In late January 2019, a stylish Middle Eastern cafe sprang up in the Ives Street business district. “Cafe in Training,” read the sandwich board out front. Inside, the appealing white-brick façade gave way to a space gleaming with copper teapots. Aleppo Sweets, located between Tallulah’s Taqueria, and PVDonuts, has since opened a new dimension for Fox Point’s culinary scene.
The name belies the cafe’s many delicacies. Besides the famous sweets – multilayered, nested, and crisply rolled baklava made fresh by a Syrian artisan – there are mezze dishes like hummus and tabbouleh, kebabs, falafel, stuffed dates, Turkish coffee, and Syrian tea.
But Aleppo Sweets is more than just a place to stuff and caffeinate yourself. In the words of Sandy Martin, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Victor Pereira, it’s a bridge to a unique culture and a path forward for refugees on their way to self-sufficiency.
Sandy was inspired to launch Aleppo Sweets after befriending Reem and Youssef Akhtarini, a Syrian couple with six children. Sandy met the family on their first day of refugee orientation at the Dorcas International Institute in October 2016. Youssef was eager to learn how he could start working as soon as possible. Specifically, he wanted to know whether or not he could make and sell baklava from home. As Sandy puts it, “It became apparent very early that Youssef was determined to bake [baklava].” She was there as a volunteer observer, but started reaching out, stopping by the Akhtarinis’ home to make sure they were feeling welcome in Rhode Island. With her advice, he rented space above 5-Herb Pizza in Cranston, where he baked during off hours and began to sell baklava at farmers markets. Then, about 18 months ago, Sandy and Victor decided to take the plunge and start a small business with the goal that the Akhtarinis would take over.
“The experience here is very authentic,” Sandy says. “If you went over to Reem’s home, this is what she would serve you.” Currently, Reem and Youssef are the two key employees and menu developers, while around eight other Syrian refugee families are represented on staff. “In Syria, there’s a certain prestige in being a baklava crafter. It’s a big part of life there,” Sandy says.
The response to the cafe’s soft launch, Sandy and Youssef agree, was startling to say the least. “The volume of people has been the greatest surprise, and so far, everyone’s response has been really positive despite the madness,” Sandy says. Customers include students and locals, as well as second- or third-generation Middle Easterners who taste the food, then sigh deeply as they announce it tastes just like their grandmother’s.
Youssef says, “When people come in, it’s busy and happy. Before I came here, I didn’t understand what American people like. But when I make baklava, everyone said to me that it was good, everyone told me good luck.” Fueled by flavorful, homey food and a bright atmosphere, Aleppo Sweets seems poised for a long and successful life in Fox Point. 107 Ives Street