Zomato’s journey in Lebanon

Overcoming challenges

When Deepinder Goyal and Pankaj Chaddah were just food-enthusiasts collecting delivery menus in Mumbai to post online, it is safe to say they did not expect their idea to grow into Zomato, the F&B behemoth we know today.

Ten years and 24 countries later, Zomato’s decisions remain guided by one simple mission: to provide better food for more people.

When Zomato launched in Beirut in 2014, it was just a discovery platform where people could make more informed decisions on where to eat. As the Beirut team later went on to give our 750,000 users (across the web and app) the ability to order online, book a table, and reap the benefits of our Gold memberships.

Even though today it has become virtually impossible to navigate Beirut’s incredibly rich and cosmopolitan food scene without the app in hand, our journey here has not been without hurdles.

Search and discover

Dining out involves an increasingly complex decision-making process. With so many questions to ponder—who to go with, how much to spend, and what type of cuisine to eat—we want to give our users all the information they could ever need to make the right choice.

This, of course, means that all our data has to be constantly updated to accurately reflect any change at the restaurant, be it as minor as a menu change, or as major as the restaurant relocating. In Lebanon, this is further complicated by the seasonal nature of certain areas when it comes to their F&B outlets, meaning we need to regularly track their operational status. The variability of restaurants aside, the use of our platform is inevitably dictated by the economic state of the country—specifically, people’s purchasing power.

Looking at our simple “cost for two” metric confirms that over the past two years, our users have been browsing for less expensive restaurants, and this trend does not look likely to slow down anytime soon.

To delivery and beyond

In the same spirit of taking the guesswork out of the equation, our online ordering service is now smoother than ever. Several algorithms are constantly hard at work to make sure that everything our users see is uniquely relevant to them. So if they are health-nuts on weekdays, and pizzaholics on weekends, the list of restaurants Zomato displays for them will reflect that very behavior. Not only that, it will introduce them to other great options to make sure they see the breadth of the choices available.

When it comes to paying for the order, however, the Lebanese market still suffers from an overwhelming lack of trust in online transactions and foreign payment gateways, as is clearly indicated by the difference in card payments between here and Dubai.

And even though our half-a-million app downloads indicate some degree of tech savviness in the market, many users simply do not trust that an app can automate their order, and that restaurant staff will receive it as intended.

The challenge does not end with user resistance, it is also inextricably linked to the city-planning—or lack thereof—in Lebanon. Users must input their address before placing the order, and in Lebanon, addresses tend to be—for lack of a better word—subjective. Due to the lack of consensus on street names and building numbers, deliveries will likely arrive late, or require an additional phone call to determine the exact location, resulting in an unpleasant user experience.

Navigating reviews

In an age where influencer marketing is at its peak, and where customers review everything from the jeans they shop for on AliExpress to hotel stays, it is only logical that at the core of Zomato is the customers. And customers will undoubtedly be vocal about their experiences—some more than others.

One of our main challenges has been getting restaurant owners in the mindset of seeing negative reviews as opportunities for growth, rather than as attacks on their businesses.

Our customers like to know the facts upfront, before visiting or ordering from a restaurant. Unfortunately, restaurant owners tend to underestimate the importance of having an up-to-date page on Zomato, and how critical that is for the user experience. So not only do we give owners and managers a unique log-in to have control over their page, but we also provide a nifty free app (Zomato for Business) that they can use to make changes on the go.

A further challenge is that when it comes to the laws related to running a restaurant, the government in Lebanon tends to be somewhat laissez-faire about standardizing and enforcing them. This means that certain establishments may be hesitant to be listed on our platform, let alone get on board with online ordering, since that would require them to submit a set of government-issued documents.

What’s next?

When we hit our 10-year milestone, we said to ourselves that we had only just begun. We are proud to say we still operate as a startup, in the sense that there is always an opportunity to grow with, and learn from, our partners.

This year has been an incredible ride for us. In 2018, we introduced some exciting new features: We now give restaurant owners the ability to tell their brand story directly on Zomato through Sneakpeeks, as well as allowing them to display their hygiene rating—issued by a restaurant hygiene inspection firm.

In 2019, we hope to bring Hyperpure, our new sourcing business, to Beirut, where we would effectively become the supply platform from which merchants can buy organic, fresh produce, as well as eco-friendly packaging. This way, we can keep on guaranteeing better food for more people.

Bechara Haddad is the country manager for Zomato in Lebanon.

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