BEIRUT: An Italian restaurant that eschews pizza and is open only for lunch may not seem like a recipe for success in Beirut, but Sophie Schoucair, owner of Marinella, is more interested in pursuing her own dreams than pandering to the crowd.
And the tactic has paid off.A year and a half after its June 2011 opening, Marinella has developed a loyal following for its focus on fresh, simple ingredients and personal service. Its success has led many to call for Schoucair to start a dinner service, but she has taken her time to get here and isn’t about to be rushed into anything.
She was 40 when she opened the restaurant. She had originally studied hotel management at the Lausanne school in Switzerland, but a couple of years after graduating realized she had to follow her passion for cooking. That led to a decade in the catering industry, before she finally decided she was ready to open her own restaurant.
“I had to do something to change my life. It was now or never,” she says. “It was my brother who pushed me. But I think I was ready. If I was not ready I would not have opened.”
That careful, considered approach is reflected in the way Schoucair manages Marinella. It was named after her Italian grandmother, and the purposefully simple menu reflected the food she grew up around.
In the restaurant, her approach is hands-on.
“I think the key to success in this business is to be there all the time. The Lebanese clientele, especially, is very tough. They will remember one bad dish, and all the rest, forget it. Six months later they will remember the bad and not the good. So you cannot have one mistake,” she says.
Her dedication to detail is part of the reason she has so far shied away from dinner service.
“I’m happy to open at lunch because I invest myself to the maximum. I’m always in the kitchen. All the recipes are my recipes, so I have a sous chef, but it’s my recipe so I have to always be with him,” she says.
It’s important to her to be seen as part of her team. When it comes to taking photos, she automatically reaches for her uniform apron, and later explains that she wants to be seen “like all of the team.”
When Marinella opened, Mar Mikhael was little more than a few bars dotted among mechanical shops. The restaurant itself looks out over a local garage. Now of course the area is practically teeming with nightlife, boutique shops and restaurants. Nonetheless she likes the mixed clientele the area attracts.
“About 20 percent of the clientele come and they see the garage, and they say ‘oh, I don’t like it,’” she says, waving a dismissive hand. “But that’s not the kind of clientele I want. I like the mix.”
And this means creating the same personalized experience for everyone who comes in.
“All human beings like to be treated like they are special, and that’s what I’m trying to do with everyone. Sometimes somebody comes in and they are considered important, but I don’t care. Everyone is important,” she says.
Schoucair is clearly ambitious, and talks of the possibility of expanding. But, she says, “I don’t want to be pushed. I want to be ready.”
It’s clear that whatever she does, she’ll do it at her own pace.