Picture this: You walk into a restaurant, serve yourself a generous helping of each of the items on the buffet, have a waiter pour you unlimited cups of water and then get up to have another helping from the buffet. Before leaving, instead of requesting the bill, you pay what you judge to be a reasonable amount for the experience you just had. You are free to pay as little as a dollar or as much as a hundred bucks or more.
Mótto, a new restaurant in Mar Mikhael and a fusion of the names of its founders Mohamad Fayyad and Tony Sfeir, has brought the concept of “pay what you want” to Beirut.
This concept in the hospitality world is not new, and is used in countries like the United States, Germany, Austria and England. Sfeir learned about the concept during his trips to Berlin and found it very attractive. According to him, the “pay what you think is fair concepts” fare well in cities where people have a sense of community and social awareness.
It all started when Sfeir found out that Fayyad was about to close down his venue, Mó, a restaurant in an alleyway off of Mar Mikhael’s main road, and leave the country. Sfeir, who owns the neighboring guest house BEYt and Plan BEY, a design and exhibition space, had often visited Mó to eat and loved the space. So, when he saw it shutting down, he suggested this collaboration.
“For us, it was sort of a social experiment to see how the Lebanese who are very much cultivated when it comes to cuisine will react to this setup. And we thought, ‘we have nothing to lose, so why not?’” explains Sfeir.
Mótto began by serving a daily lunch but quickly expanded with a dinner menu as well as a Saturday brunch. The menu is a rotation of global cuisines, including Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Indonesian, Spanish and Italian, with an almost daily offering of a Lebanese dish. “It’s authentic food done by native chefs,” says Sfeir, explaining that they started with Nimal, from Sri Lanka, who has been a chef for 18 years and is their head chef at Mótto. Later they started taking on other chefs who had heard of the work they were doing with Nimal.
The chefs work on a freelance basis and Mótto shares a percentage of the sales with them (the exact amount of which Sfeir refrained from disclosing). “There is no minimum guarantee as we have mutual trust for our word and work. We trust that they are providing us with good food and they trust that we will market their food well and make the best profit,” says Sfeir.
A month and a half into the idea, the duo says the concept has received positive responses and they have no intention of changing the format. Mótto welcomes about 30 guests in its six table venue during lunch and approximately 25 during dinner and brunch, as people tend to dwell longer on their meals during these times compared to the rushed lunch hours.
The minimum suggested amount that was displayed on the board during their first week of operations ($6; LL 9,000) has since been dropped but Sfeir declined to provide us with the exact figure of the average amount they are receiving, explaining that it would unfairly influence the client when deciding on what amount to leave. “Our customers will either start paying the average, or, based on their personalities, they will pay more to appear generous when the whole idea is that we want them to be the judges of what is fair based on the quality of the food and the service they received. There is this whole energy around it and this is why we don’t want to give away the average,” says Sfeir.
For Sfeir and Fayyad, what interests them most is the anthropological look at Lebanese society and who enjoys such concepts or doesn’t. “It is very interesting, from what we have observed, that it is not the richest people who pay the most or the poorest people who pay the least,” says Sfeir.
The duo insists that it all balances out at the end and those who can afford to pay more are somehow covering those who pay less. Fayyad says that loyal recurring clients who see Mótto as their daily canteen pay less than those who view it as a nice place for a romantic dinner and visit only occasionally but the frequency of the former’s presence ends up being financially the same. “It’s a whole kind of equilibrium which is created and balances out,” says Sfeir.
For dinner, Sfeir explains that people pay much more even though it could be the same meal. “It would be fair to say the average bill for dinner is 1.6 times more than the average lunch bill, and the brunch bill is halfway between the two,” says Sfeir.
Whether the concept is succeeding in Beirut because of the novelty factor or whether Mótto has built a viable venture out of “pay what you think is fair” restaurants in Beirut is too soon to tell. For now, Sfeir and Fayyad are content, observing what they’ve created.