When Riad Shatila moved to Michigan in the 1970s, he brought recipes of the delicious pastries and sweets he grew up with in Lebanon.
He’d begun baking as a teen in Beirut and worked in bakeries before starting a new life in the United States.
To his surprise, he found no Middle East bakery in Dearborn, Michigan, despite a swelling population of Arab Americans made up of both newer immigrants and more established first- and second-generation families.
So in 1979 he opened Shatila Bakery, sleeping in the store at times to oversee the making of baklava with its nuts, flaky phyllo dough and a simple sugar syrup.
“We don’t make it overly sweet. The nice thing about our baklava is it appeals to a wide variety of palates,” says Shatila’s daughter Nada, now vice president of the business her late father started. “We want the taste of the nuts and the flakiness of the phyllo to stand out.”
The bakery’s baklava recently was acclaimed the best in America by food critics at the Wall Street Journal. It’s sold at the two Shatila bakeries in Dearborn and another Detroit suburb, and also over the internet.
The bakery and its factory employ up to 200 people during peak seasons, including Christmas and Ramadan.
Nada Shatila says the most popular items during Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting for American Muslims that ends June 15, are not baklava but heavier pastries such as cheese- or cream-filled knafeh; atayef, a pancake-like pastry stuffed with cheese, walnuts or cream; and kellajj, a cream-filled pastry made with phyllo dough.
Customers who place orders over the internet miss one essential part of the Shatila Bakery experience: walking into the 1,000-square-meter bakery and finding an oasis complete with palm trees and tables to indulge in the colorful treats behind the glass shelves.
Nada Shatila, an international studies major at the University of Michigan, considered becoming a lawyer rather than entering the family business.
“I had a conversation with my dad and told him I wanted to be very socially responsible,” says the 29-year-old. “He told me, ‘Well, a lot of business is about supporting your community.’ Now I realize what he said is very true.”