Why California Chef Reem Assil Is Turning Her Restaurant Into an Employee-Owned Co-Op

The chef hopes as a cooperative venture, Reem’s California will serve as a model for others.

<p>Peter Prato</p>

Peter Prato

A thick mountain range of fog shrouds San Francisco, clinging to the city like an unsure child to its mother’s legs. It’s 5 a.m. Most of the city inhabitants are still asleep, but Reem Assil is awake, sipping on her first cup of coffee. This is one of the only moments she gets to herself before the day starts rolling.

The celebrated chef is a busy woman. With three business operations — a kiosk machine that sells freshly baked flatbreads out of the Ferry Building, a robust catering arm, and her beloved brick-and-mortar restaurant, Reem’s California, located in the heart of the Mission District — Assil is a restaurateur in every sense. But, while most moguls are focused on building their empires and amassing wealth, Assil is looking to give hers away.

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After years spent building her popular restaurant into a critically recognized success, she is working to hand the keys to her business to the workers who helped sustain it along the way. Over the next few years, the plan is for Assil to be bought out of her ownership shares of Reem’s California by a co-op representing her restaurant workers, flipping the business to an employee-run cooperation.

According to the National Restaurant Association, there are currently around 15 million Americans employed within nearly one million restaurants across the country. Of that number, there are only 36 verified restaurant co-ops, which underscores why Assil’s mission is incredibly groundbreaking. She is working on not only adding her restaurant to that list, but seeing this model implemented across a broader section of the restaurant industry.

“Some people have to give up [their] privilege for workers to own more, because if we’re gonna keep people in this industry, the people who are most hurt by it have to have ownership in it,” says Assil. “They’re not going to stay if they don’t have a stake in what’s to come, so we need to spread the ownership. That’s what we’re trying to do at Reem’s.”

In 2020, influenced by the Mondragon system in Spain–one of the world’s largest and most successful cooperatives–Assil unveiled Sumoud. This 15-month apprenticeship program trained her staff on the ins and outs of business ownership to prepare them to take the reins at Reem’s. For Assil, who spent over a decade as a community organizer championing various causes, this is a continuation of her life’s work: creating more equitable systems for all.

“If you think about the food system, it’s integral to everything in our society. It connects to housing, economy, and agriculture issues,” says Assil. “It’s also interpersonal, the way we act with one another. Food is so central, and it’s the most broken system. So, if we can fix that system, redesign it, or reimagine it, imagine what kind of ripple effects it can have on other parts of our society.”

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