In 2010, Reem Assil was at the doorstep of a street corner bakery in Beirut, Lebanon. The scent of za'atar bread fresh from the oven and sweet orange blossom syrup mixed in the air with Arabic chatter and laughter, conjuring memories of a childhood in the United States spent yearning for home.
It was here Assil realized: this bread was more than just bread. It was a symbol of resilience and hospitality passed across generations of Arabic people ravaged by colonization, war, drought, and famine. After a decade working as a labor and community organizer, leading campaigns for workers rights, living wages, and access to affordable housing, Assil realized she wanted to channel her own community activism through an age-old cultural mechanism: food.
Assil, the Palestinian-Syrian chef and founder of Reem’s California, created her restaurant in 2017 as “a place where Arabs could feel celebrated and proud” in a post-9/11 climate in which many Arab communities faced racism, threats, and attacks. She also saw it as a space for the social justice community to meet, strategize, and share a meal.
During the pandemic, in which the restaurant industry was upended, she has incubated a scalable apprenticeship program, Sumoud (meaning “steadfast resilience” in Arabic), that provides workshops, training, and leadership development to cultivate ownership and self-governance for restaurant workers. Her ultimate goal is to transform her San Francisco and Oakland-based restaurants into worker-owned cooperatives.
Assil, an Emerson Collective Fellow, joined Emerson Collective’s Director of Fellowship and Portfolio Communications Patrick D’Arcy for a Fellows Friday conversation about what it means to radically reimagine the restaurant industry, and how to build more equitable restaurants by empowering food workers.