Berlin - On a sunny Tuesday morning in Friedrichshain, Samer Hafez is setting up tables outside his restaurant, Aleppo Supper Club. It’s before opening time, and there’s a sense of calm outside the small, cosy eatery on Rigaer Straße. As we sit down to chat, a man appears at the balcony of a flat on the other side of the street. “Guten Morgen, Herr Herrmann!” Samer calls up to him.
The restaurant is the culmination of years of work since the 31-year-old Syrian came to Germany as a refugee in late 2014. He speaks about Aleppo, his home city, with fondness and a hint of pride – but he recalls how Syria’s civil war changed everything. “My mother was a teacher, my father had a shoe factory,” he remembers, “All of that was destroyed.” He had studied Turkish literature in the city, even while it was under siege, and worked several jobs at the same time, including in restaurants. Eventually, he decided he had to seek safety for himself and his family, and made his way to Germany over Turkey and the Mediterranean.
When Samer arrived in Berlin, he decided to make his way in gastronomy. He started out washing dishes in a pizzeria in Mitte while he learned German – his next job was for Käfer, the catering firm which supplies events at the Reichstag. Eventually, he was inspired to take the next step. “I invited a few German friends over for dinner and cooked all dishes from home – they thought it was great, even the spicy things,” he remembers. “After that happened a few times, I thought I could take this bigger.”
Aleppo Supper Club began as his own catering firm in 2016, followed by the restaurant in 2018. The menu features Aleppo specialities and most of the staff are from the city too. The recipes are all Samer’s own, compiled together with his mother, and serve as warm reminders of home. Among the most popular dishes is makluba, a rice dish made with aubergines, almonds and cashews. Several Berlin blogs have also declared Samer’s hummus to be among the best in the city.
The restaurant is now a favourite in Friedrichshain’s Samariterkiez – and Samer is a popular local figure, as proved by the numerous people who greet him as they pass by during our conversation. “I’m really happy in this neighbourhood,” he says. “I’ve never had any problems with anyone here – people always come and say hello. People here have helped me a lot and I’m always willing to reciprocate.”
Samer is now looking to open a second branch to accommodate all his keen regular customers – he says a reservation is a must at the weekend. “Earlier this year some customers turned up one evening, but we had no seats left – they came back 15 minutes later with their own chairs,” he says with a smile. “We can fit around 10 tables inside, but with corona and social distancing we really need more space for the winter.” His search is going well so far, with “two or three” concrete options available in Friedrichshain.
For Samer, his restaurant is as much about this sense of community as anything else. “It’s not just about the business, it’s about the people who make it,” he says. “I never imagined I would make so many friends through my work.” Some of those friends helped him bring his family to Germany – his brother and two sisters are now working and studying, while his parents live in Potsdam, and often stop by the restaurant. “Whenever they come to visit, they sit in the flat upstairs and look out from the balcony, and they look me in the eyes and congratulate me,” Samer says.
While the search for a second branch of Aleppo Supper Club continues, Samer is waiting to receive his German passport – and for more good news for his family. Problems with his brother’s residence permit meant that his wife, Samer’s sister-in-law, had to stay in Aleppo. “But one of my customers helped me research online, and eventually he signed up as her guarantor so that she can come here,” he says. “It’s not easy to find people like that. Many of my customers are much more than that, they’re close friends now.” The German embassy in Beirut has now accepted all of his sister-in-law’s documents, and the family hopes it will be a matter of days or weeks before they are reunited in Berlin – after six years apart.
We finish our conversation just as it gets to opening time – Samer expects to have a busy day ahead. He says it’s a lot of responsibility to run his own business and he needs a holiday soon – but the effort is worth it. “Food has always been fun for me, that’s why I’ve been pursuing this since I got here,” he says. “But it really builds bridges between people too.”