It started out as a fun opportunity but became a real business,” says Mazen Maroun of Lotus Management Group, the hospitality development company which he and his brother Samer founded in 2003 with the launch of a sushi delivery service from La Gondole, their family owned pastry shop in Mar Elias.
Ten years later, it has indeed become a solid business with 300 employees and two successful restaurant chains, Japanese restaurant Soto and Olio pizzeria, with six branches of each spread across Lebanon. Toward the end of 2013 — despite the instability in the country — the brothers launched a new restaurant, Prune, in one of the side streets of Mar Mkhayel, Beirut, which they perceive as a new challenge for their skills in the business.
Their operations began with the concept of high quality, fresh, yet affordable sushi. “At that time, there were only a few and very expensive sushi venues in Lebanon and so we wanted to make it more accessible for everyone,” says Samer Maroun. For eight months, they tested the market through a delivery service launched from La Gondole. Mazen recalls how much attention they paid to the details — clean and neat packaging was as vital as having fresh and safe sushi at an affordable price — all of which created a trustworthy image for Soto — whose average delivery bill is now approximately $32 — when they opened their first venue in Gemmayze at the end of 2003. Two years later, they launched the first Olio right next door, and the company has been expanding and adding branches at an average pace of two venues every two years ever since.
The concept of good quality food at affordable rates resonated with the Lebanese consumer who cannot always afford high-end dining yet appreciates a good meal. It is also a concept that allowed the brothers to keep expanding — reinvesting revenues generated from the preceding venues into their next projects — with no partners to their company save for their venues in Dbayeh and Kaslik.
Although home delivery remains a viable aspect of their operations — accounting for 30 percent of orders — the business has shifted toward the onsite service, with Soto witnessing a yearly footfall of 220,000 and Olio 290,000. At its best performance, Soto serves more than 2.5 tons of fresh fish per month and Olio serves 1.4 tons of mozzarella, both indicators the company uses to illustrate its success.
Lotus Management Group had one misguided venture into Chinese cuisine in 2006, opening a Chinese restaurant in Gemmayze one day before the outbreak of the July 2006 war. The restaurant remained in operation for a year but was later sacrificed to maintain Soto and Olio, according to Samer. “For Chinese food to be [viable], as all our venues are, the average bill has to be between $40 and $50 and the Lebanese are not used to paying this much for Chinese,” rationalizes Mazen.
But despite their successes, the company was not immune to the same challenges faced across the economy in 2013 — making it the worst year in its 10 years of operation, according to Mazen, with a 65 percent drop in sales compared to 2012.
Even though the year started out well — and even outperformed 2012 in the first four months — it ended badly, with only the Gemmayze venues reporting a growth from the previous year. “Economically the year was a disaster but we are not thinking of closing anything: we were living abroad but came back because we believe in the country. Having said that, if [the situation] stays like this for four, five years down the line then who knows? We are still developing and expanding, but cautiously, instead of opening aggressively and creating even more business opportunities,” says Mazen.
Expansion is still on the group’s mind, both domestically and globally. In line with the recent trend in the Lebanese hospitality business, Lotus Management Group is looking to franchise Olio and Soto abroad but is determined to find the right partner with which to do so. “There is a lot of interest but it is not as easy as it sounds because we are not looking just for the money. It is very easy to get capital but the right partner with the right background in the business and good PR is hard to find,” says Mazen. The brothers don’t have a specific region in mind and say they will go with whichever country provides them with the right opportunity.
Domestically, the Marouns have developed a new $300,000 investment in French bistro Prune, born out of Samer’s love for French cuisine and their need for a fresh challenge. While Soto and Olio have a recognizable ‘chain-restaurant’ feel, Prune is meant to be cozier and is where the brothers say they find themselves.
“Olio and Soto are more for the public than for us and there is very little contact with the customer on our part. Prune is us and every detail, from the plate to the kitchen to the customer, is taken care of by us,” says Mazen.
One can immediately sense the warm urban spirit that differentiates Prune from Soto and Olio from the French chic décor — including the mechanic’s rack transformed into a wine display that greets you at the entrance, the sepia class photographs adorning the walls and the black bistro-like wooden chairs and leather couches — and the fact that one of the two brothers is always present to greet patrons as if they were old friends and to ensure they have a pleasant experience.
According to Mazen, the customer profile for Prune is “those who are between the ages of 25 and 65 and are well-travelled, cosmopolitan and appreciate a real and affordable bistro.” Though this describes the typical clientele in the area, Mazen believes they are lucky to be away from the bars on the main street. “It is a plus to be off Mar Mkhayel because usually in Lebanon, streets that blossom quickly attract those looking for easy money and they ruin it for the more established,” elaborates Mazen.
The menu, which includes French staples such as mussels, cassouleh and steaks, is signature Lotus Management Group in that it serves quality food at competitive prices, with the average bill at $50 per person including wine, reasonable relative to prices for French cuisine in the market.
A family affair
The venue has a seating capacity of 45 people and with a turnover of 2.5 tables per shift, the Marouns say they are satisfied with Prune’s performance taking in consideration the situation in the country.
When asked whether Prune will be up for local expansion or franchising, the brothers agreed that they don’t see that happening in the upcoming four years. “It’s not only the décor, it’s the spirit that will be hard to duplicate. Prune is here and only here for now,” says Samer.
Lotus Management Group is not resting on its laurels and is already finishing up construction of a gourmet sandwich shop with a small terrace appropriately called À Côté, as it is adjacent to Prune.
Meanwhile, due to a sentimental value, La Gondole — where it all started with their sushi home delivery operation — remains a base for their businesses and is where their main office and all the accounting, management and purchasing needs of the business are located. “We did not give it a push because my mom and dad consider it their raison d’etre; if we give it new management they will not have a role and we do not want that. We could have developed it to meet the area’s needs but we are enjoying our parents’ pleasure managing it,” says Mazen.