Weathering the Restaurant Slump in Zaitunay Bay

It's no secret: Zaitunay Bay is not thriving in the manner its creators had envisioned. The original 17 dining establishments are down to 15: Zabad and Salmontini Riva closed their doors a few months ago and are already making way for new venues (Boubess' Pizzeria Pomodoro is one). The sad reality is that renting one of these outlets is as expensive as $500,000 per year, which translates to $42,000 per month, and many restaurants are not turning over this kind of revenue. Tourism in Lebanon has severely stagnated, and it's nowhere more evident than in Zaitunay Bay, as a midday or evening stroll on any weekday proves: there is hardly anyone. Perhaps Paul, Cappuccino, and Classic Burger Joint draw out the largest crowds, as they are casual eateries and their pricing schemes are standard across all branches. But the others, nearly all references in fine dining, are struggling.

A few have advertised promotions to lure in guests. Cro Magnon, the steakhouse, offers a set menu Monday through Thursday for dinner including wine at $50. St Elmo's Seaside Brasserie features any three courses off the regular lunch menu for $29 noon to 3pm. Both restaurants are the brainchild of Joey Ghazal, who is concept developer, co-owner, and managing director. His gastro-preneurship also spawned the wildly successful BRGR Co., in Achrafieh and now Beirut Souks, as well as Angry Monkey in Gemmayze.

Perhaps Ghazal is the most active and clever of Zaitunay Bay's restaurateurs: St. Elmo's has a theme every day of the week (mussels night, ladies' night, and the like), as well as a newly extended happy hour from 5-9pm. The brasserie's menu changes every season, as less popular dishes get binned and new ones introduced. I had a look at the prices, and while at first glance it seems a few dishes have been discounted, in reality they've gone up. For example, the 250g burger, originally at 32,000LL ($22), is now offered at 29,000LL ($19), but wait, it's now a slimmer 200g. Likewise with their signature dish, the "Famous Fish & Chips," which used to feature 275g of beer-battered Mediterranean bass at 36,000LL ($24) but has now been reduced by 1/3 to 180g at the same price.


St. Elmo's Seaside Brasserie
Photo Credit: www.beirut.com

Cunning he may be, but Ghazal is a businessman, and in this tough economic climate, he has to fight tooth and nail to reel in customers and still turn a profit. I suggest the upscale French bistro Amarres (sister restaurant to Couqley in Gemmayze) follow suit, as it didn't have a single diner when I ambled by Tuesday night nor was there a waiter in sight (hiding in shame, perhaps?). With competition already so stiff and the state of the economy what it is, the keyword is buzz: be it promotions, deals, or even engaging customers directly through digital media. St. Elmo's Facebook page, for example, reflects daily activity, with ravishing pictures of dishes, communication of happy hour timing, and simple greetings throughout the day. Customers love feeling empowered and enlightened before they ever set foot through the door, and making just enough information accessible to them beforehand is surefire bait that they will.

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