“We went into business to survive,” Milad Hallis said, his voice echoing against the pristine tile floor of his Redford storefront. “And for a business to survive, you need family to keep it going.”
It was the end of the day and the counters were clean, the falafel balls packed away, each container of salad lidded and shut for the morrow. In the kitchen, Milad’s wife Leila swept the floor clean of flour. A big metal bowl of chopped spinach sat on a cart, ready for the next day’s fresh-baked pies.
Beirut Bakery salads and hummos have been selling in my stores for a half-year but the people behind the brand are so familiar to me, it’s like I’ve known them all my life.
As a child, the Lebanese community was a big part of my extended family. Every Sunday night, my parents, my sister and I dined at The Sheik Restaurant in Detroit. Esther and Janet, the daughters of the owner whose face graced the menu in a caricature costume, were like cousins. Our fathers were old friends, and as we dragged our bread through garlicky hummos and bit into lemony grape leaves, they huddled together, sharing stories and strategies of a life in a family business, and a world where they were neither understood nor celebrated.
The food was delicious. The aromas familiar. The stories almost identical. Our ethnic and cultural heritages similarly emanated from a history of persecution to a future of anything-is-possible and we were all raised on the possibility of never-give-up. That stamina and drive, that stubbornness and refusal to concede, made both of our families shine and our businesses grew.
I hadn’t thought of Esther or Janet in years until Catherine Hallis walked into my office. It is not part of my daily routine to meet the many vendors who wish to sell their products at Hiller’s, but I overheard her pitch to my grocery buyer and something about her drive and passion drew my attention.
It helps that the food is fantastic. Melt-in-your-mouth good. Beirut Bakery was established in 1979 in Redford; countless cousins and in-laws come and go, to help with the business, to knead pita dough into something smooth and soothing, and this hard-won business is the thread that runs through everyone’s lives.
After the Civil War in Lebanon in 1978, Hallis emigrated to America. He and his brother-in-law, Alex Wakim, had no culinary training, only an expertise in blending the flavors of their heritage, and in the late 1970s, Middle Eastern food was hard to come by. The entire clan started this business – a team effort plus the dream of a better life fueled by familiarity and the warmth of a hard-working oven. Beirut Bakery was the first Middle Eastern eatery to open in Wayne County.
In a family business, a shared vision propels everyone forward. I know this at the core of my being, and the sentiment was echoed by 22-year-old Mark Hallis, who runs the business now with his sister Catherine. “We want to make things easier for our parents,” he says. “My father broke his back for us.”
“We’re returning the favor now,” echoes Catherine.
Milad and Leila are behind the scenes, letting their energetic offspring run the show. He makes sweets by hand, with the loving attention of someone who built a foundation of bricks. Leila crushes lentils for soup, rolls rice and ground lamb into softened cabbage leaves, combines chickpeas with that can’t-name-it-great dressing that makes it a must-have salad from our deli counter. Za’atar and smooth cheese, pita as creamy as you can find anywhere, baked in the back of their shop.
We are the same, the Hallis family and the Hillers. We trace our lineage to a journey across oceans and possibilities to do the best we could and build something of meaning. And just like I do, they prove their dedication and their fearlessness – and their talent – every single day with the products they make.
Like my own heritage, the recipes behind Beirut Bakery are a conglomeration of stories from their collective past. Flavors left behind by conquerors who trampled homelands then left for new frontiers. Mixtures and combinations becoming a veritable melting pot of identity, stewed into spice so unique, it is hard to pinpoint exact character. And impossible to replicate.
Just like groceries abound all around my stores, there is nothing like Hiller’s. Today, Middle Eastern food is everywhere – the latest craze, a healthy go-to and a familiar food even for babes. But there is only one Beirut Bakery. Literally. Metaphorically.
“We’re just making good food,” says Catherine Hallis. “We serve only what we eat at home.”
My employees are my family, I work alongside my eldest son, I listen to the heart-stories of my shoppers.
Catherine tells of her grandfather, who was a carpenter who built a series of wooden steps so his petite daughter could reach the top of the pita-making machine. From his hands, he fashioned tools to embolden the family business. In the corner of the bakeshop, an orange tree grows, nurtured over 30 years now.
“We got it for our grandfather,” says Mark, “to remind him of what grew in his backyard in the south of Lebanon. It is in perfect condition.” And orange trees do not typically bloom in Michigan.
The authenticity that I find at Beirut Bakery I know in my bones. “We do it the right way, the hard way, and we don’t mind it,” says Mark Hallis.
The most authentic thing about us, according to Nigerian author Ben Okri, is our ability to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform – to be greater than our suffering and to do whatever we can with love.
Beirut Bakery … taste it at Hiller’s.