Berkeley restaurants

After successful run in Emeryville, Mama Lamees is looking for a new home

Mama Lamees was busy when it opened at the Emeryville Public Market. Credit: Sarah Han

Where does the East Bay go for luscious and authentic shawarma? In 2019, long before Shawarmaji opened in Oakland, one of the most popular destinations was Mom Lamees to Emeryville Public Market. A graduate of the incubator La Cocina, chef Lamees Dahbour brought her Palestinian roots to the public market kiosk reserved for revolving alums at La Cocina, offering tasty baba dips, soups, plates and wraps. But, since September, Dahbour’s popular baba ganoush and falafel have been taken off the market, leaving customers’ cravings for Mediterranean cuisine unattended. What exactly happened?

The start of Dahbour’s journey is as upbeat as it gets in the bay area. Thanks to La Cocina’s deal with the public market, Dahbour was fortunate enough to operate a kiosk inside the popular venue in September 2019 – a place crowded with office workers picking up lunches. The kiosk instantly became a success, obtaining on the radar of food critics and earn 5 star reviews on Yelp.

In February 2020, Dahbour was reminded that she would have to leave by June of the same year, as the arrangement with La Cocina was only for a limited stay. “My dream was that after experiencing the public market, I hoped to get a permanent space,” she told Nosh. It was not an impossible dream, as its predecessor, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, moved to another public market location after the end of his lease at La Cocina.

Shortly after Dahbour received that June deadline, the pandemic canceled foot traffic in the market, and Dahbour found herself unable to capitalize on her remaining time in Emeryville, she said. Instead, she packed boxes of snacks and prepared food for catering concerts, a job that got her through the first few months of COVID-19. As the pandemic continued and the public market lost more and more tenants, the building management extended an offer to stay at the kiosk until the end of 2020. It accepted.

Plate of chicken kebabs at Mama Lamees in Emeryville.
The plate of chicken skewers at Mama Lamees. Credit: Sarah Han

“Walk-in sales were really bad, but we had to open up,” Dahbour said. “And then when people started getting vaccinated, the dates started to get a little better. ”

At the very beginning of 2021, as the catering industry in the bay was finally picking up, Dahbour requested another extension, in the hopes that one of the many vacant public market locations could be his. Management turned it down, saying that in September 2021 her time there was up.

“The kiosk has always been for short-term temporary leases,” Mark Stefan told Nosh. He is president of City Center Realty Partners, a company that manages and owns a portion of Public Market. “Together with the nonprofit La Cocina, we provided an initial six-month lease to Chief Lamees, which was later extended to nine months as per the agreement. When the pandemic hit, Public Market granted two short-term extensions to Lamees’ lease. We are working with La Cocina again now on an opportunity for another culinary manufacturer. “

“I know she would have liked to stay,” Stefan confirmed to Nosh at the public market. “She wanted to move to another space.” But that wasn’t in the cards, he said, citing the public market’s need to offer a variety of different cuisines and types of food.

“We need to maintain an appropriate tenant mix,” Stefan said. “We have someone who already produces a similar menu. “

Lamees Dahbour is the mother behind the food business.
Lamees Dahbour is the mother behind the food business. Photo: Sarah Han

Over the summer, in search of physical alternatives, Dahbour experienced the harsh reality of the local commercial real estate market. The rents were extremely high, she said.

Other places wanted her to buy their liquor license, but Dahbour is a Muslim who does not drink and does not intend to sell alcohol. Another asked for so much personal information that Dahbour withdrew from the negotiations, fearing that the owner’s growing demands could be a red flag.

La Cocina also helped try to find a place to land in Dahbour, La Cocina deputy manager Leticia Landa told Nosh. “The staff at La Cocina have been actively supporting Lamees in finding their next location for the past few years; she visited spaces and reviewed multiple leases for locations in both the East Bay and San Francisco with staff from our incubator program, ”said Landa.

And Landa knows that finding a new location for Mama Lamees won’t be easy. “Trade movements always take time and the pandemic has become more complicated this process for all small businesses, especially those owned by people of color and immigrants, ”Landa said.

For now, Dahbour is back in the commercial kitchen of La Cocina, preparation of catering orders and group meals, as she ponders her next move. “It hurts,” Dahbour said, “to know that we survived COVID but to have to shut down because we have no room.”

Nosh’s acting editor Eve Batey contributed to this report.


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