It started as the $40,000 pet project of a young entrepreneur in 1995 and ended up a trend that today seems to have been with us forever. The Ramadan tent, originally an Egyptian invention, was stunningly simple in that it offered a venue for people to meet and socialize after breaking the fast. Today, such is their popularity that practically every major hotel has jumped on the bandwagon, raking in as much as $550,000 for the month.
“I came to Lebanon in 1992 after living in Egypt and realized there was nothing to do in the evening for SOHOOR during Ramadan – there was only Barbar,” said Wassim Tabbara, who started the first Ramadan tent eight years ago at the age of 26.
While successfully participating in the organization of an Egyptian week in Lebanon with the Lebanese-Egyptian Association, of which he was a member, Tabbara had the idea of bringing an Egyptian-themed tent to Beirut. Patching together several boy scout tents provided by the Makassid Foundation, and spending about $20,000 on accessories from Egypt – including tablecloths, Egyptian NARGILEHS and an old Egyptian FURN – Tabbara set up shop in a family-owned plot of land by the LAU. With seating for 130 people, the tent was an instant success and packed to capacity every night. The menu offered the traditional SAHOOR fair, including MANAKESH and SAHLAB, and entertainment consisted of NARGILEHS, a TV set and music playing from a cassette deck. There was no cover charge and the average customer spent about $8 to $10. “I had a lot of costs, so I did not make huge profits,” admitted Tabbara, “it was my first experience in the food business.”
It was an experiment, however, that proved successful despite the paltry returns. “Everyone called for reservations, but I did not take any to be fair. So, by 7pm, people would send their drivers to wait in line till we opened at 8pm to reserve tables,” said Tabbara. “When we would tell people they couldn’t come in because we ran out of chairs, they would go home, bring a chair and come back. It was really funny.”
With such popularity, Tabbara had discovered an untapped market, but by the next year, in true Lebanese fashion, others wanted a piece of the action. The Coral Beach and the Escape club both opened tents in 1996. Both provided serious competition to Tabbara’s second tent, which by now had moved to the newly renovated BCD. The second tent saw profits increase fivefold, but by 1997, a sponsorship dispute and government red tape forced Tabbara to abandon his project. By now, Khaymat al Hanna had opened its doors and Tabbara’s previous alliance with Future TV was abruptly severed to solely advertise Bcharra Namour’s venture. After nine days of tough negotiating, Future reinstated its agreement with Tabbara, but as it was nearly two weeks into the month, and much of the financial momentum was already lost. “I was shocked [by Future’s actions],” said Tabbara. “And then the ministry of tourism said they would not give me a permit to open a tent [the next year] because all the hotels complained about the competition. In the end, I just gave up.”
Although Tabbara is no longer in the business for now –
“maybe I’ll come back with a KHAYMI next year” – he certainly paved the way for Ramadan tents today. There is no clearer legacy to his innovation than the splendid tents operated by Lebanon’s finest hotels.
“There is a good market for Ramadan tents, but unfortunately in Beirut, there is no high quality in terms of décor, entertainment and food. That’s why we focus on those parts,” said Simon Saade, food and beverage manager at the InterContinental Phoenicia. “We wanted to have a tent for the people to enjoy the luxury and ambiance of Ramadan.” Part of that luxurious ambiance includes extravagant decorations á la 1001 Nights, which one insider estimated at costing $200,000. Still, with a seating capacity of 640, a relatively full house every night of the month, and the average customer doling out $28 a night on a set menu (not including a NARGILEH), the expense seems worth it. Just across the street, however, is the more rustic Fishawi tent, run by the St. Georges Yacht Motor Club, which does not have a set menu. According to Michel Farhat, the operations manager at the St. Georges, the average client spent about $20 a night at the Egyptian-themed tent, which included a LL10,000 cover charge for the live entertainment.
“The Fishawi tent offered people something simple, an affordable way of capturing the idea of Ramadan,” Farhat explained. “The Phoenicia tent was more upscale.”
Operation costs for running a Ramadan tent vary according to type. At the Phoenicia, for example, about 80% of the tent staff consisted of fulltime employees in the food and beverage department at the hotel, which kept overhead down. “We used our own people to construct everything [in the tent] and we saved money by using our own people. It has proven a successful business experience,” said Saade. For establishments that do not have a hotel’s business to rely on, they are faced with a different situation. For the St. Georges, the Fishawi tent was an effective way of keeping its summertime staff (from it’s beach club) employed during the winter, which would otherwise be a dead season. Farhat estimated overhead costs at $50,000 to $60,000, with $30,000 spent on advertising and live entertainment. At the end of Ramadan, Farhat estimated the revenues of Fishawi at $133,000.
Although hotel and resort ventures have proven successful –Saade admitted that the Phoenicia tent has been packed since it’s opening in 2001 and Farhat said that 2003 profits from Fishawi increased by 10% from 2002 – independents like Tabbara were not so lucky. “I spent $300,000 on my third tent,” said Tabbara, “and I lost 33% of my profits [because of the Future TV deal fallout].” For the first nine days of the holy month, out of the 1,500 seats available, only about 200 to 300 were filled each night – which was catastrophic considering the $80,000 monthly rental fee of the BCD lot. Tabbara also faced backlash from religious clerics, who associated him with tents that featured dancing, although he did not permit such activity at his establishment. “I was very strict about dancing because I knew people would talk about it. But the Mufti sent a representative to talk to me because they [the clergy] did not know any other tent owners.”
Respecting religious customs is very important to most established tents. Almost none serve alcohol or feature racy entertainers like belly dancers. “This is something we can’t joke about; we respect tradition,” said Farhat. It is a notion firmly upheld by the Phoenicia, said Saade. “We respect this month and keep it in high value.”
As for the man who started it all, what is his opinion about the Ramadan tents of today? “I liked the Phoenicia tent; it was very nice,” said Tabbara. “But the problem with tents today is the loud music – you can’t talk to anybody. It would be better if they just lowered the volume.”