JOUNIEH, Lebanon: Abdo Chayeb brings his own bread when he goes out to eat. That’s how strongly he feels about whole wheat. In the storeroom under Chayeb’s family house are full nylon sacks equaling tons of unprocessed wheat seeds. They’ll be sifted, milled, rested and sifted again so that Chayeb is certain his bakery is selling – and he is eating – 100 percent whole wheat.
Two out of five people buying whole wheat Arabic bread in Lebanon buy from Chayeb Bakery – once known as Chayeb Bread. Forty percent of the market is pretty impressive given the bakery’s accidental beginnings.
“I’ve been eating this bread since I was young,” Yves Chayeb, Abdo’s son, said. “He used to rent out other bakeries to make his own bread. But he saw they were messy and lacked hygiene, so he chose to open his own bakery and grind his own wheat.”
At first, Abdo would make the bread only for his family, and when neighbors caught wind of it, he started selling loaves to them too. “Then we expanded to wholesale,” Yves said.
Abdo, smoking a cigarette outside his shop in Jounieh and staring off at the mini market across the street, is clearly the retired king of his starchy dynasty. Yves, now Chayeb’s marketing manager, and his brothers Dany and Eddy have taken over the family business. As new generations do, the brothers have moved the bakery into the present with modern branding, clever advertising and a range of health-centered products.
You may have seen Chayeb’s new commercial on LBC. An elderly man in a bakery lit by the nostalgic glow of his brick oven rolls out a single loaf of flatbread, feeds it to the fire by traditional wooden board and watches it bubble to hollowed-pita perfection. “Whole wheat, whole health,” ends the clip.
The bakery started back in 1995, just in time to ride the whole wheat health wave that built up around that time. Health is the crux of their marketing strategy these days. Yves oversaw the rebranding, which simplified the logo, and has put an emphasis on readable and useful nutritional facts. On a box of whole wheat kaak, for example, Chayeb offers the calorie count and nutritional breakdown based on a serving size, something other Lebanese food producers have been slow to catch on to, prefering to measure by 100 grams (which leaves weight watchers burdened with some tiresome math).
They’ve brought their health kick to other foods by expanding to fruit-filled, whole-wheat snacks. The bakery’s also now making whole wheat frozen pizzas.
“Isn’t this better than giving your kid a bar of chocolate?” Yves asked.
Yves understands their selling point well and he’s hoping to expand the health offerings. The market and interest in whole wheat is growing in Lebanon, he said – especially as the world wakes up to the nutritional uselessness of bleached white flour.
“They’re getting more interested in the health factor,” he said. For Chayeb’s next marketing campaign, Yves is planning to focus on the benefits of whole grains. He also wants to dispel misinformation about “brown bread,” which some shops sell as a multigrain alternative. Often, however, the so-called brown bread is actually white wheat dough died with food coloring – or worse, molasses.
The Chayeb bakery complex is a hodgepodge mix of family home, storefront and basement factories. The air in the factory is heavy with heat from the industrial oven and sprinkled with particles of flour. Overseeing a giant mixer pulling a batch of stubborn, glutinous bread, an employee is a far cry from the withered old man shown in Chayeb’s heartwarming commercial. Wearing sterile white Crocks, he prepares to feed the dough through a steel network that will press, bake and cool the bread.
Maybe each loaf won’t be baked by artisanal hand, but the final product is one of the healthier options on supermarket shelves, Yves said, adding, “It’s the recipe of our ancestors.”