have known it in that bakery.”

That was her moment; back in the States, Assil would throw her considerable passions into elevating her baking—and business—skills. After working in catering and at a worker-owned baking cooperative, she started running pop-ups around the Bay Area. Assil now hosts regular appearances at area food markets, and she’s ready to take her next leap—a brick and mortar restaurant. She’s working with San Francisco’s legendary food business incubator La Cocina to get there.

Assil envisions a permanent location in Oakland’s vibrant (and less gentrified) Fruitvale neighborhood. Under the name Reem’s, she will sell her signature mana’eesh (a Mediterranean flatbread) with locally sourced meats, veggies, and intense Middle Eastern flavors. Assil plans to make her space a transportive experience—more than just delicious food—and integrate it fully into the surrounding neighborhood. She will donate food to nonprofits in need, and allow them to use Reem’s as a community hub. Her workers will all be paid living wages; Assil intends to employ refugees, the formerly incarcerated, and others who could use a leg up in life. 

Reem’s is currently one of three finalists in an OpenTable competition for aspiring restaurant owners. If Assil wins the competition, and fares well in her Kickstarter campaign (launching Aug. 1), she’ll be well on the way to realizing her dreams. Despite her hectic pace, she graciously agreed to answer a few of our burning questions.

Who is your hero?

I wanna say it’s Rasmea Odeh. Rasmea is co-director of the Arab American Action Network; she is a fierce Palestinian woman. She moved here in the early 2000s, and ended up mentoring a lot of Arab women in Chicago, women who had no language skills to integrate and get jobs. Then in 2014, the federal government accused her of lying on her application to come here 15 years earlier. Her case is still under appeals; this 60-something-year-old woman emulates all the strengths I’d like to grow in myself.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

(Laughing) I’m laughing because I’ve just received so much advice from so many mentors. The best advice has been pretty simple—stay true to your values. I heard it from the owner of (local coffee shop) Philz, then again on a recent field trip with La Cocina down to LA. We visited the restaurant Squirl and the owner Jessica (Koslow) sat down and asked us: “Do you want to be mainstream, where everyone else is, or do you want to do your own thing and stand out?” This simple idea really helps guide me.

How about the worst advice?

Maybe just that cashflow is most important, no matter what you have to do for it. I’ve ended up taking jobs that really didn’t align with my values, or the way I want to do things. Like catering tech events where everyone is drunk and they’re used to eating free anyway so they don’t care what we feed them. This doesn’t feel good. I want to serve people who care, who start a conversation about what they’re eating. I’ve started making more conscious choices about the jobs I take. It’s scary to be choosy, but it works out.

What was the last thing to make you laugh out loud?

My co-workers. The food world can be pretty hard. You try to create an amazing atmosphere, but it's hard work! It feels like a privilege that my co-workers create such a lively atmosphere. On our hot line, the person taking the order fires up, then we all have a habit of repeating everything back. It gets really absurd. Everyone is repeating these words with a straight face, but we’re all cracking up inside. One worker, this Cuban hip hop artist, she sings back anything funny we say in Spanish; her laugh is so contagious. It’s lively!

If you could be anywhere else right now, where would it be?

There are so many places I’d like to be, but let’s say the mountains of Lebanon. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for inspiration. They make cuisine you don't hear about—I’d love to visit those villages. They use grains that aren’t that common, and make their own kinds of bread. I want to expand my repertoire!

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People Are Awesome: This Oakland Community Organizer Wants To Bake You Some Bread