Lebanon News

Hospitality sector gets taste of revolution, for better or worse

Protesters wait in line to get sandwiches at a restaurant in Downtown Beirut, Oct. 20, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: “We were doing better before the revolution,” said Roda Harb, who works in a sandwich shop behind the Markazia Suites hotel, located at the center of the uprising in Beirut. Harb said the revolution had been bad for business. Food kiosks and vendors that appeared in Martyrs’ Square and the parking lot across from the Mohammad al-Amine Mosque during anti-government protests redirected client footfall from some cafes and restaurants.

Many corporate offices in the Downtown core closed for safety reasons, drastically reducing orders that food and beverage businesses had relied on.

“The protests have really had a negative impact on us. We work night and day, sometimes for 18 hours, to make the same profit we were making before the revolution,” Harb said. “People have been choosing to go to the kiosks at the center rather than come here ... we were better off without this.”

While there is no official data, Maya Noun, general secretary of the Syndicate of Restaurant Owners in Lebanon, said many restaurants had been forced to close their doors for the two weeks of protests.

Cafes and restaurants in Nijmeh Square, for example, were forced to shut because the area was blocked off by security forces and rendered inaccessible, except for employees working in the area.

The difference between a restaurant and other businesses, Noun points out, is that “they have perishable products, so major losses are incurred this way.”

“The impacts of the protests have been really drastic for us,” Noun said.

A major challenge facing restaurant owners has been that suppliers have been increasing prices due to the unstable economy, with some even demanding payments in dollars.

Even before the start of the mass protests and the shuttering of banks over the past two weeks, with dollars harder to come by in the country, the exchange rate at money changers on the street had crept up from the official rate of LL1,507 to the dollar to more than LL1,600.

After banks closed for 12 days and amid widespread fears of a currency devaluation, the street exchange rate rose to some LL1,800.

“We can’t project this cost and increase our prices. People are already not spending money ... and we are already dealing with a lack of clientele and high cost of operation,” Noun said.

Hundreds of thousands have been on the streets since Oct. 17 in a nationwide uprising against the ruling class that began as a protest against proposed tax hikes. Droves of protesters have poured into Beirut’s central district daily. The axis connecting Riad al-Solh Square and Martyrs’ Square - ordinarily a scene of sparse foot traffic - turned into a raucous carnival site with kiosks and vendors selling food and beverages to demonstrators.

Despite the chaos, some Beirut businesses say they have managed to profit off from the demonstrations.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this. Our clients have tripled because of the protests. It has started to die down now, but during the first week there were so many people in here we couldn’t move,” said Bassem Hasan, 40, who works at a corner shop that sells fresh juice by the Markazia Suites hotel.

Business also boomed in the newly inaugurated Uruguay Street, a nightlife corridor located just behind Samir Kassir Garden. Protesters looking to have a drink or dinner after a long day in the square congregated in the street’s bars, where revolutionary music blared on loudspeakers all week.

“Bad things for some might have positives for others,” said Joe Khoury, 42, partner at U Lounge Bar and Casa de Uruguay. He said business was booming. “Protesters have been coming to this street every night, even on weekdays, which have been a great advertisement in a way.”

Despite the clientele increase, businesses have suffered from suppliers inflating their prices.

On the same street, the owner of Al Boulangi bakery said he did not measure success by the number of people coming to his business because it was temporary and contingent on the protests.

“Suppliers are taking advantage of the current situation, which is affecting small to medium enterprises. They are marking up their prices and not accepting pay in Lebanese pounds which will eventually have to make us increase our prices. We are against this,” said Wissam, who declined to provide his surname.

Businesses have also suffered as road blockages have prevented them from getting supplies on time.

“We’ve been driving on motorcycles to get to our suppliers. There were five days last week where we couldn’t move to get supplies and we had to tell our clients we were out of stock of certain things,” Hasan said.

At night, crowds thinned around Martyrs’ Square. The flow of protesters shifted from the Downtown core and many packed into bars in Gemmayzeh in search of a drink and to unpack the day’s events.

Owner of Dragonfly bar Nino Aramouni said business had been “too good.”

“We usually open around 5 and now we’re coming in much earlier to prepare ourselves,” he said.

Niamh Fleming-Farrell, co-founder of Aaliya’s Books, said she had noted an increase in footfall over the last two weeks. “We’ve been lively since the beginning of the protests ... people have been looking for a place to have a coffee and then go back to the protests. People who haven’t been able to go to their offices have resorted to cafes like Aaliya’s to work from,” she said.

Fleming-Farrell said she’d noticed a difference in how clients had been spending their time.

“People want to come in for a drink, but they don’t want to be entertained, they don’t want to hear a live band ... they want to talk about what’s going on and share experiences of the protests,” she added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 02, 2019, on page 3.

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