In this week's installment of Foodstuffs, our weekly look at food culture in the Granite State, we visit Aissa Sweets — a burgeoning pastry business based in Concord, whose owner draws upon his Syrian heritage to craft homemade sweets sold at stores across New England.
Ahmad Aissa still gets kind of flustered when he thinks back to the first time he walked into a store — Philbrick’s Fresh Market in Portsmouth — to see if they might like to start selling his homemade baklava and other sweets, like the kind he used to bake back home in Syria.
“I was on the way shaking – driving and shaking – like, what do I say. Thinking of terminologies, and all language terms and all that," Aissa recalled, laughing and shaking his head. "My English was, like, really bad. And I talked to them, it was funny. Everybody was smiling, and we joked around — although I didn't understand most of the jokes."
But luckily, Aissa added: "I ended up with a sale." And there have been plenty more in the four years since.
Today, you can find his "Aissa Sweets" pastries at stores across New England. For about the last two years, they’ve also been sold at Whole Foods locations throughout the region.
And as Aissa's client base has expanded, his menu has, too.
“When we started producing, it was mostly baklava," he explained. "And stuffed cookies, called ma’moul. They’re traditionally stuffed with nuts that are crushed and made into slightly a paste, or with dried fruits such as dates.”
Now, he’s up to three types of baklava: “Classic walnuts. And chocolate walnuts. And there’s also the coconut chocolate baklava.”
He’s also working on two new kinds of cookies — “one of them’s stuffed with raspberry paste, he other one’s a cream-filled carrot cookie” — but he’s still perfecting the final recipes before those are ready to hit the shelves.
Aissa started his pastry business shortly after moving here with his wife, a New Hampshire native, in 2011. The couple left Syria just as the country was on the cusp of the devastating civil war that continues to this day.
To Aissa, the bakery business seemed like a good way to settle into his new life while still staying connected to the his culture back home.
“It’s been very positive. People are very into ethnic food. They like trying new stuff – they’re open to try different cultures," he said. "Plus, there are a big community of Greek, Lebanese, Syrians, Middle Easterners, Turks, even. They always purchase our baklava and I meet with them on a regular basis when I do demos."
When he first started out, Aissa did most of his baking out of a shared space in Dover. But his current headquarters — nestled in a small industrial park on the outskirts of Concord — gives him plenty of room, all to himself.
Here, Aissa has a wide, open kitchen – where he does most of the mixing, baking and packaging on his own. There’s a loading dock for sending out large batches to the stores he supplies, though he still has to personally deliver some of his shipments.
“For now," he said, "I’m the only person who runs the whole thing.”
That means carefully preparing and shipping out some 500 to 600 pounds of pastries in any given week. And, soon, Aissa hopes to be able to start selling his pastries from the bright, open storefront right where he does his baking.
Aissa’s also hoping to hire some more help in the coming months — but for now, it’s a labor of love. And a way to provide a more positive representation of his Syrian culture, to counteract the negativity he so often finds in headlines about his home country.
"I do my best. At the end of the day, I’m just baking," Aissa said. "I wish I could do more to be more active or more positive. I’ll always try, of course."