Touma, who was born in Lebanon, has lived in Ohio for 38 years. Eight years after moving to Akron, her husband died and she began work as a caterer from home while her two boys attended school.
“When both of my boys were in high school was when I decided to start the bakery,” she says. “I was 43 at the time and I knew it would be a lot of work. It was definitely a big step, but I knew I had to do something.”
The next step was selecting the location, a tan brick building with ample space for customers to relax and enjoy warm spinach pies and crispy falafel.
“This building has actually been a Middle Eastern bakery for at least 50 years,” Touma says. “But everyone does their own thing. So when I came, I had to do my own thing, too.”
With the help of her sons and several close friends, Touma opened Sanabel and began the process of building a customer base, which she says was not easy. She relied on those closest to her to help her navigate the uncertainty.
“It was challenging at first, especially since I didn’t even really know how to make bread, which is a huge part of the business,” she says. “It took a lot of learning, but I’m so thankful I took the chance.”
At the core of Touma’s business philosophy is an emphasis on hard work and practice. When Sanabel first opened, she says, her only knowledge of cooking came from her mother and sister in their family kitchen. She had little familiarity with baking on such a large scale and devoted countless hours to expanding her skillset.
The Devil Strip is a not-for-profit, community-owned news cooperative. We rely on your financial support to make it possible for us to provide coverage of Akron’s artists, musicians, nonprofits and small businesses. As a member, you can help shape the direction of The Devil Strip and of the city.
“We just had to try and fail a lot and keep going,” she says. “So maybe the first time we’d try a new recipe, the food isn’t so good, we’d end up throwing it away. But then we try again, the next time it gets better, and that keeps you going until you get it just right. Nothing happens without hard work.”
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe and devastated many small businesses, Touma found herself once again challenged to think and adapt quickly. It was hard, she admits, to find a silver lining amid the chaos.
“I thought ‘That’s it, I’m going to close,’” she says. “But we stuck through it. I thought I couldn’t but my boys encouraged me, they said ‘Mom you can do it, you can be strong.’ Thank God for that.”
In all her years of serving Akron fresh Middle Eastern food, Touma says the best part is the relationships she’s built in the community. Now, with both of her sons moved away, she says her loyal customers feel like family.
“I have people who have come in since we opened 17 years ago,” she says. “And even those who move away, whenever they’re home visiting family, they always stop in to see me and to check in on me. It really feels like family.”