Cocktails with a sea view

Lebanon’s hospitality operators discuss their coastal outlets

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Dalia Farran, owner of Sour’s beach bar restaurant Cloud 59, observes that wherever there is a body of water—be it the small village well, a river, or the sea—people gather around it for social activities: “Water brings life to the area,” she muses. This is certainly true for Lebanon’s coast, which is dotted with almost all kinds of socially inclined outlets: One can spend the day soaking up the sun’s rays in a beach club (where you pay an entrance fee to enjoy facilities such as a pool, deck chairs, and service), or enjoy a six course fish lunch or dinner in one of the many upscale restaurants by the sea.

One type of establishment growing in popularity is the beach bar, which falls in between a beach club and a restaurant. Such venues, unlike restaurants by the sea, have beach access and provide facilities like beach beds, showers, and in some cases, a pool. But instead of charging an entry fee as beach clubs do, beach bars make their money from what guests spend on food and drink.

Beach bars are not new to Lebanon, but their number has increased significantly over the past five years, largely fueled by experienced hospitality operators turning their eye toward the coast for seasonal investments and identifying opportunities in previously untapped beachside areas.

The trendsetters

The concept of such beach bars was introduced to Lebanon by a few entrepreneurial minds who saw value in combining the perfect sunset view with the perfect cocktail, and eventually, motivated by their success, others did the same.

Batroun district’s Pierre & Friends, arguably Lebanon’s first beach bar, is the brainchild of Pierre Tanous, a man who loved the sea, windsurfing, and his friends almost equally, and who started the project in 1994 as part-kitesurfing school and part-beach bar for enjoying drinks with his friends, recounts his son Jad Tanous. The project gradually grew into a fully-fledged business, and in 2003 Pierre & Friends became “official,” meaning they hung up a sign and streamlined their operations. Tanous says each year has been busier than the previous one, as people hear about the venue via word-of-mouth and international publications that placed Pierre & Friends on the “to-do” list of tourism in Lebanon.

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

It was not long after Pierre & Friends became official that other beach bars started opening nearby, and today around six venues lie side by side on the narrow strip of pebbly shore in Tehoum, just before Batroun, with several similar outlets operating a little further north. “When people saw our success, more operators started opening similar concepts around us, and, as a result, hotels and bungalows started opening around us as well. All this benefited the area, as it brought more visitors to it,” explains Tanous.

Further north, Anfeh’s Tahet el-Rih public beach, along with its private chalets turned restaurants, picturesque blue and white motif reminiscent of Greek islands, and clean blue waters is emerging as a potential location for new hospitality operators to spread their wings. Simon Azar, manager of Chez Fouad, says his was the second family on the strip to transform their chalet into a beach restaurant—complete with a pool previously built when the property was a chalet—in 2016.

Azar says that right from the start they became known for their good food—they served local fish from Anfeh and used only fresh ingredients—and attracted a lot of clients, which forced them to grow their business faster than anticipated. “For two years we used the kitchen of the chalet and cooked in a very basic way—we barely had cutlery at the beginning,” he says, laughing. “The more we made money, the more we added to the restaurant and grew it. We had a lot of people visit in the first season, around 200 per day on the weekends and holidays, so it was a bit difficult, but we learned fast. Today I welcome around 550 people on a busy day and night combined. Azar adds that he has now transformed the entire chalet into a kitchen and has bought industrial cooking equipment. Azar is sure that it is only a matter of time until more outlets in Tahet El-Rih will be inspired by his success and capitalize on their assets.

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Beach bars have not found ground yet on the shores of south Lebanon, with the exception of Sour where Farran also started a trend with Cloud 59. Farran explains that she acquired her spot back in 2003, when the municipality had taken control of the catering tents on the public beach in an attempt to organize them (see article on public beaches). “For me, it began as a parallel income from my main job with the UN, especially since I love the sea and music. At the beginning, people from Beirut and the north were wary about visiting the south, since they felt it was too far and unknown to them, but today I have many customers from Beirut, Jbeil, Tripoli, and even Akkar who have become regulars,” she explains, saying that she welcomes no less than 500 people on a busy day with half as many coming on a weekend night. She credits her success to the casual atmosphere that has resonated well with her customers, as is evidenced by the many user-generated posts on social media—which Farran says has also helped to boost the number of visitors to Cloud 59.

A change of scenery

The beach bar trend started in a “mom-and-pop” way with small operations gradually growing larger and more professional. Once the potential of beach bars became clear, hospitality operators with several well established venues in Greater Beirut decided to dip their feet in the seasonal coastal business as a means of diversification. Elie Barhoush, owner of Tonic cocktail bar, which has locations in Jounieh, and now in Okaibeh, says, “We have a location in the mountains, and we launched a beach bar two years ago in White Beach Batroun. We thought of opening at the beach because we saw potential in such a project as we realized that Lebanese like to go to coastal outlets in the summer, whether during the day or night. The concept of having a beach bar and restaurant is a growing trend that was set by Pierre and Friends and developed with time, and so we thought we could benefit from it.”

