On March 11th, two days after the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland and its passengers prepared to enter quarantine, Reem Assil celebrated the opening of the second location of her bakery, Reem’s California, in the Mission District of San Francisco, with a post on Instagram. “Blurry eyed and exhausted as many can prob see” she wrote, alongside images of stacked cakes, flatbreads, and brightly colored bowls of dip, “but finally ready to open our doors and have folks bless the space.” By the time the cruise passengers had completed their two weeks in isolation, Assil had shut down her business and laid off staff; three days after that, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a shelter-in-place order for all of California. In the video above, Assil reflects on how swiftly the impact of COVID-19 escalated. News of the changing state of the pandemic “came so fast,” she says, “that it didn’t allow us to really plan for crisis management.”

Assil, who grew up in an Arab-American household, was working as a community organizer when, on a trip to Beirut, in 2010, the sights and smells of a street-corner bakery inspired her to open her own. She has written that “my people are masters of bread and hospitality,” and she wanted to bring both into her business. The video shows the new Reem’s California location before the shutdown: decorated with splashes of blue, yellow, and green, and bustling with business. Because functioning as a gathering space is so central to the bakery’s mission, Assil has found shutting people out to be particularly painful. Customers now approach one at a time, face masks on, to pick up orders from across a table blocking the doorway. On the storefront, notices taped to the glass provide reminders about maintaining physical distance. These changes are “the antithesis to Arab hospitality,” which is “all about bringing people into your home,” Assil says.

Despite the immediate success of the business after the original location opened in Oakland, in 2017, keeping Reem’s afloat financially was a delicate balancing act even before the pandemic hit. Now, like so many small-business owners around the country, Assil must figure out ways to move forward while taking into consideration the well-being of her family, her employees, and her community. “It’s just so hard in this capitalist system to keep moving on,” Assil says from a back room at the bakery, exhaustion audible in her voice.

The future of the bakery is still uncertain. As Assil puts it, “The money is running out, and there’s no sight of the money coming in.” However, she has adapted quickly, finding a way both to generate additional business and to continue feeding the neighborhood. Currently, the San Francisco location is open for pickup, and the original Reem’s is functioning as a commissary kitchen, partnering with area organizations to provide meals to first responders and people experiencing food insecurity. As Assil struggles to make sure that her business will make it to the other side of the crisis, she says that a lesson she will take away from this time is that “people who are embedded in community are going to be the ones who prevail.” The video shows staff members, working in a bakery empty of customers, preparing rows of boxed meals to be distributed to those in need by a local nonprofit, SF New Deal. Each one is labelled with a sticker: “Neighbors helping neighbors.”


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Source: www.newyorker.com/feed/everything