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Marketing nostalgia

Old Beirut still sells at some city restaurants

by Nabila Rahhal

On Sunday September 28, Bliss Street was transformed into a pedestrian only zone for the day as people celebrated Hamra’s golden days of the 1960s and 1970s in an event called “Flashback Beirut.” In 2012, the book “Pure Nostalgia” by Imad Khozem was published. It is described by the author as “Lebanon’s record of the 1960s–1970s” and features images from that period. Clearly, this more positive period of Beirut’s history, now considered “retro” or vintage, holds a strong fascination for many Lebanese.

[pullquote]“I wanted it to be an escape to the past because we Lebanese are losing something essential which is the identity of our country”[/pullquote]

Why nostalgia

This fascination with the past is mainly driven by nostalgia, an emotion that hospitality venues, both old and new, are increasingly counting on to reel in or retain clients.

In describing the motive behind compiling his book, which took three years to research, Khozem said, “I wanted it to be an escape to the past because we Lebanese are losing something essential which is the identity of our country.”

Relatively recently established outlets, such as Cinema Rivoli Bar on Uruguay Street in Downtown Beirut or Café Hamra, intentionally recreate a vintage Beirut feel, while much older venues, dating back to the 1930s in some cases, maintain a loyal client base.

Many of Beirut’s older hospitality venues have developed an almost cult following, fueled largely by nostalgia, as Omar Al-Ghazzi, a doctoral candidate in communications at the University of Pennsylvania, explains. “Beirut is a city that changes a lot and Beirutis are constantly looking to eat, shop or dance in new venues. This constant change, however, induces nostalgia to the few venues that manage to stay in business for a long time. Nostalgia offers us a sense of cultural continuity through an emotional bond to the old, but it also makes us feel better about painful memories. In Beirut, nostalgia toward the 1970s and 1980s enables people to imagine happier memories than those provided by the civil war,” says Al-Ghazzi. 

Executive spoke to a selection of popular hospitality venues in Ras Beirut which have been in operation for more than 35 years and found some common aspects among them. All of these venues are family operated with management passed down through generations. While this business model comes with many challenges — such as the potential for internal disputes as the family grows, mismanagement during certain phases or the risk of dying out if no one is left to take over — the majority of the outlets Executive spoke to seem to have surmounted these obstacles for now. 

Another common factor is that these places are a powerful reminder of happy memories. “I sometimes hear grandmothers tell their grandchildren that they have a picture taken next to the fountain by our entrance by their parents who used to bring them here to play,” says Mohamed Chatila, current manager of Cafe Rawda. The same sentiment is echoed by Fouad Sahyoun of Falafel Sahyoun who says many of his clients who he’s known since they were little now bring their own children to the falafel outlet and introduce him as “Ammo Fouad,” telling them how they used to visit him with their parents.

Save for maintenance renovations, the outlets Executive spoke to have largely retained their decor and theme, giving them a naturally authentic vintage appeal through the years. Speaking of the Sporting Beach Club, Waleed Abu-Nassar, the original owner’s son and the place’s current marketing executive and partner, says: “While we are renovating our restaurants, the basic feel of the beach club has remained unchanged since [its establishment] and that is because our guests like it that way, it is our identity.”

These older venues, according to the owners Executive spoke to, also attract Western tourists who do not have nostalgic memories in the place but enjoy experiencing vintage venues in new cities.

[pullquote]Many historic venues in Beirut have closed despite people’s strong attachment to them[/pullquote]

Older established venues, however, should not rely on nostalgia alone to attract customers. “Given that nostalgia sells, there is an unstated competition between restaurants that have actually been there for a long time and brand new businesses that capitalize on nostalgia through branding themselves as ‘old’ or ‘retro’. New venues can easily invoke feelings of nostalgia because nostalgic sentiments are not necessarily about experiences that a person has actually had. Many scholars have argued that nostalgia is often felt toward a home one never had or an experience one has not lived through. For example, many Lebanese in their twenties and thirties feel nostalgic about Beirut of the 1960s,” says Al-Ghazzi, explaining that older businesses have to be aware that the fact they are old does not mean they can passively bank on consumers’ nostalgic sentiments, as these can be successfully produced and marketed by brand new competitors.

Quality control or good management are also important for old venues. Indeed, many historic venues in Beirut have closed despite people’s strong attachment to them. The most recent of such venues is Marrouche, a Lebanese restaurant on Hamra’s Sidani Street, which opened in the 1920s and was famous for its chicken sandwiches. The restaurant’s closure stirred attention on social media channels as people shared their memories and experiences with the venue.

With all this in mind, Executive profiled a collection of beloved Beirut venues which have been in operation for more than 35 years and evoke strong feelings of nostalgia among the city’s residents. The aim was to discover more about their history and learn from them the secret of their success, nostalgia aside.

Stay tuned as we’ll publish these restaurants profiles in the coming days: Falafel Sahyoun, Cafe Rawda, Socrate, Sporting Beach Club and La Gondole Patisserie.

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Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail

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