Putting money where the mouth is – Lebanon’s boutique foods

Elite eateries and specialized farms are making a name around Beirut

Lebanon, with its limited, varied terrain and lack of cheap labor, will never be an ideal environment for mass-production. However, Lebanon is ideally positioned to “go boutique.” There are already boutique hotels and Lebanon is considered a boutique wine producer, so why not other boutique products? Why not, indeed. Local entrepreneurs are catching on, and are capitalizing on Lebanon’s strengths—its climate, its educated workforce, and its historic ties with Europe—and producing high-quality fine foods.

In the case of Le Ferme St. Jacques, a duck farm nestled alongside a monastery in the mountain village of Bechtoudar and the Arab world’s only producer of foie gras and gourmet duck products, the farm was developed in 2001 as a pilot project to help in the revival of the northern economy.

The entire operation at St. Jacques could be called a French import. The staff was trained in France, all of their equipment was purchased there, and every three weeks, Air France flies 2,000 1-day-old ducklings into Rafik Hariri International Airport for delivery to the farm.

“The ducks need to be kept at an altitude of 1000m,” explains Jihane Richa, sales and marketing manager at St. Jacques. “Lebanon is the only country in the Arab world with a suitable climate.” As the sole regional producer of fine duck products, demand is high from across the Arab world, with Dubai and other Gulf states making up the primary export market.

Expansion plans

The farm, limited by its small size, has not yet fully exploited its commercial potential, but there are plans to expand and open similar farms in other villages in the north. In the meantime, St. Jacques has successfully achieved impressive secondary objectives—a solid reputation for high quality, brand awareness, ever-increasing exports across the region, and demand far higher than what they can supply.

This last point will be especially true over December of this year. The war prevented St. Jacques from bringing in the extra ducks it had ordered to meet the holiday rush.

“Last year, we didn’t expect so much demand over Christmas, so this year, we were really prepared. But the ducks came late—they won’t be old enough in time,” notes Richa wistfully. “We’ll be able to deliver for Christmas, of course—but not the way we wanted to.” The offset in timing means St. Jacques will have a large production in January and February instead, but Richa is confident that demand will be high enough to absorb the surplus.

Despite the delayed arrival of new ducklings, overall, the farm’s remote location and niche market meant it suffered less than many other businesses during the war. “We only stopped production for four days when the war broke out. I left for Morocco, and all of a sudden I was getting phone calls from restaurants in Faraya wanting to place orders,” recalls Richa. “We closed again after the attacks on Jounieh, but only briefly, to be sure it wasn’t escalating. Throughout the war, we were delivering to customers.”

“We’re going ahead confidently,” Richa affirms. “At St. Jacques, we’ve already faced a major disaster this year with the avian flu scare—in the end, everything went great. Any company that knows where it’s going can get through these times.”

Locally smoked salmon a hit

The inspiration behind Salmontini, whose owners produce the only domestically-smoked salmon in Lebanon, came in a far more casual manner—co-owners Hussni Ajlani and Joe Bassili met at a dinner party, and over the course of the evening, Bassili came to tell Ajlani how he was smoking fish in the mountains using the traditional Scottish methods. Ajlani was intrigued, and asked, only half-joking, “So, when shall we start a House of Salmon together?”

From there, the idea took off. Salmontini—the House of Salmon—opened its doors downtown in November 2001 and became a multi-million-dollar business. However, after the tumultuous events of 2005, the changing character of downtown towards a younger, most tourist-heavy crowd and the dominance of Lebanese restaurants in the area, Salmontini moved to its current location in Ashrafieh. “We are a classical restaurant,” explains Ajlani. “We need a location where we are less affected by change. Downtown moves too fast. We need a place where the restaurant can stay and stay. We hope Salmontini will still be here in 40 years.”

According to Ajlani, the overwhelming majority of new customers are unaware that all of the salmon on their plates is prepared at Bassili’s smokehouse in Hayata—and they are proud when they learn this. Approximately three tons of salmon are imported fresh each week from Scotland (it is a point of pride for Salmontini that none of its seafood—and especially none of its salmon—is ever frozen), brought up to the mountains for smoking, then sent out to both the original Salmontini in Beirut and its second outlet in Dubai, which opened in the summer of 2006. In addition, products can be purchased directly from the Salmontini boutique, and several caterers and gourmet supermarkets stock their fish as well (though not under the Salmontini brand).

The Dubai opening was particularly fortuitous considering this summer’s events, providing income while the Beirut restaurant sat empty. Throughout the war and after, Salmontini was unable to import its fish to Lebanon, and forced to close its doors in the middle of what ought to have been its high season. Temporary arrangements were made to bring fish from Scotland to Dubai directly for the duration of the blockade.

“As soon as the airport opened, we started up again. But between the loss of income, salaries, and rent, the war cost us about $25,000,” says Bassili.

Future plans on track

However, Bassili insists that none of their future plans have changed. Salmontini has already hired realtors to scout for a location in London, the site of their next expansion tentatively scheduled for next year.

“We’re here to stay, and we’re ready to lose money if we have to. But things are picking up again. We already have parties booked for Christmas. Salmontini is a unique concept in the world, and people here appreciate that,” Bassili notes.

While the foods produced at St. Jacques and Salmontini are unquestionably gourmet, both outfits are keen to stress that their products are affordable, and not limited to super-wealthy consumers. The ‘elite’ status of these products is derived not so much from their price tags, as from the rigorous training and production standards maintained in their creation.

The potential success of such enterprises has already been proven in Lebanon, through its fine wines, sweets, and other high-end products exported across the globe. Although Lebanon’s varied climate makes mass-production challenging at best, conversely, it means that almost any specialized product can be cultivated in some part of the country—a unique claim in the Arab world.

When asked if he is optimistic about the future of Salmontini—and other similar ventures in Lebanon—Bassili responds with a resounding, “Yes!”

“I’m waiting for the stock of INERGA to run out—they’re too easy to fire.” Bassili laughs. “We have a very different sense of humor in this country, no? Honestly, I’m very optimistic. We have to shake off the dust. If you want to live in this country, you have to be able to deal with these situations and move forward.”

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