PROVIDENCE — The Akhtarini family arrived to the United States from Syria with nothing but each other and the longest rolling pin Sandy Martin had ever seen. Youssef Akhtarini, his wife Reem, and their six children met Martin, a volunteer with an agency that helps immigrants and refugees, on the Akhtarinis’ first day in their new city of Providence. Now, three years later, the café that Martin owns and the Akhtarinis operate — Aleppo Sweets — has received national recognition, appearing on Bon Appetit’s 50 Nominees for America’s Best New Restaurant of 2019, an achievement that far exceeded anyone’s expectations.
On Jan. 27 of this year, Aleppo Sweets opened its doors. The café is disarmingly beautiful: a teal backdrop with glittering copper tea pots lining the walls, rustic mirrors and pierced brass lanterns, laser-cut wooden overlay on the windows — every detail evoking its Syrian origins. And although the name leads one to believe that this café serves only dessert — in the form of eight different styles of baklava, from classic chopped walnut to chocolate pistachio — there are plenty of savory dishes as well: Fatayer, a street food similar to flatbread; falafel and mezze, such as freshly whipped hummus or yogurt-based labneh; and my favorite, Musabaha, a warm dish of tahini with whole chickpeas, topped with olive oil, tomatoes, parsley, and fried Syrian bread.
But the journey to being locally and nationally recognized had a humble start, inside the home of eight people who spoke little English, and a woman who was interested in learning more about this family’s culture, faith, and history. Sandy Martin had just started volunteering for Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, an organization that supports immigrants, resettles refugees, and provides resources for the underserved. The Akhtarinis and Martin were each other’s firsts — the first American the Akhtarinis befriended, and the first Syrian family Martin had met as a volunteer. She vividly recalls hearing their story: Youssef’s bakery reduced to rubble, their family fleeing the country, the uncertainty of their future and the anxiety of waiting to cross the Atlantic. “I had to bite my cheek to keep from crying,” she says.
Martin began visiting the Akhtarini family a few times per week, checking in and bringing small gifts. But they always invited her inside to sit and stay, insisting she share their tea and food. “I had never experienced this level of hospitality. They shared everything they had. I couldn’t believe their kindness.”
At first they communicated with gestures, laughter being the common language. Then one day Martin saw Youssef in the kitchen, every surface covered in flour and cornstarch as he maneuvered a three-foot-long rolling pin. That’s when she understood that being in the kitchen, baking, was truly his passion.
In December 2016, two months after the Akhtarinis arrived, rumors of sublime baklava radiated through Martin’s social network. Youssef made his debut by selling specialty sweets at Sanctuary Church, Martin’s home congregation, and over the next few months, Martin and her husband, Victor Pereira, organized house parties and events to showcase Youssef’s talent.
Word spread. A small, dedicated following developed. A visiting college student from North Carolina discovered the Akhtarinis’ baklava, and he worked with Youssef’s friend to create a website where they could sell it online. Another connection, the owner of a pizza restaurant in Rhode Island, offered his commercial kitchen during off hours so Youssef could prepare his product for distribution.
Roughly a year later, in November 2017, the Akhtarinis were taking Thanksgiving orders and appearing at Providence’s Wintertime Farmers Market. Business was going well, but working at odd hours of the night in a pizza kitchen was not a long-term solution. Martin and Pereira began discussing the possibilities with Youssef and Reem of opening their own store.
The statistics for opening a restaurant are less than encouraging, even under normal circumstances. When they read that 60 percent of restaurants do not make it past the first year, and 80 percent go under in five years, they decided the best solution was to partner with the Akhtarinis. “I could take the financial risk,” Martin said. “They couldn’t.” So she and Pereira purchased a building on the East Side of Providence, brought in people to help realize the vision of a Syrian café, and launched a GoFundMe campaign with the proceeds going directly into Aleppo Sweets’s business account.
And the community responded: the refugee community (17 refugees have been employed at Aleppo Sweets since its opening); the expat, immigrant, and student community; and a consistent stream of Americans, Armenians, Arabs, Persians, and Jewish customers who come to offer support. Martin says the whole process has cast a positive light on her home state. “The number one phrase people ask me to share with Youssef and Reem is, ‘We are so glad you’re here.’ ”
Reem and Youssef when asked what the highlight of this year has been for them, and aside from, “The Hot 10 [nomination]!” Reem said that opening the store has brought them great joy. For Youssef, it is his children: “Seeing them go to school and come home happy.”
One thing Youssef doesn’t plan to change is his dedication to service. “I know a job like this is tiring. It is difficult. But I
love it. I hope that any customer who comes in leaves happy. That is what I want to continue.”
One of the greatest compliments, Martin added, came recently from customer who was originally from Damascus. He said it was his first visit to Aleppo Sweets, and Martin asked, “What did you think?”
“I feel like I’m home,” he said. “This tastes like home.”
Aleppo Sweets, 107 Ives St., Providence. Visit alepposweets.com.