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

Susan S. Johnson

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 […]

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.

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The $1.9 trillion plan would aim to speed up the vaccine rollout and provide financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses. Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. It would also include $1,400 checks for most Americans. Get the rest of the specifics here.

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New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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