When it rains, it pours. That seems to be the unfortunate theme for so many restaurants during this pandemic, with Reem’s, San Francisco’s only Arab bakery-restaurant, as the most recent case in point. After the first shelter-in-place order came down literal days after its hotly anticipated opening in March, the restaurant has, along with its peers in the SF restaurant community, struggled in the face of the coronavirus crisis. And now this: Last Wednesday, the restaurant’s primary oven exploded, forcing Reem’s to shut down its takeout and delivery operations through at least the end of the year.
“The oven, as many of our Bay Area customers know, is the heart and soul of our operation,” chef-owner Reem Assil wrote in a statement. “We cannot continue our operations as a bakery in the Mission without it.” That said, at least in the short term, the restaurant is now contemplating a future, perhaps for as long as a couple of a months, as exactly that — a bakery without an oven at its disposal.
Assil tells Eater SF that she got a text about the explosion from a member of her staff early on Wednesday morning, and her initial response, she says, was, “I thought it was not real. What, the oven exploded?” According to Assil, workers who were on site reported hearing a loud boom — “like a bomb, basically” — after which the kitchen was filled with smoke and debris. Luckily, Assil says, no one was hurt.
For the restaurant, however, the loss of the four-deck oven that it inherited from its predecessor, Mission Pie, is a major setback. Assil estimates that about 75 percent of the Reem’s menu came out of that oven, including its signature mana’eesh (Arab flatbreads) and its pita. When all is said and done, replacing the oven will likely cost upwards of $35,000. The new deck oven will likely need to be shipped in from overseas by boat — probably from Italy — and the companies that make those types of ovens typically require a couple months of lead time before they can get one into your hands, Assil says.
So, potentially, it’ll be a long haul before a replacement oven gets installed. And Assil says she and her staff decided that it didn’t make sense to try to reopen for takeout, as an oven-less restaurant, right away. Instead, they decided to shut down so the staff could do cross-training for the next two weeks, everyone learning new skills and roles within the bakery. Everyone will continue to be paid, Assil says: “It’s nobody’s fault that this oven exploded; nobody should have to suffer because of it.”
For now, the shutdown means the restaurant will focus its energies on the products it can sell that don’t require an oven. Mostly, that means doubling down on holiday meal kits, of which there are currently two options: The first, available for pickup on Friday, December 18, will feature a chocolate-rubbed braised lamb that Reem’s first created for one of Dandelion Chocolate’s “12 Nights of Chocolate” dinner events. The second, for December 23, will feature Djaj Mahshi, a Palestinian-style roast chicken stuffed with spiced rice, beef, and pine nuts. Both kits will include a trio of ma’amoul, or buttery filled semolina cookies, and the restaurant will also have a couple of different holiday pastry boxes for sale. (It has a smaller, and still-functioning, convection oven that it’s able to use to bake its pastries.)
But again, Assil acknowledges that it could be quite some time before the restaurant is able to replace its oven. In the interim, she’s open to pursuing any number of possibilities: Perhaps the restaurant’s two portable saaj ovens — which had been used for its since-discontinued farmers market food stands — could be brought back into commission for some kind of outdoor setup, either right outside the restaurant or at a farmers market. Perhaps another restaurant could loan Reem’s a temporary oven to use for the time being. Perhaps there will be a series of pop-ups.
“How do we get fresh bread into our San Francisco community’s hands?” Assil says. “It doesn’t feel right until we can get fresh, baked-to-order bread into people’s hands.”