New flavors

The F&B industry sees plenty of room for development in 2015

2015 means new challenges and trends in Lebanon's F&B sector (Greg Demarque | Executive)

New Year, new trends: when it comes to the Lebanese food and beverage (F&B) industry, 2015 brings with it its share of new places and latest fads. The trends of 2014 have been put to the test, some have died, others have remained, but all have been affected by the economic situation and judged by both industry professionals and customers.

In 2015, the F&B community will have to face difficult challenges. The first and most embarrassing being the massive food scandal that has hit the country. The Ministry of Health has unveiled the wide noncompliance to food security norms among many F&B and retail food outlets across the country. This has affected the whole industry, forcing operators to review their hygiene standards. The appointment of Tony Ramy (partner in Al-Sultan Brahim, Al Diwan, Al-Falamanki and B018) as the new head of the Lebanese Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafés, Night Clubs and Pastries may also bring new and stricter resolutions to regulate the sector. New laws on food safety, licenses and authorizations should be adopted in the coming months. The syndicate promises more involvement by demonstrating transparency, supporting investments in the sector and helping to provide professional staff training. It is definitely gearing up for a difficult and challenging year.

Other recurring issues weigh heavy on the industry, principally the economic crisis that has hit the country since 2012. The influx of Syrian refugees has brought in a large, cheap workforce, dragging down wages to the point where F&B employees face a daily struggle to make ends meet. Expensive rental fees, although they seem to have stabilized, are also a concern for owners, as well as electricity and water supplies. Many F&B outlets have been forced to close down, unable to face these high fixed costs. Some have tried to curb the problem by raising their prices, which has not always proved successful as customers have also been hit by the crisis. Many restaurants, and not those with the highest standards, now inflate prices to make profits. Exogenous challenges need to be tackled as well, road traffic is getting worse and valets struggle to find parking for customers’ cars, deterring many people from going out.

Healthy eating

2015 is likely to be a bold and difficult year for the industry, which will have to fight back both on the plate and outside. The Lebanese customer, although a food lover at heart, will expect reassuring signs. Despite 2014’s negative end of year for the F&B sector, the industry is known for its dynamism and resilience, and will overcome those challenges with new trends.

In light of the recent food safety scandal that has rocked the country, customers are reconsidering their eating habits — encouraging new health oriented concepts to flourish in Lebanon.

First, focus on the ingredients. The ‘farm to fork’ trend brings fresh ingredients straight to your plate. Restaurants buy directly from producers, offering an additional advantage: eat well while helping small farmers survive. These supplies are seasonal, forcing chefs to challenge themselves and be inventive with their menus. The trend has even been embraced by large chains abroad, such as the Mexican themed fast food restaurant Chipotle. As it has gained popularity, customers have begun to pay more attention to the quality of their meals.

Second, focus on the way you eat. Along with the new ‘back to the roots’ style of restaurant, people are more sensitive to nutrition. Professional dietician Sawsan Wazzan Jabri (owner of the Diet Center) and her partner Dina Nasser Harakeh have opened Well B in Verdun, a restaurant with a healthy menu offering nutritional advice. Kitchen Confidential in Ashrafieh is also attracting a growing number of customers concerned with their health.

Third, eat fresh items instead of junk food. The ‘fresh casual’ trend shows how lower end F&B outlets and chains can embrace freshness. It is also known as ‘healthy fast casual’. You can usually spot these concepts thanks to sign post healthy selections on their menus, like kale or grains. This trend has been a big hit among vegetarians and vegans. Even junk food giants have understood the importance of the trend: McDonald’s, for example, has been introducing meals using the Weight Watchers system.

Fourth, drink fresh juices as part of your daily diet. Juice bars — or ‘juiceterias’ — are enjoying much success. They serve fruit and vegetable juices, as well as smoothies and fruit salads, while some also offer sandwiches and salads. Newcomers such as Juice Up in Sodeco have arrived and we expect others to open in the coming months.

