In the olden days, Uruguay Street, behind what today is the Samir Kassir Square, was better known as the Souk El Kmash, or the “Clothes Market”, and was famous for high-end tailors and shops full of trendy attire. Today, and a year into its revival, it is becoming known for its bars and restaurants and is considered by many to be one of the most popular nightlife streets in Beirut.
Just before sunset, the tables on bar terraces start filling up. By 10 p.m. the street is in full swing, with music filling the night and fashionable people parading up and down the walkway. A year after its conception the street already has a loyal fan base.
“I love coming here because the age group is perfect: I don’t see any teens around, and I also don’t see people who are my parents’ age,” says Sumaya Khoury, a Uruguay Street frequenter. Another fan speaks of the diversity in the street saying: “Each place has its own character, from Spanish tapas to American cuisine and from Irish beer to Uruguayan signature drinks, so I can pick and choose whatever suits my mood that night.”
Detractors speak of it being not for their age group, and also of it feeling a bit false — a common contention among the dissenters of Beirut’s rebuilt downtown area.
Solidere and Venture DT
Uruguay Street is basically a development project, the first time in Lebanon this concept is applied to bars, and since it is still relatively new, the street still has a lot of room to grow.
It all began with Solidere’s vision to “create a dedicated area for bar hopping away from the residential areas in Downtown,” says George Nour, assistant general manager for Business Operations and Relations with Public Authorities in Solidere. To this end, they found Uruguay Street, and more specifically the municipality building that Solidere co-owns with the Municipality of Beirut, to be the ideal location.
To actualize their plans, recounts Nour, Solidere first approached established bar managers independently, but many were hesitant to risk being first on the street. Solidere then turned to Venture DT, a development and consulting company owned by Rabih Saba and Marwan Ayoub.
“When we signed with Venture DT, we got a company with the right contacts and momentum to attract the bar managers who would be in line with our vision of the street,” says Nour. As a “one shot deal” for a period of six years, Solidere leased its share of 10 ground-floor outlets in the municipality building to Venture DT, who in turn sublet them to the current bar owners. The remaining three venues in the building are owned by the Beirut municipality, and are currently vacant with no apparent plans to develop them.
Venture DT, according to Ayoub, followed two rent formulas with their tenants: either a fixed annual fee of approximately $1,000 per square meter (sqm) per year, or a percentage on sales in the venues where they are partners or have shares, such as Cassis, Julep’s and Tinto. With areas varying between 26 and 120 sqm, average rent is between $26,000 to $120,000 annually.
Ayoub says Venture DT approached the street as they would any development project: “We had a master plan to create a European style bar street which would be coherent with its community.” By European, Ayoub means pedestrian-only streets one sees in Barcelona or St. Torino with outdoor bars open all day. “To implement our plan, we handpicked the tenants according to their past successes and to the type of cuisine or concept they had to offer, as we were going for complementary venues to create a coherent whole,” he says.
Ayoub and Saba did not have to twist any arms to sublet their venues, as the benefits of having a bar in such a location are many. “I could see the potential in the street straight away,” says Toni Rizk, owner of TRI, which owns Uruguay Cocktail Bar and Collins, among other locales in Beirut. “Its easily accessible location in the heart of the city and proximity to all areas was a tempting aspect for me. Another attractive feature of the street is since it is a business district, it does not have the problems caused by disturbances to residents in terms of music or traffic flow,” continues Rizk. He adds that based on the success and the positive experience of his first venture in Uruguay Street, Uruguay Cocktail Bar, he decided to open Collins Urban Bar, the last vacant venue owned by Solidere that opened its doors at the beginning of the summer. Karim Jaber, general manager of Add Mind, which owns Cassis on Uruguay Street, adds that an advantage of the street is that it is pedestrian, meaning less traffic flow problems, and an added entertainment value for customers. Rabih Mockbel, owner of Bronx Restaurant and Bar, says he believes that the urban business feel of the street makes it ideal for people to come enjoy after-work drinks.
Return on investment
Ayoub estimates pub owners invested between $250,000 to $500,000 in their bars and make between $1,000 to $4,000 per night, depending on the number of seats and whether it’s a weekend or not. Pub owners Executive spoke to expect to make back their investment in one to three years, depending on the political situation and whether the place is a restaurant or a bar, with bars having a faster return on investment.
Operating within a planned project, and under the many rules and procedures of Solidere, is new to bar owners on the street who are more used to the idea of “each man for himself.” Nour sees the rules and procedures as necessary to establish fair play among the bars and not have one venue overpower another in terms of music or eccentric décor. Bar owners interviewed mainly appreciate aspects of Solidere’s presence, such as security guards and the added market value Solidere’s name brings to some clients. However, they complain about the rules sometimes being so rigid they end up hindering their work or incurring unnecessary extra expenses.
“Add Mind already has experience with Solidere through Iris,” says Jaber. According to him, “Solidere puts down rules and makes you spend a lot when you know you could do it in a different or cheaper way, and then they might change their mind, which is frustrating and costly.” However, Jaber believes that it is Solidere’s planning which will stop the street from growing chaotically, as what happened with other bar streets such as Makdessi Street in Hamra or Gemmayze in Ashrafieh.
The street’s future is still in the process of being built. According to Nour, Solidere does not own any other outlets on the street but is still involved in the development of the street as it is part of Downtown. “We have had a success story so far with Uruguay Street and believe this is encouraging other bar and restaurant operators to rent the remaining vacant outlets in the street,” says Nour. “We are also encouraging retail shops that cater to young adults to consider the street as well.” Bronx’s Mockbel, for example, is already looking down the street and opening an oriental restaurant called Bhar, which will mainly cater to businesses on the street.
Pub owners generally seem optimistic about the future of Uruguay Street. Jaber says the street is not a trend like others. Rizk sums it up by saying, “Bar streets in Lebanon generally have six-year life spans before things start to go downhill either because the residents complain or because it becomes overcrowded, such as Monot and Gemmayze.” He adds that, “Uruguay Street has avoided those circumstances, but still, keeping good relationships with the surrounding community and maintaining the momentum we have achieved in the street is key to its continuing success.”