2 Arab American businesswomen sweeten up a rough Ramadan with knafeh shots
It’s a Friday the 13th that Shahira Marei won’t forget anytime soon.
The Egyptian American businesswoman behind the Dirty Cookie had recently clinched a vendor deal to supply her celebrated shot-glass-shaped snacks to the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. With a corporate clientele including major movie studios and beachside resorts, as well as catering events like weddings, business boomed since deciding to close her Tustin storefront at the District in December 2018.
And then the coronavirus pandemic hit, ravaging small businesses, like dine-in restaurants and caterers, which rely heavily on social gatherings to survive.
The Dirty Cookie started to crumble.
“We lost 90 percent of our business,” says Marei. “It felt like it all happened overnight.”
By March 13, she had little choice but to furlough half a dozen workers at the Dirty Cookie’s commercial kitchen and warehouse in Irvine.
Recalling a trip to Egypt as a young girl where she witnessed hunger and homelessness in the streets, Marei remembers her father’s guidance to go beyond charity to help those in need. That’s a major reason why she decided to take a chance with the Dirty Cookie five years ago while on maternity leave from Boeing, where she had a cushy job as a project manager.
“I founded my company with the mission to provide people jobs,” she says. “It felt like I was letting my family go.”
Marei took a week off from her business after making that difficult decision. During that time, she called Fatmah Muhammad, the Palestinian American baker behind Knafeh Queens, a commercial kitchen in Rancho Cucamonga she established with her daughter Rheyanah Williams. The two met prior to the pandemic, both with mutual admiration for each other’s craft.
“She was in love with my knafeh,” says Muhammad. “I was in love with her cookie shots.”
With Ramadan on the horizon, the pair of Arab American Muslim businesswomen talked about banding together to create a special treat during the holy month.
“This is a really hard time for Muslims celebrating Ramadan,” says Marei. “There’s no social interaction, and most of Ramadan is about going over to people’s homes for family dinners every day. That’s the spirit of the month.”
Marei found the perfect partner, as Knafeh Queens are no strangers to innovation.
The noodle dough dessert fastened by a melted cheese blend and drizzled with a simple syrup is usually served by square slices that lift off a tray in all their gooey glory. Muhammad, who’s worked with her mother’s recipe since she was 7, already offered knafeh in the nontraditional form of double-layer cakes, cupcakes and pies — the latter of which earned a blue-ribbon prize during a contest at the O.C. Fair two summers ago.
A few test runs in Marei’s Irvine kitchen perfected the craft of folding knafeh into her patented Dirty Cookie molds. The “knafeh shot” readied for release on April 20.
“When we put out the preorder sheet, people went crazy,” Muhammad recalls. “We sold out within the first week.”
Neither business has been able to keep up with the demand, especially with being short staffed at the moment.
The knafeh shot is a bit of a departure from Marei’s usual chocolate chip, churro, red velvet flavored milk-in-cookie approach, as well. This time around, the center of the chocolate-encased shot isn’t hallowed out. There are three filings to choose from — Nutella topped with strawberry slices, custard with pistachios and sweet cream ricotta — in lieu of a pouring in a milky beverage.
Taken together, the knafeh shot is a decadent delight upon first bite.
And even though times are tough, both businesses are offering a portion of the proceeds from sales of their collaborative confection to support Sahaba Initiative, an acclaimed San Bernardino nonprofit that offers sorely needed social services like food pantry access, support groups and mental health counseling.
Marei and Muhammad also used part of their sales for an online fundraiser to help purchase personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers.
“Ramadan is a month of giving for Muslims,” says Muhammad. “My purpose was always to bridge communities together, uniting people through good food.”
And both businesswomen are hoping the specialty shot broadens knafeh’s appeal beyond those already familiar with it.
Despite its popularity, the knafeh shot will still only be available for a limited time through May.
Marei’s looking to shift the Dirty Cookie’s sales online for the time being with cookie shot decorative kits soon to come. But with a “partner up and pivot” ethos, she’s open to more collaborations with Knafeh Queens.
“There could be something in the future, we just don’t know what it’s going to look like,” says Marei. “We’ll see what happens.”
“It’s been amazing experience for both of our businesses to see the beauty of two women — boss women — getting together,” says Muhammad. “We hope to inspire many other female-owned businesses.”
Whether working together or apart, both bakers know their desserts can help sweeten up otherwise difficult times, especially with fidgety children home from school. These days, Marei finds herself stocking up on sugary treats during grocery trips more so than before.
It all begs the question: Is dessert an essential?
“For people’s sanity right now, they want a piece of home, a piece of their childhood,” says Muhammad. “I definitely think dessert is an essential.”
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