Why People Travel Far and Wide for This Bakery's Baklava (2024)

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The best baklava I’ve ever had arrived in a board-game shaped box emblazoned with a golden palm tree crowning the word “Shatila.” They were the standard gift from my aunt and uncle when they made their yearly visit from Michigan to my family in Dallas. Before even carrying their suitcases upstairs, we’d tear open the box, unearthing the assortment of walnut-laced baklava, mini puff pastry roses triple-glazed with honey, and crumbly ballourie (baked, shredded phyllo dough) topped with rosewater-kissed pistachios. I’d had baklava before, but nothing like this. They were delicate wisps of tissue-thin phyllo and honey and nuts; rich and complex, each one in its own distinct way.

Photo by Emily Berger

Shatila is a pastry icon—a 38-year-old Middle Eastern bakery tucked away in the suburb of Dearborn, about eight miles from downtown Detroit. Today, Dearborn is home to one of the largest communities of individuals of Arab descent outside the Middle East, and Shatila is among of the city’s most famous food landmarks. But fifty years ago, things were very different. Dearborn’s then-mayor, Orville Hubbard, was an outspoken segregation advocate who ran on the platform, “Keep Dearborn Clean” (widely accepted to mean: keep Dearborn white).

Riad Shatila, landed in Dearborn in the 1970s, when a growing number of Middle Eastern refugees fled civil wars and conflicts in their home countries, coming to the Detroit area due for jobs in the auto industry. Shatila immigrated by himself from Lebanon, where he was a bike messenger with a love of baking. He found a small, tightly-knit community of Middle Eastern immigrants in Dearborn, but realized there were no businesses that catered to their interests.

Photo by Emily Berger

As sweets are such an important part of Middle Eastern holidays and social gatherings, Shatila, who’d never baked or cooked professionally before, decided he would open a bakery on a dusty stretch next to a movie theater and a local supermarket. Through a lengthy process of trial and error, he developed a short menu highlighted by pistachio and walnut-filled baklava and fingers of phyllo wrapped around cashews, whose recipes were inspired by the offerings at Al Samadi Sweets, the popular bakery in Lebanon.

When the bakery opened in April 1979, Riad Shatila didn’t have enough money for his own housing — so he installed a shower in the warehouse and slept there. He worked 20-hour shifts, only sleeping while his pastries were baking. “He refused to sell anything until he was totally satisfied himself,” recalled Osama Siblani, the founder of The Arab-American News and a close friend of Riad Shatila’s (Shatila passed away in 2013). “He was always trying to do better than the week before.” To drum up business, he went through the phone book and called up every name that sounded vaguely Arab, inviting people in to try his sweets, offering to personally hand-deliver them to houses. The idea of a Middle Eastern-focused business, much less a bakery, was completely novel at the time, and the local community came to purchase in droves.

The burgeoning Middle Eastern population in Dearborn didn’t go unnoticed. Another of its mayors, Michael Guido, ran his 1985 campaign on a promise to rid the city of what he called the “Arab Problem,” carrying on the racist rhetoric of previous decades. But this didn’t stop people from all over the tri-state area from taking a major interest in Shatila. In a 1988 review of the bakery, The Detroit Free Press wrote, “How good are Shatila's pastries? We brought a box back to the Free Press to be photographed. Funny thing, though. They must have melted under those hot lights. Just disappeared.”

Other Middle Eastern families started to follow Shatila’s lead, opening their own shops in the area, and the Arab and Arab-American population exploded, accounting for an estimated 25 percent of Dearborn residents by the late ’90s. Dearborn became a destination for authentic Middle Eastern goods, from groceries to clothing. “Shatila attracted people from around the country to come to Dearborn and make a day of it,” Siblani said.

