On the corner facing Barbar’s large and always busy outlet on Hamra’s Piccadilly Street is Beit Halab, an unassuming, modestly sized venue which opened three months ago. Like Barbar, it has a variety of meats on display, ready to be grilled for sandwiches.
Unlike Barbar, which is almost always packed, there is only a trickle of customers around Beit Halab. Yet Musaab El Hadri, the Syrian owner of Beit Halab, believes that, given a year, his restaurant will be giving Barbar a serious run for its money.
Moving to Beirut
Before the war, El Hadri taught education at one of Aleppo’s universities and was a manager at one of the city’s well known restaurants, the biggest in Aleppo, according to him. With the onset of the war and the gradual worsening of the situation, El Hadri decided to move his family to Beirut and start his own restaurant here with some employees from the Aleppo team.
Explaining why he chose Beirut for his restaurant — as opposed to Cairo or Istanbul where many Syrians have chosen to establish their businesses due to the good services offered there — El Hadri says language was a barrier for Turkey and Egypt’s market was too big for his restaurant to be recognized.
A thorough market study
[pullquote]“The venue location had become associated with failure in people’s minds and I knew I had to put in a lot of work to change this perception”[/pullquote]
Upon arrival to Beirut, El Hadri embarked on a seven-month market study to understand the Lebanese hospitality market and the consumer mindset in the country. He did so in order to be able to identify the right concept and location for his investment.
Eventually, El Hadri decided that the Hamra district was the best location for Beit Halab, due to the large Syrian community there as well as the abundance of snack restaurants. He believed he would benefit from the economics of proximity. The study had also convinced El Hadri that the food concepts which work best in Hamra are those which offer a mix of both Eastern and Western platters and sandwiches.
The only location El Hadri could find in Hamra was one that had previously housed an Arabic sweets shop followed by a Syrian restaurant that closed down after only a few months of operation. “The venue location had become associated with failure in people’s minds and I knew I had to put in a lot of work to change this perception,” says El Hadri.
Competing with Barbar
[pullquote] The setting is reminiscent of typical Syrian interior design[/pullquote]
The other problem with the location was that it was directly facing Barbar. Since El Hadri planned to offer a very similar menu to Barbar’s, he decided to assess how he could compete in this challenging location. He focused on a thorough observation of all aspects of Barbar from the presentation of its delivery food items to the thickness of its grilled kafta fingers.
To differentiate itself from the competition, Beit Halab’s menu features a full Lebanese and international cuisine snack menu which even includes steaks, along with typical Aleppine dishes such as kebabs and shakerieh, or lamb and stuffed grape leaves in yoghurt. Beit Halab also offers a daily plat du jour of both Aleppine and international platters, another element which distinguishes it from Barbar.
In order to attract a wide client base, El Hadri opened a cafe on the second floor of his venue, complete with argileh — using a tobacco mix he himself designed to produce the best flavor — and a band with an oud player, creating a traditional and cozy Syrian ambiance. The setting is reminiscent of typical Syrian interior design, with mother-of-pearl inlays and heavy wood paneling.
Hard work ahead
[pullquote]”I don’t like generalizing but I have encountered many people here who simply don’t want to work”[/pullquote]
Ever since he arrived to Beirut, El Hadri has been working tirelessly to ensure the viability of his venue and now that his restaurant is in full operation, he feels the work is just beginning. “Working in the hospitality sector in general is difficult, as it requires that you sacrifice all of your personal time. You also have to stay on top of your game by constantly monitoring your competition in order to succeed. So imagine starting this kind of work in a new country,” says El Hadri.
Before his move, El Hadri had only been to Lebanon for tourism and had in mind mostly glamorous images of Beirut as a cosmopolitan city. After almost a year in the city, three months of which included restaurant operation, this image has changed. “Beirut is a lot smaller than I imagined and it is a lot harder to find qualified and hardworking people here,” says El Hadri.
Admitting his view could be colored by his slim list of contacts in Beirut — and that it may completely change in the coming months as he establishes himself — El Hadri shares stories such as the time when his new oven broke down and he was told by the repairman it would take three days to fix as the repairman refused to come to Hamra during peak traffic hours, or the time when the electrician simply looked at his generator before demanding he be paid $50 for going up the stairs. “I don’t like generalizing but I have encountered many people here who simply don’t want to work, whereas back in Aleppo they would be knocking each other down to make some money,” muses El Hadri.
Beit Halab’s clients
[pullquote]Lebanese pay more attention to the display and presentation of food items while the Syrians don’t usually notice such details[/pullquote]
Still, El Hadri remains optimistic and says that business is gradually expanding. Beit Halab has an average of 80 customers a day, excluding the home delivery service. Initially expecting to cater primarily to Syrians, El Hadri was pleasantly surprised by the Iraqi community, which makes up half of his clientele. “We have so many Iraqis coming in that I have started catering to them by including Iraqi specialties on the menu,” says El Hadri.
The Syrian community accounts for 30 percent of Beit Halab’s clients, while the remaining 20 percent is Lebanese. Though the percentage of Lebanese clients may seem quite low, El Hadri is happy with it and says it has gone up since the restaurant opened. He hopes to expand this client base even further as he believes that, since the restaurant is in Lebanon, having a high number of Lebanese clients will bring security.
El Hadri is still trying to fully understand the Lebanese clientele. Although they are quite similar to the Syrians in their tastes, he notes, they differ in that the Lebanese pay more attention to the display and presentation of food items while the Syrians don’t usually notice such details.
Asked what he would do when the situation in Syria stabilizes, El Hadri says he honestly doesn’t know. “If you ask me right now what I would do, I would tell you I’d pack my bags and go home. But who knows what will happen in the future? I might decide I love Lebanon and stay to continue running Beit Halab. I might even become more successful than Barbar!”