Next in Beirut Scam Line-up: Al Falamanki

Readers who've regularly been following my blog have no doubt caught on how much I detest price scams. Maybe this vehemence goes back to my grad school days--three years to be precise--when making ends meet was advisable and getting conned was not. Everything had to be budgeted. But I prefer to think it was an MIT course called "Pricing" that shed light on the mechanics behind pricing and replaced my consumer emotion with enlightened reason. Pricing is an art, and you can get away with charging a pretty penny for any product, but you'd better back it up with exceptional VIP service, unparalleled ambiance, or some form of tangible concessions. Al Falamanki restaurant and cafe can't hold a light to any one of those, and it pains me to see business beyond booming inside its Achrafieh stronghold.

Yesterday evening, three of us went for a spot of tea and a play of tawlet (backgammon) at Falamanki. While we were warned that the place can be expensive, our options in downtown Beirut and the near vicinity were limited given the nasty spell of weather we've been having. And besides, just how expensive can an arguileh place be?

We arrived to a very modest establishment, a house transformed into a cafe, with the traditional straw-seat chairs and vinyl checkered tablecloths. The napkins were of the industrial dispenser type, akin to recycled paper and equally absorbent. Lebanese restaurants usually offer a small welcome treat to their guests to stir their appetites--a modest bread basket perhaps, a plate of olives, peanuts, carrots. No, not at Falamanki. At the top of their menu, they note "seasonal sides" like carrots, lupin, pistachios, and almonds for 7,000LL ($5) each. The audacity! As if dining there is privilege enough, why bother serving your guests complimentary nibbles? Swindle them instead.

Even more frustrating though were the portion sizes, capable of disturbing a dietitian. The peanuts are served in those tiny Turkish coffee cups--disgraceful. A basic saj, generally no more than a few dollars elsewhere, can set you back up to 13,500LL ($9). Pickles cost 6,000LL ($4); olives, 5,250LL ($3.50); and a veggie platter, 9,000LL ($6)--these items, usually termed "service," accompany any dish you would order at any other restaurant, free of charge. We ordered aniseed tea, 7,500LL ($5) per kettle (read: enough for half a human). Rather than offer the guest a choice of white, brown, or sugar-free sweeteners in sterile individual packets, Falamanki provides only white sugar in a distasteful glass shaker. Not even a spoon to measure out your desired quantity. Deplorable. If you request a deck of cards to play with your dining companions, fork over 7,500LL ($5). I was afraid to ask how much entry into the bathroom would set me back. How about extra olive oil for my vinegary fattouche? I kept thinking there'd be some concession, maybe a dessert on the house or delightful live music, anything to mitigate the shock of their steep prices and stingy portions. No, sirree.

I don't know how Falamanki gets away with it, but they manage to pack their joint from wall to wall with willing patrons. They'll never see me again. I don't mind paying a premium for excellent quality, service, or generosity, but when I can't explain how a few pots of tea and a measly saj amount to 60,000LL ($40), "ripped off" just doesn't start to capture it.


Comments

  1. Isn't that the case with any overpriced Lebanese place? I think the problem is the Lebanese people: they love to pay and show it off. Otherwise, that place wouldn't have survived a few days.

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    1. Sarine, I fully agree. But to me, Al Falamanki is a new low in restaurant thievery.

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  2. Nice blog. You might want to put your comments in shouraeyak.com.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Zaid! I started to post a few of my comments in its restaurants directory :)

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    2. http://shouraeyak.com/a-conversation-with-mario-haddad-jr/
      http://shouraeyak.com/a-conversation-with-mario-haddad-jr-part-ii/

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    3. Edward, thanks for these links. I had the chance to read the interviews and I learned much about Mario's hard work ethic, philosophy with Falamanki, and how he considers it his most successful outlet ("it is a beast of a restaurant in terms of cash generated and size of the endeavor""--no doubt). I can see how other factors fit into the overall pricing scheme, namely the all-day hours, loads of staff, and parking. Still there's a way to justify those prices by at least creating the illusion you're getting premium service or quality of food. I witnessed neither at Falamanki, and what irked me most were things that generally are comped--peanuts, carrots, welcome bread--all had a price tag affixed to them. Even a deck of cards is on the menu! You have to draw the line somewhere, and for me, Falamanki crosses that line and goes into a new frontier altogether.

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  3. While I certainly agree with some points you have stated in your post Danielle, I have to defend why Al Falamanki, a restaurant that I love, is more expensive than other lebanese restaurants:

    - Al Falamanki's prime location could explain on its own the higher prices on the menu. I don't know if you have travelled abroad, but cafés and restaurants on Champs Elysées and Times Square are more expensive than other restaurants located in lambda streets

    - tell me where can you enjoy such a big and beautiful garden in the heart of Beirut, 24/7? When you visit Al Falamanki, you have to know that you're paying for it and for its maintenance

    - you can linger all day, sipping on a soda and having a shisha, and no waiter will from ask you to leave nor force you to order anything else

    - Al Falamanki is one of the few restaurants in the country that has a food safety manager. Every single thing in the kitchen has been inspected in a lab for your own safety (the meat, the vegetables, the kitchen equipment, etc). Did you know that? Ask the restaurant's manager and he'll tell you the whole story, i had to go through him explaining it to me the other day :)

    In other words, when you're in a restaurant you'll be paying for more than just the food.
    Same logic applies on everything. Why do you find it logical to spend hundreds of dollars on an iPhone when you can buy a much cheaper HTC smartphone? Why would you drive an Audi when you can buy a Hyundai that can do the same exact thing?

    Is it outrageous? Maybe.
    Is it a scam? I don't think so. Especially that nobody is forcing you to visit these restaurants or buy these objects.

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    Replies
    1. You raise interesting points, Guy. I'm aware of restaurants' pricing strategies and how location factors into those prices (excepting chains, perhaps, where menus come standard).

      I can go to Amarres in Zaituna Bay and pay an extra 33% for the steak-frites than I would at Couqley, its sister restaurant in Gemmayze which offers many identical dishes. I know I'm helping offset the price per square meter of Zaituna Bay, as well as the slightly more polished waitstaff, the more refined silverware, etc. But if I ask for more bread and butter, I can rest assured that it won't show up on my bill--I'll gladly pay more for my plate, but give me the assurance that I'll be treated royally.

      However, what I witnessed at Al Falamanki was not so much an issue of inflated pricing related to location or amped-up service as it was overt cheapness in general. There's nothing wrong with pricing high: in the end, the customer decides whether to buy or not, so he's not getting robbed because it's his decision. I don't mind paying a premium if I know I'm getting something qualititatively or quantitatively commensurate. At Falamanki, that wasn't the case, and everything, I mean everything, came with a price tag. For heaven's sake, throw in the carrots, or if you must charge for the peanuts, at least present them in a bowl, not a dinky teacup. Charge more, but give the impression that you're also offering more.

      Please don't misunderstand me: I am not at all attacking the quality of Falamanki's food, which I am sure upholds the highest standards of quality, taste, and freshness. And I've no doubt Falamanki is a stickler when it comes to food safety--impressed you know the details!

      I suppose in the end what did me in was feeling unjustly charged for things that I'd expect to be and have indeed enjoyed complimentary at most other dining outlets. A part ça, I agree--the garden is lovely.

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