After being closed down starting March 11 for almost eight weeks, due to measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lebanon’s restaurants were allowed to re-open on May 4 as part of a phased easing of the lockdown. To learn more about considerations F&B operators were taking into account before reopening, Executive chatted beforehand with Kamal Mouzawak, founder of farmers’ market Souk El Tayeb, Tawlet restaurants, and Beit guesthouses.
Mouzawak also shed light on how the COVID-19 lockdown has impacted Souk El Tayeb and its food producers, given that the farmers’ market was classed as a mall and as such will not be able to reopen until May 25.
Have you decided whether you will be opening the Tawlet farmers’ kitchens on May 4 or not?
We are still hesitating. It is risky [in terms of health] for our staff and for ourselves and our guests.
We are thinking that people will most likely feel comfortable being in open air venues in regions close to their homes. So we will open the Tawlet in Ammiq and the Tawlet in Deir el-Qamar. We will also be opening a new Tawlet in Douma. Douma was just a Beit [a bed and breakfast] but will now have a Tawlet too. (NB: The Ammiq, Deir el-Qamar, and Mar Mikhael restaurants did reopen on May 4, and while prices remain the same Mouzawak indicated they would increase slightly in the near future).
How about the Tawlet restaurants in Mar Mikhael and Hamra?
We took the decision to close [Tawlet and Beit] Hamra. It was a catastrophe for us; it was a project that started in June (2019) and cost us a lot of money and now we have to shut it down. We are very sad but it was bad timing since we launched it in the summer, then came October with the protests and now corona.
What is going through your mind as you contemplate reopening your Tawlet restaurants on May 4?
We have to open at 30 percent occupancy (NB: as per the government reopening mandate for the coming two weeks), which is nothing and hardly covers costs. The second thing is that people are still afraid to go out.
The third thing is that we have no recommendations at all on how to open; they just said 30 percent occupancy and that is it. The syndicate [of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs, and Patisseries] asked consulting company GWR Consulting to give a webinar for 30 minutes but it should be coming from the concerned ministries and not the syndicates.
Hotels have been allowed to operate since April 27. Did you open your Beit projects?
No, because again we don’t know how to deal with this. Our hotels are not big: They are bed and breakfasts with teams that work very close to the guests. So how are we going to deal with it? We don’t know yet how to go about this.
It’s not enough to say ok now you can open, you have to tell us how to open. We are left alone as we have always been. But sometimes we can deal with the situation when we are left alone, and sometimes we can’t.
Let us try to consider what the situation will be like in the summer or toward the end of 2020. Do you believe it would improve?
I don’t know. We are trying our best to open in outdoor places and hope for the best. We don’t just have the economic situation to deal with, we also have the political one where a person died two days ago (NB: A 26-year-old father and Tripoli resident Fawaz Fouad al-Samman died on April 28, as a result of wounds sustained the night prior in clashes between protesters and the Lebanese Army) and people are back to the streets. In such a situation, no one is in the mood to eat out. There is a lot of uncertainty.
In Greece and Turkey, tourism helped their economies recover from financial challenges. Do you see that happening in Lebanon?
That’s true and you don’t need to convince me about it. But they were only dealing with one negative situation, which is the economic crisis, not the coronavirus-related crisis, or the political crisis we are going through, or the corruption in the country … We have a lot to deal with.
Also, Greece had the backing of Europe while we have no one to back us up.
As you said there is a lot of uncertainty …
Yes, indeed. Yesterday we were working to close [Tawlet] Hamra while at the same time we are opening [Tawlet] Douma. It is totally schizophrenic.
But hasn’t the hospitality sector in Lebanon always been this way?
Not to this extent. We were never this poor. We used to be stronger in the face of crises both emotionally and economically. Even if you have money now, you cannot access it.
On another note, how are the farmers and food producers you work with faring under the circumstances we are facing these days?
The problem is that we barely had time to deal with the economic crisis—and we had just started to adjust and adapt to it—when we were hit with the coronavirus-related lockdown.
The coronavirus crisis is a catastrophe for Lebanon and everyone else in the whole world. But the problem for food producers, especially those that work with fresh produce, is that [their products] are perishable. If you are a fashion designer, you can store a dress safely for when you can sell it but fruits and vegetables have seasons and farmers need to harvest them and sell them in time or they will rot.
Another problem is that farmers have a [more] precarious and fragile situation than others because they work in a medium that is not very lucrative but has a high cost of production.
Has the demand on food products not increased since the lockdown? Given that people are at home and potentially cooking more?
This may be true but how can small scale producers and farmers deliver their products to these consumers? We are selling some of their produce in Dekenet (NB: a grocery store outlet in Mar Mikhael that was launched by Mouzawak and team in February 2020) but it is very limited compared to the market they had prior to the lockdown. Back then, they would sell in Souk El Tayeb and they had their own clients that they would deliver to.
What are the producers you work with doing in the meantime?
Nothing. They are at home; they try to make mouneh products (NB: preserved traditional foods such as pickled vegetables, dried yogurt, tomato pastes) and sell based on demand. But if this is not well organized and there isn’t enough volume, the delivery will cost them more than the profit they stand to make.
In the past few months, we have felt an increase in the recognition of the importance of agriculture and agro-industry to the economy. You at Souk El Tayeb have been aware of that for a long time now but is Lebanon catching up?
Definitely. Following the economic crisis, there was this trend of local production and of course, the first sector that will benefit from this is agriculture.
Where do you see this going? Is there potential to strengthen the sector?
Well, we have no other choice now. With the economic problems, we have no other solution than to produce locally. But we have to look at the costs here considering there are a lot of imported raw material; we have to look at this and also at how much they will be able to sell. We can produce more locally for sure, but at what cost? And at what price? Keeping in mind that consumers’ purchasing power is very low these days.
So you don’t see it as being the salvation to Lebanon’s GDP?
It costs a lot. The land is very expensive and there is no law to protect agricultural land as is the case in the US and many other countries. [Landowners] would prefer to sell their land for commercial use rather than keep it for agriculture since they would make a lot more money from that.