Photo by Emily Berger

Riad Shatila became a major engine of the community’s expansion, hiring hundreds of Middle Eastern immigrants, donating to every mosque and school in the area, offering up his bakery as a meeting spot for town halls, and serving as a mentor for local shops. “He did the work from the ground up that no one was doing,” says Hassan Hashem, one of the owners of Al Ameer, a Dearborn restaurant that opened in 1989 and last year was honored with a James Beard award. “For a while, Riad/Shatila was the only [Middle Eastern business] here,” Hashem remembers “He was the one creating jobs for a lot of families.” People still come up to members of the Shatila family at the store, telling them, “If it wasn’t for your dad, I wouldn’t have been able to put my kid in school, or buy a house,” Nada Shatila, one of Riad’s three daughters and a Shatila vice president, said.

Tania and Nada Shatila

Photo by Emily Berger

After September 11, though, Dearborn citizens grew more hostile against its residents of Arab descent. Many mosques and Arab social centers started receiving threatening notes. Tania Shatila, Nada’s younger sister and also a Shatila vice president, said that though the shop never received any direct threats, sales declined that year. “People were a little more hesitant to be around Middle Eastern businesses. They weren’t as open-minded.”

Still, Riad Shatila insisted on expanding. “He knew about Dearborn’s past but had a vision for cleaning up the image, and breaking the stereotypes that people had,” Siblani said. He put all his earnings into buying a much larger space for Shatila on Warren Avenue in 2003. The new shop was impossible to miss: 10,000 square feet (the old space was a mere 1,000 square feet), and designed to look like an extravagant Middle Eastern “oasis,” as Riad told people, with marble countertops, soaring columns, waterfalls, and enormous, artificial palm trees wrapped in lights. Long pastry cases lined the perimeter, each filled to the brim with colorful, gem-like sweets. Countertops displayed mountains of dates and honey-glazed puffs, which were showcased as if part of a museum collection.

Photo by Emily Berger

By the mid 2000s, Shatila had become a destination for tourists and Michiganders of all kinds. The store even expanded to add ice cream, a unique version typical to the Middle East that incorporates a tree resin called mastic gum to give the ice cream extra thickness and bounce. Local customers petitioned Riad Shatila to start a shipping business, so they could send Shatila pastries as gifts to relatives and friends; eventually he acquiesced, opening a factory nearby where pastries would be carefully hand-crafted and mailed around the world. (They’re now even available on Amazon.) What started as an 8-person shop turned into a 200-employee operation.

Photo by Emily Berger

“When you use the word ‘sweets’ in this community, it automatically means Shatila,” said Hassan Dagher, a longtime Shatila customer. “Just that smell of orange blossom and rosewater, the moment you walk in. It’s so enticing. You come in wanting to get one thing, and you walk out with a full tray. ”

Other pastry shops have sprung up in the area since, but Shatila remains the most popular, thanks to the family’s continued obsession with quality. Tania and Nada will test multiple types of phyllo dough in search of the variety that will go best with a particular sweet, order grade-A nuts from the Middle East, and specially-sourced milk for the ice cream that contains a 15 percent butterfat content — the secret to that extra rich flavor (most ice cream is made with 10 percent butterfat).

Photo by Emily Berger

Nada Shatila said the store regularly receives emphatic love letters from customers, like one she just got from a man in Sweden saying Shatila pastries brought his father to tears; or another from a woman in Lebanon, saying Shatila’s products are even better now than what she can get back home.

In a state that was crucial to the electoral victory of Donald Trump, one of its most iconic food institutions is Middle Eastern, female-owned, and immigrant-run. Just as Riad always sought to do during fraught times, the Shatila family can’t help but move forward. Tania is headed to a local pastry school in a few months to hone new techniques for a potential menu expansion, a juice bar recently launched inside the store, and, much to the excitement of the community, there are talks of a new location in the area. A generous amount of the store’s proceeds still goes toward the mosques, churches, schools, and Middle Eastern centers that Riad Shatila helped to build. Politicians may come and go, but Shatila and its loyal customers aren’t going anywhere. “When Shatila opened, it literally lifted the spirit of the people,” Siblani said. “Yes, it’s a tough time for Muslims and immigrants and Arabs. But people like [Riad Shatila] inspire us to stick around and keep creating opportunities for ourselves. We were here before Trump, and we will still be here when he leaves.”

Prepare to be mesmerized:

Why People Travel Far and Wide for This Bakery's Baklava (2024)


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