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COVID-19

Refugee-owned restaurant’s traditional recipe helps it stay afloat during pandemic

Marisa Mazria Katz Feb 3, 2021
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Aleppo Sweets, a Syrian restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, is shipping its baklava across the country. sumbul via Getty Images
COVID-19

Refugee-owned restaurant’s traditional recipe helps it stay afloat during pandemic

Marisa Mazria Katz Feb 3, 2021
Heard on:
Aleppo Sweets, a Syrian restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, is shipping its baklava across the country. sumbul via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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Even during the pandemic, Youssef Akhtarini has maintained his routine of rising before dawn to make fresh baklava for his Providence restaurant Aleppo Sweets. He’s been baking the flaky pistachio-filled dessert since he was 15 — first as an apprentice, and then in the bakeries he ran with his family in his native Syria. “For 27 years, I’ve been baking,” Akhtarini said. 

The war in Syria forced Akhtarini and his family to flee to Turkey. He later found out his bakeries were destroyed. Eventually he was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2016. A few years later he opened his restaurant.

Sandra Martin, one of the restaurant’s earliest financial backers, described Aleppo Sweets’ debut as “a great success right from the beginning, with a line out the door.”

Many of the waiters who worked at the restaurant were Syrian refugees. They served traditional dishes like hummus and falafel. And there was Akhtarini’s baklava. People could buy individual pieces, or two or five pound boxes running anywhere from $35 to $80. Customers could also order it online.

When COVID-19 hit, Akhtarini shut down indoor dining. Food orders dropped by half and he cut his staff of 20 down to 12.

Martin said she gave Akhtarini some advice at the beginning of the pandemic: “I said, at this point, for restaurants, it is just a matter of survival.”

The RI Hospitality Association says nearly half of its members have considered closing down entirely until the pandemic passes. The owners of those that are still open have had to get creative. For Akhtarini, that has meant restructuring his take-out operation and getting out his baklava orders.

“Every day now I have been shipping baklava to every state and city, like Florida, Chicago, California, Texas,” he said.

Overall, business is not what it used to be, but he said those online orders of baklava — using the recipe he brought from his homeland — have remained strong.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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