Imene Barkat remembers her first event at Portland Night Market as a resounding success.
“I sold out everything within the first few hours,” Barkat said of her first foray as a business owner in 2019. “They liked my baklava and I knew I should continue on this path.”
Imene Barkat was born in 1990 in Constantine, Algeria, the youngest in the family with three older brothers. Barkat’s earliest memories involve the warmth of her family and food.
“I have good memories of going out with my family and preparing sweets with my mom,” she said. “In Algeria we share food. Everyday a neighbor will knock on the door to share the sweets or dishes they made.”
The standard for food–and especially for baking–is high in Constantine. “They have the best ingredients and the best sweets,” she explained. “So I grew up in an environment where food and sweets are very important.”
So important, in fact, that “we measure the perfect wedding by the perfect food and sweets.”
At 14, Barkat began working in her family’s bakery. “I used to make up recipes in my vacation time,” she said with a laugh. “My first recipe was called Imene, like me.”
The family was unusually enterprising.. “My dad worked as a nurse and an entrepreneur and we all worked in the family business,” she said. “We all had the entrepreneurial mindset in our family.”
But baking and business ownership were not all Barkat was drawn to. “In middle school I noticed I was very good in math and physics and I wanted to become a physics teacher,” she remembered. Barkat was an exceptional student, graduating in the top 20 percent of her class. Her passion for physics eventually resulted in a Master’s degree after five grueling years at Constantine University.
Imene Barkat married and moved to Oregon in 2015. “The first year was difficult, just learning the culture,” she recalled. “I was learning everything from scratch, especially the language. Once I learned the language I started looking for opportunities.”
She started by making sweets for her husband and friends who exclaimed over the flavor and taste. “So then it clicked in my mind that I would make a business here to share the sweets, especially the baklava, with the Oregon community.” Her first opportunity was at the Portland Night Market in 2019.
Imene continued to sell her sweets at the Beaverton Night Market. “People would ask me would you come again?… I was in high demand and sold out at almost every single market.” She is able to maintain a certain quality of baked goods because “I cook with the intention that I would sell to people in Algeria where the expectations are high.”
While Barkat has brought her Algerian culture to Portland, these same cultural practices take her back to her childhood culture: “When I smell orange blossom water and rose water I travel back to Algeria.” In Barkat’s opinion, these ingredients are the secret to the taste of baked sweets. “In Constantine specifically, they make their own orange blossom water and rose water,” she said, remembering the fragrance. “There are very specific flowers, picked at a very specific time of year. Rosewater and orange blossom water are also good as skincare.”
Barkat has big plans for the future of her business. “My vision is to go into baking consulting. Many people are asking me to teach them how to bake,” she revealed. “I want to add more services to the business like e-books and consulting.” She is currently writing an e-cookbook for Mediteranean bread.
As a small business owner in Portland, Barkat has learned the importance of sharing her culture with her clients, especially when it comes to ingredients. “In Algeria, people go to the store, pick up their product and go home, but here people ask about the culture behind the sweets and the ingredients. I had to learn how to talk about my product,” she said.
“I think entrepreneurship comes from my dad and my mom,” Barkat went on. “I feel like I am the leader and the owner. It gives me a lot of flexibility to start projects and be creative on my own. I feel like being an entrepreneur gives me a lot of power as a person.”