Last spring we at OpenTable launched a contest to help one restaurateur fund his or her dream project. In conjunction with the release of our How to Open a Restaurant guide, we called on the restaurant community to tell us about the restaurant concepts they wanted to open and enter a competition to win our grand prize, worth more than $38,000 total. In August, after narrowing down the entries with the help of a trusted panel of New York restaurateurs, three finalists launched Kickstarter campaigns to raise money for their restaurant projects.
Today, we are thrilled to announce that Reem Assil is the winner of our Restaurant OPEN 2016 contest! Reem raised more than $50,000 through her 40-day Kickstarter campaign — far surpassing our $35,000 goal — and is well on her way to opening the doors to Reem’s, her Arab street corner bakery in Oakland, California.
“One of the greatest things about this competition was really to help me celebrate the evolution of Reem’s over the past year,” says Reem. “I’m really fortunate that I have a backing behind me and people who really believe in Reem’s and want to see it as an anchor establishment, the way I envision it.”
The dream of Reem’s was born in a street corner bakery in Beirut, Lebanon six years ago, when the scent of za’atar, yeasted bread and sweet orange blossom syrup inspired Reem to bring the Arab bakery experience to the Bay. She worked as a community and labor organizer for a decade before dedicating herself to a culinary career and is now part of the food business incubator program, La Cocina. Offering traditional Arab street foods combining traditional flavors and local, organic ingredients, Reem aims to nurture a strong, vibrant, welcoming community in her Oakland neighborhood.
“The larger work I’ve had to do — and am still really excited about doing — is being the visionary and talking about the larger project of Reem’s,” she adds. “It’s not just a food establishment, but an anchor establishment that provides really good jobs for the folks living in the community and a space for people to gather and learn about Arab culture and history and politics in a way that nobody’s ever done before.”
To recap, here’s what’s included in Reem’s prize package:
- A 12-month subscription to OpenTable’s flagship Guest Center product, plus access to the world’s largest diner network and a credit on cover fees
- A full set of professional All-Clad pans
- A set of 25 Hedley & Bennett aprons
- 25 annual memberships to the online content from Journee, a community for restaurant professionals
- $15,000 cash to put toward your project
Read on for our full Q&A with Reem below!
When you found out you were a finalist for this contest, what was going through your head?
I was just shocked. When I pitched this I didn’t think I was going to get called back — it was more for the exercise of having to pitch my business. And there was a little bit of timidness, because I really feel like I was the underdog in the competition, having looked at the resumes of my competitors.
One of the greatest things about this competition was really to help me celebrate the evolution of Reem’s over the past year. It’s hard when you’re in the trenches. To be in the spotlight, I get to tell my story. That was the big switch for me when the competition started.
Had you considered crowdfunding before this?
I always knew I was going to do some sort of crowdfunding. This was the impetus for me. Everything was super serendipitous: the place presented itself, and then the next week I heard I got in the contest. Everything came together.
Crowdfunding was always my form of doing the organizing work and building the buzz around my business. Getting the money from the community, but also getting the community involved and invested were equally important to me. I felt like this contest pushed me to do that faster. I knew I was going to do it wholeheartedly, whether or not I won the competition.
I’m really fortunate that I have a backing behind me and people who really believe in Reem’s and want to see it as an anchor establishment the way I envision it.
There’s such a synergy between the concept at Reem’s and the community and crowdfunding. What role did your community play in helping you come up with the raise?
Prior to the investment of money, the different spheres I have been in — whether it be the activist sphere, or folks that I engage in social justice work, or my friends and family — they’ve all at one point either worked the line at Reem’s or served mana’eesh or done advertising work for me. They’ve been part of it. I cultivated that relationship long ago, so when the crowdfunding opportunity came it was really just a continuation of that.
The community knows we’ve always given back; we’ve always provided a value. Every time someone supported or volunteered, they were part of the Reem’s network. It just felt like them paying homage to that. As you can see, we had many little backers — over 300 I believe, and growing. That was a way for me to maintain that relationship and that loyalty.
The other pocket of people that were really crucial to this were our customers. A lot of them are our regulars, so we were able to utilize that network. We’ve built a regular base of folks over the last year. That was really surprising — our customers coming up to the stand, being like, ‘How are you doing on the Kickstarter?’ They’re watching from afar.
We ran out of our catering packages almost right away. People wanted to give us $500 and couldn’t anymore, so we had to add a few more packages. A lot of our gifts were like, let us feed you. And I think that people love and want to be part of that experience and get to enjoy the food.
The other larger work I’ve had to do — and am still really excited about doing — is being the visionary and talking about the larger project of Reem’s. It’s not just a food establishment, but an anchor establishment that provides really good jobs for the folks living in the community and a space for people to gather and learn about Arab culture and history and politics in a way that nobody’s ever done before. That’s appealing to the more well-endowed philanthropist who wants to do something a little bit more visionary in the food world, and for me to pitch it to them.
That was the scariest part: all of my big donations are not necessarily from people who are super close to me. They are people who heard me out and thanks to OpenTable and some of the media coverage I got, people heard that vision and connected to it so they were willing to invest. But the core is that first group of people who have been part of Reem’s before Reem’s was even formalized, that I consider my core family.
What’s the next step with the restaurant space? Any opening projections?
We are in lease negotiations right now. Part of it is getting the last details squared away; the other part is doing the larger fundraising. The crowdfunding and Kickstarter money is only a percentage of what we’re going to need. I’ve been working diligently with La Cocina to line up the funding, and I’ve been interviewing different restaurateurs and folks in the industry who have a background in designing kitchens to help me think through the process and project the numbers. Our hope is that we’ll sign a lease by the end of September.
I want that beautiful space that is everything, and the reality is that everything costs money. But Reem’s was a scrappy, grassroots business that built itself up from nothing. We didn’t take out any debt. I don’t always want to do things that way, but we’re honoring that, working with what we have. What we’re providing to people is that Arab hospitality piece. We are focusing on building a space that does that, even if we have to cut back on some of the buildout. We’re hoping that by the end of December we’ll be in good shape to open.
How are you feeling? Excited? Too tired to be excited?
Excited! Scared to death. All of the above. It’s been a long time coming; I’m so thankful for La Cocina and the resources it’s provided, and I think they know and I know it’s time to grow — to spread my wings even though I’m scared. Being a graduate of La Cocina means that I’m always part of the family and they’re always going to be a resource, but it’s a whole new ball game.
I feel like I just learned how to be a mobile business, and now I’m going to learn how to run a restaurant. If you’re going to grow you’re always going to deal with transitions and changes. What I hope eventually is that having a brick and mortar is actually going to make things easier for me. We’re going to be able to provide things we couldn’t when we were working out of a really tight commercial kitchen. Having a place where people can find us regularly is going to make our operations a lot easier.
You’ll have more predictability, for sure.
Most people in my position who are starting a brick and mortar, they probably haven’t been in business. I think the edge that I have is that I can project almost $300,000 in just a few farmers’ market operations. What are the possibilities when I can actually get into a space?
It’s everything — I’m super excited, I’m dreaming again, I’m not always in the trenches. I think this is another phase of my life as an entrepreneur and as a business owner that I’m super excited for. But as someone who really cares about being a good leader and coming through on my promises, I don’t want to disappoint.
Many thanks also to Christopher Fehlinger and Robin Song, both finalists in our Restaurant OPEN 2016 contest! We are incredibly impressed by all of the participants’ collective passion, enthusiasm, and vision and can’t wait to see their restaurants in action.
Olivia Terenzio is the Content Marketing Manager at OpenTable and editor of Open for Business.