Chadi Chidiac, managing partner of Protocol, a hospitality and management consultancy, gives an overview of Lebanon’s restaurant sector over the last decade and reveals the outlook for 2018.
The restaurant market is extremely dynamic and − hitting 20 percentage points − makes a significant contribution to Lebanon’s GDP. The sector’s strength doesn’t just impact numbers but also boosts the nation’s image and creates a positive reputation due to the legacy of both Lebanese hospitality and the sector’s business acumen and knowhow.
The Lebanese market is characterized by trends, one aspects being macro, the other micro-business. On the macro level, the last decade witnessed a wave of trends that began with rooftop clubs, starting with Bubbles and quickly followed by an array of concepts like White, Skybar, Capitole, and Beiruf, and so on. Then a craze of restaurant and pub clusters followed, which begin life on Monot Street before spreading to Gemmayzeh and then Byblos. Mar Mikael has since become a restaurant and bar hub and is, in some ways, an extension of Gemmayzeh, A couple of years ago, a new business model appeared and restaurant and pub communities, or clusters, were born, with The Village, The Backyard and, finally, the recently opened St. Nicolas in Achrafieh, an elaborate concept mixing real estate with food and beverage (F&B) activities.
On the micro-level, the Lebanese (F&B) scene has evolved throughout the years and has tapped every single concept and type of cuisine, such as French cafés and restaurants like Café de Paris (back in the good old days) and l’entrcote de Paris, and so on. Italian restaurants have also played an important role, such as heavy weight player Cuccina in Downtown and other names like the Pasta Comedia, both of which have since closed their doors. Lebanese, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican food concepts have always been part of the F&B scene. Apart from ethnic food and some specialized cuisine, the Lebanese market has been a successful testing ground for very successful F&B brands and franchises that have shown outstanding and proven competencies and systems (operational structures, marketing practices, HR and administrative tactics), allowing such brands as Crepaway, Roadster, Zaatar w Zeit and Leila, among others, to create a regional and, at times, global footprint.
In terms of trends, a study undertaken by Protocol on the prospects of Lebanon’s restaurant sector from 2018 onward has revealed that street food is coming back again, with single or limited menu item(s) offered through carts, trucks or parlors. Scaremongering anti-meat campaigns have begun to gain ground, thus creating a market for other concepts to appear, such as organic and vegan eateries, which have lots of potential.
In terms of investment activities, significant private investments are currently under process with lots of courageous financing and lots of global brands and international hotel companies reinvesting in Lebanon. The hospitality industry is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, private employment sector in Lebanon. The restaurant sector alone recruits more than 80,000 people, of which 95 percent are Lebanese, at an average of 18 employees per entity. Seventy percent of them are aged below 50.
The future of the restaurant sector looks promising. The expansion of Lebanese cuisine is underway. The number of Lebanese F&B entities exceeds 10,000 in more than 150 countries worldwide. From the GCC to the MENA, Eastern Europe, Northern, Central and Latin America, Africa, Australia and Japan, the Lebanese restaurant business has no limits. This geographic expansion is due to the winning, strategic expansion plans such as full ownerships, affiliations, management agreements, and the joint ventures and franchise deals of over 100 brands, thus providing a valuable insight into the Lebanese restaurant sector.