This season, Barhoush moved Tonic from Batroun to Okaibeh, next to Safra, which he says is a better opportunity for them, since it is a larger space and allows them to have a wide shore, a restaurant,  a bar, and lounge area. Barhoush believes that other projects will follow in the area next year because of its proximity to Beirut compared to Batroun: “People coming from Dbayeh and Beirut will find it closer than driving the extra way to Batroun to get the same type of pebbly shore, clean sea water, and vibes that they get in Batroun.”  

The seasonal hospitality business first came to be seen as an essential market to tap into in 2012 as a result of the war in Syria and the subsequent slowdown of the Lebanese economy, explains Danny Khoury, managing partner of DAWA Entertainment, which owns and operates bar restaurants Dany’s, Main Street, and Wall Street. “Work in summer in Beirut slowed down because locals were either in the mountains or by the beach and there weren’t enough tourists in Lebanon to make up for their absence. So we went to the mountains as well. This is our third season in Broumana, and we were among the first five outlets there,” explains Khoury, adding that back then, they had also thought of opening a beach bar in the Batroun-Kfarabida area but were hesitant about the location.

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Khoury finally decided to open a Dany’s beach tent in Sour instead of in the north. “The crowd in Sour suits us because it is laid back like us, and this is why we chose it over Batroun. Another good reason why we chose Sour is the construction of the Jal el-Dib Bridge, which has created even more traffic than there was previously on that highway, so many people will prefer to head south to avoid that jam,” he explains, adding that demand for a concept like theirs has a key motivator. “There are many tents that serve alcohol there, but not in a cocktail bar and restaurant style. There is only Cloud 59 that fits this model, and when people don’t find a place in it, they end up going to other tents. So we can benefit from that market in addition to our loyal clients who know us from Beirut.” 

Seasons in the sun

Although the sun shines quite a lot in Lebanon, the season for beach bars is three months long at best. This means that such operations have to make their money in a short period of time. All of the beach bars mentioned operate day and night, although some owners, like Farran, say they are decidedly busier during the day. In an effort to keep people drinking for longer, both Dany’s and Tonic introduced sunset happy hour formulas to bars. Others, such as Cloud 59, place a minimum order charge ($10 on a weekend) to avoid the scenario of having people spend all day on a bottle of water. Azar requires all guests to order lunch when they come to Chez Fouad.

To Khoury, a short season means investment in the venue should be kept tight. “Summer escapes should not be big investments, even if you have the best location in a seasonal city. This is because the season is short, and so to a return a big investment of say $500,000, you would need at least eight years of good work. Eight years is a lot for a country like Lebanon, where the economic situation is weak,” he explains noting that his investment in Dany’s Sour was less than $30,000 since they made use of a mobile bar they owned and got support from their sponsors for the beach umbrellas and other items. “Otherwise, it would not have been possible to break even this year and make a little profit. We chose it that way because it is a new area for us, and we want to test it. If we break even and make money on the side, next year we will improve on it,” he says. Barhoush sees that although investment in some items like furniture can be kept low and still fit the rustic spirit of a beach bar, things like a good sound system and equipment should not be compromised.

Barhoush says a major expense in beach bars is annual maintenance as daily exposure to the salty sea air can be damaging to items like the point of sale or sound systems, so they have to be repaired almost every season. Tanous says he spends $10,000 to $15,000 per year on the maintenance of Chez Fouad, which includes repairing any damages caused by storms, as well as repainting, and setting up.

Farran sums up the struggles of seasonal outlets by saying, “Working on the beach is a challenge because of the heat and the seasonality, which means you have to find new staff almost every year. I think seasonal projects are a challenge everywhere. It’s like opening a new restaurant every year because you have to set up the place from scratch and hire new staff.”

A hazy summer sky

Another challenge faced by seasonal beach outlets as opposed to seasonal mountain outlets is that customers perceive beach bars as escapes to spend the day in, and therefore interact with them differently. “Weekdays on the beach are slower than weekends, since most people are at work. They are certainly slower than businesses in seasonal outlets in the mountains. For example, it’s a short drive to reach Brummana for an after work drink, while you would not head to Sour from Beirut for a similar outing; you would only visit at night if you were there since the morning, or if you are spending the night nearby,” explains Khoury.

Both Barhoush and Azar mention the fickle weather this year as a challenge, telling Executive in early June that the season had not yet picked up, despite being already well underway at the same time last year despite Ramadan also falling in June 2017.

Barhoush also mentions the rising number of beach bars and the competition among them as a challenge. “You have to give people good value and maintain standards to stay ahead of the game,” he says.

Despite the challenges, beach bars are breathing life into some areas along Lebanon’s coast, gathering people from all around the country for good times under sunny skies and offering alternatives for both residents of the area, and those who are staying overnight in coastal hotels and resorts.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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