Authentic Lebanese pastries preserve a sweet memory and family tradition
For Riad Shatila, founder of Michigan-based Shatila Food Products LLC (Shatila), baking fresh Lebanese sweets was a labor of love. From old-world style baklava layered with buttery paper-thin pastry, nuts and honey syrup to sweet date laden ma’amoul shortbreads and creamy homemade pistachio ice cream, whatever Riad was concocting, he did it with dedication and passion for his craft.
“My father started baking when he was a teen in Lebanon,” recounts Nada Shatila, vice president of Shatila. “He would deliver his pastries to neighbors so they could taste test. When he came to Michigan in the late 1970s, he realized there weren’t a lot of bakeries, especially ethnic ones, so he set out to provide the local community with authentic, fresh pastries with the best ingredients he could find.”
Building the bakery from the ground up
Riad started out alone, but soon hired his first employee, a woman named Zinat. “My mother was his first employee and shortly thereafter became his wife,” shares Nada. “She is now the president of our company. I help her run the business, as well as my younger sisters Tania and Batoul, who is only 16 years old, but will soon be stepping in more.”
Shortly after Zinat, Riad hired five more employees and kept working day and night. “He even slept at the bakery at first; it was his house, as well as his business,” recalls Nada. “Eventually, the Shatila name caught on over time and the bakery became known for high-quality products and things started to expand.”
From the beginning, until September 2013 when Riad lost his battle with cancer, he was 100 percent, hands-on owner. “He passed away last fall at 68 years old,” tells Nada. “He was involved for the past 35 years, coming in every day and giving it his all.”
While Nada says her father’s passing has been a challenge for Shatila, she says her family and the company’s loyal employee base remains dedicated to preserving Riad’s passion for both pastries and people.
“He was prepared and had everything in line for succession, but he was such a huge part of the business,” she describes. “He spoke to every employee personally and he built great relationships. He left a big impact on everyone here and helped foster our high employee retention. We have people who have been here for 10 years or more and they grew alongside him. It’s been a major transition for us, because he left big shoes to fill.”
Riad certainly built a legacy and today, Shatila spans well beyond its home base in Dearborn, Mich. “We now distribute nationally and internationally to places such as Japan, Costa Rica and Mexico, because a large part of our customer base is wholesalers,” notes Nada. “We employ 150 individuals between our shipping department and main bakery.”
Locals and tourists alike flock to the Shatila bakery on Warren Avenue in Dearborn, but the company also has loyal customers from Florida to New York and California to Texas. “We have a large customer base in and out of Michigan and our hope is to expand it in the future, bringing our product locally to some of the areas we’re already popular in,” adds Nada. “We also have a significant presence on Amazon for online ordering, mainly mixed pastries and assortment trays.”
Proof in the Product
While Shatila is well-known for traditional Lebanese pastries, such as baklava, bassma, burma and many more, the company has expanded its product line, introducing homemade ice cream and fine chocolate confections to the lineup. “My father took his time carefully researching and testing an ice cream recipe, which started to take off in 2005,” recounts Nada. “He was coming out with a new flavor every year and we now have 15 flavors from coconut to Kashta.”
Shatila’s chocolate ice cream was reviewed by culinary connoisseur Saveur Magazine in a blind taste test in 2005. “We came in second nationally, above Häagen–Dazs and Breyers,” proclaims Nada.
From chocolate ice cream to rich milk and dark chocolate with almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios, Shatila added more confections in 2005. “We’re now selling our chocolate bars, clusters and filled candy in store and by the pound online,” shares Nada.
A living legacy
No matter the product, Nada says it was Riad’s passion to produce the best possible result. “You often see other food companies making pastries or other products with the cheapest ingredients they can get so they can make more, but that’s not the case with us,” she explains. “We source our nuts from California and our cashews from Brazil; we spend the extra money for the taste and quality, even if it means breaking even sometimes. That’s just how my father wanted it to be.”
Nada says she sees expansion in Shatila’s future, but not at the price of product quality or customer service. “We always need to maintain consistent, fresh products, quality, cleanliness and exceptional customer service,” she says. “That’s how my father wanted it. We have great potential to establish more local bakeries and expand our online presence, but our goal is to first carry on and improve on what he originally started.”
Whether it’s crafting traditional Lebanese desserts or new and exciting products, it’s all a labor of love and dedication for Shatila Food Products LLC.
Produced by Elizabeth Towne