In 2014, café-bars were on a roll, embracing both daytime and nighttime customers. Extended service hours have enabled them to attract a varied client base, from early birds grabbing a coffee before work, to students and families going for dinner. They serve simple food in the day and in the evenings turn into lively bars, some with terraces, some with DJs. Beirut’s pioneer of this concept was Torino Express in Gemmayzeh, which has become a local institution over the years. It was followed by many other bars in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, including Internazionale, which is owned by the same person. More recently the trend has extended to Badaro, where several café-bars have opened in the recent months, such as Kissproof, Roy’s, 27, L’Avocat and Le Café de Pénélope.

New trends

Food halls are in vogue regionally. It is an emerging trend and it won’t be long before their popularity reaches Beirut. Their hybrid concept combines retail, F&B and production. Under the same roof people can eat, shop and chill in bars and snack houses. London’s Harrods and La Grande Epicerie in Paris are the main international references, both targeting high end customers. The trend has also reached the United States with New York’s flagship Eataly. Now Istanbul, Tokyo and Dubai among others have their own food halls. They are mostly populated by upmarket food professionals, artisans and chefs, mixing take away menus with refined recipes. Beirut is still waiting for its own version.

And then there are the trends that last. The US-inspired concept of food trucks is still going strong after a few years driving the streets. They serve sandwiches, pizzas, hot dogs or ice cream, and are even used for retail or PR events. Food trucks were introduced in Lebanon in 2012 and have enjoyed growing popularity. A crêpe truck is now an established feature in Mar Mikhael. Rocket sells sandwiches from its truck and Classic Burger Joint now has a mobile kitchen as well. Even the beer brand 961 has started traveling around for special events.

Socialites and ‘aperitif’ aficionados will also find their groove in 2015, with the tapas trend still attracting people. Many investors expect to increase their margin on food sales with the concept and attract younger crowds. To secure their investment, they have had to widen their reach to offer other cuisines. Outlets offering tapas range from mid to high end. Casual chains such as T.G.I Fridays, The Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen have jumped on the bandwagon, integrating ‘small plate’ menus into their offerings, as well as more sophisticated restaurants like La Petite Maison in Ain el-Mreisseh. Divvy, a newcomer in Mar Mikhael, is a concept that only offers sharable meals from appetizers to platters to desserts. As its name suggests, expect to share all.

As always, ethnic food has found its way into the trend chart. This year Peruvian food will arrive in the region. Coya, a brand expected to open soon in Dubai, has proved to be a huge success in London. Peruvian cuisine, with its ceviche and tapas, is forging a path into several of the capital’s menus. The coming months will show if Peruvian food, a hit this year on the international scene, will appeal to the Lebanese palate.

Mixology!

And last but not least, the ‘mixology’ trend is hitting the country. This mysterious concept has been raised to the rank of an art form: experienced bartenders improvise cocktails, putting a twist on original recipes. Like a sketch artist or a DJ, mixologists create their works in front of the customer’s eyes. Central Station in Mar Mikhael uses herbs, vegetables and even cheese. Kissproof in Badaro adapts each drink to the client’s taste.

Trends involve concepts, but also areas. The Badaro neighborhood will definitely be the hit place in 2015. It showed how promising it was in 2014, and it is now flooded by F&B investors, who favor the area’s reasonable rents and its large sidewalks. L’Orient-Express, The Attic and L’Avocat are the new names to remember.

This year’s outsider, figuratively and geographically, is Beirut’s suburb Hazmieh — Mar Takla. The area, which is a booming residential hub, also saw the opening of Spinneys and the Beirut City Centre, a mall with 33 restaurants, raising the area to a prime leisure and retail destination. A new cluster of cafés, restaurants and bars is planned by Venture Holding, the group behind the concept of Uruguay Street. The area has potential, as it is ideally located halfway between Beirut and its populous suburbs and has yet to be developed. Another zone to watch is Antelias. Until recently, it was only populated by shisha cafés, but now four new F&B clusters are bringing a large number of popular brands. Major industry players are betting their cards on the area. Dbayeh has also been the focus of attention for a while, with ABC mall’s facelift two years ago, the opening of Le Mall, a shopping complex with 20 F&B outlets, and the clusters Blueberry Square and Junction 5, which are attracting enthusiastic customers.

Nagi Morkos is the cofounder and Managing Partner at Hodema consulting services

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