Where does the East Bay go for succulent, authentic shawarma? In 2019, well before Shawarmaji opened its doors in Oakland, one of the most popular destinations was Mama Lamees at the Public Market Emeryville. A graduate of the La Cocina incubator, chef Lamees Dahbour brought her Palestinian roots to the Public Market kiosk reserved for rotating La Cocina alums, offering flavorful baba dips, soups, plates and wraps. But, as of September, Dahbour’s popular baba ganoush and falafel have been out of the market, leaving patrons’ Mediterranean food cravings unattended. What happened, exactly?
The beginning of Dahbour’s journey is as Bay Area optimistic as it gets. Thanks to La Cocina’s agreement with the Public Market, Dahbour got a chance to operate a kiosk inside the popular venue in September, 2019 — a spot packed by office workers picking up lunches. The kiosk instantly became a hit, getting on the radar of food critics and earning 5-star reviews on Yelp.
In February 2020, Dahbour was reminded that she would have to leave by June that year, as the arrangement with La Cocina was only for a limited stint. “My dream was, after experiencing the public market, I was hoping to get a permanent space,” she told Nosh. It wasn’t an impossible dream, as her predecessor, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, moved into another slot in the Public Market after its La Cocina lease ended.
Shortly after Dahbour recieved that June deadline, the pandemic quashed foot traffic in the market, and Dahbour found herself unable to capitalize on her remaining time in Emeryville, she said. Instead, she packed snack boxes and prepped food for catering gigs, work that got her through the first months of COVID-19. As the pandemic continued and the Public Market, building management extended an offer to remain at the kiosk until the end of the 2020. She accepted.
“The walk-in sales were really bad, but we had to open,” Dahbour said. “And then when people started to get vaccinated the walk-ins started to get a little bit better.”
In the very beginning of 2021, as the restaurant industry in the Bay was finally picking back up, Dahbour asked for another extension, in hopes that one of the Public Market’s vacant spots could be hers. Management turned her down, saying that by September 2021, her time there was up.
“The kiosk was always meant for short-term, temporary leases,” Mark Stefan told Nosh. He’s the president of City Center Realty Partners, a firm that manages and owns a part of Public Market. “In a collaboration with the nonprofit La Cocina, we provided an initial six-month lease for Chef Lamees, which was then extended to nine months, per the agreement. When the pandemic hit, Public Market granted two short-term extensions on Lamees’ lease. We are again working with La Cocina now on an opportunity for another culinary maker.”
“I know she would have liked to stay,” in the Public Market, Stefan confirmed to Nosh. “She wanted to move into 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 food types.
“We need to maintain an appropriate tenant mix,” Stefan said. “We have someone who already produces a menu that is similar.”
During the summer, scrambling for brick-and-mortar alternatives, Dahbour experienced the harsh reality of the local commercial real estate market. Rents were extremely high, she said.
Other spots wanted her to buy their liquor license, but Dahbour is a Muslim who doesn’t drink or intend to sell alcohol. Another asked for so much personal information that Dahbour pulled out of negotiations, concerned that the landlord’s escalating demands were a red flag.
La Cocina has also helped try to find a spot for Dahbour to land, La Cocina Deputy Director Leticia Landa told Nosh. “La Cocina staff has been actively supporting Lamees in looking for her next location for a few years; she has been touring spaces and has looked at several leases for locations in both the East Bay and San Francisco with our incubator program staff,” Landa said.
And Landa is aware that finding a new location for Mama Lamees won’t be easy. “Business moves always take time, and the pandemic has complicated this process for all small businesses, particularly those owned by people of color and immigrants,” Landa said.
For now, Dahbour is back in La Cocina’s commercial kitchen, preparing catering orders and group meals, as she figures out her next move. “It hurts,” Dahbour said, “knowing we survived COVID but having to close because we don’t have a space.”
Nosh interim editor Eve Batey contributed to this report.
This article was updated on Nov. 12. 2021 to reflect the current vacancy rate at Public Market Emeryville. The previous version said that there were multiple vacancies as the pandemic continued, but spokesperson Maureen Futtner says that only one tenant has departed.