Innovation in Beirut’s restaurant industry

BEIRUT: At the age of 17, Joey Ghazal worked as a busboy in his hometown of Montreal. By 33, he has worked his way up the food industry ladder to become one of North America’s leading restaurant concept developers.

Now Ghazal has turned his eyes to Lebanon. Ghazal is managing partner of two restaurants in Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay. Since opening in December, the marina has become a very popular hangout spot. With its 17 restaurants and five retail shops, people of all ages now stroll along the pedestrian esplanade by the Mediterranean coast.

“What Beirut was missing was a public area where people could walk and hang out,” Ghazal said. “They love to see and be seen. It’s a Lebanese thing.”

A native Lebanese, Ghazal was born and raised in Canada. After he moved to Lebanon in 2010, a friend approached him with the idea for a “little marina project” that is now known as Zaitunay Bay.

Six months after he pitched his concepts to the marina’s developers, Ghazal found out that they were not only interested, but also wanted two of them. He and his four partners began looking for investors.

That’s how St. Elmo’s Seaside Brasserie came about, which opened in December. Cro Magnon steakhouse opened its doors weeks later.

Ghazal speaks about the differences between the two restaurants as though he were describing two very different kinds of people.

For Ghazal, the steakhouse is a 40- to 60-year-old industry leader who “smokes a big cigar, has a scotch and a big steak, while relishing in the money he lost in the stock market.”

On the other hand, St. Elmo’s is a yuppie. “He’s carrying his iPad, driving his Mini Cooper, while carrying his baby around in a three-legged stroller,” Ghazal said.

Ghazal’s sharp attention to detail manifests itself at every level of the business. Nothing is accidental in his restaurants. From the handpicked floor tiles adorned with nautical symbols in the brasserie, to the bottles of wine keeping watch atop the walls in the steakhouse, Ghazal has a vision and sees it through.

In each of his restaurants are little trinkets from home. Whether it is his framed butterfly collection in St. Elmo’s or his wall clock at The Angry Monkey pub on Gemmayzeh, which his brothers now operate.

Although he said that he loves designing restaurants, his passion for the industry falters when it comes to dining – Ghazal admitted that he would rather eat street food than a meal at a restaurant any day of the week.

Ghazal called Zaitunay Bay an “unprecedented success,” and said he believes it offers residents much more than what meets the eye.

“They really hit the nail on the head with providing people a place where they can come for a brief moment and forget their hectic lives – the traffic, the noise and the politics,” he said.

But Ghazal isn’t immune from the same issues afflicting nearby business – including the area’s ongoing political instability.

“I think it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, but I am optimistic,” he said. “I have to be. You have to believe that people will want to feel good and go out and live a normal life despite everything.”

For his part, Ghazal credits a strong support system for helping him get where he is now.

“I think a lot of people make the mistake of coming to Lebanon and trying to do it all on their own,” he said. “I have surrounded myself with the right partners and I met the right people who are still very much in the background advising me.”

While he enjoys the escape of the marina, Ghazal said that he believes more than ever in the importance of what he calls the “collective consciousness” coming together to promote positive change in Lebanon.

“There is a whole generation of entrepreneurs living in and outside of Lebanon that can come back and make a serious difference,” he said. “The problem is that they are drowned out by all these power games and politics. I don’t think the people realize the power they have.”

Ghazal said that he sees that power in his work with Lebanon’s Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-Clubs and Pastries, which will hold its second annual Feast For Change event this fall.

“It’s an example of how you create a voice in a country where there isn’t one,”he said of the event, which brings the food and beverage community together to promote what Ghazal said he believes makes Lebanon great.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Ghazal said that his work is far from done. He said that his concepts are constantly evolving as new ideas spring to mind and inspiration continues to strike.

“You’re never going to be done with finding the right team, training and evolving, you know,” he said. “The restaurants are far from being finished. There’s just so much more to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 24, 2012, on page 2.




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