As Le­banon’s hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor moves to re­cap­ture the golden pe­riod of 2009 - 2011, Tony Ramy, restau­ra­teur and pres­i­dent of the Syndicate of Own­ers of Restau­rants, Cafés, Night-clubs & Pas­tries, tracks the changes he’s wit­nessed in the in­dus­try over th

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An all-en­com­pass­ing, coun­try­wide tour around Le­banon in the com­ing months marks the lat­est in a se­ries of ini­tia­tives in­tro­duced by the Syndicate of Own­ers of Restau­rants, Cafés, Night-clubs & Pas­tries aimed at boost­ing sup­port for F&B op­er­a­tors and en­hanc­ing the in­dus­try’s im­age.

Tony Ramy, the syndicate’s pres­i­dent and a long­stand­ing restau­ra­teur, told HN that the project, which has been planned with part­ner GWR Con­sult­ing, is ex­pected to get un­der­way at the end of Septem­ber.

“We will launch an aware­ness cam­paign for cost con­trol, P&L anal­y­sis, fi­nan­cials, cash­flow, cri­sis man­age­ment and many other sub­jects that could help own­ers to sur­vive in the cur­rent cir­cum­stances,” he told HN.

Tak­ing it to the op­er­a­tors

The tour forms part of a broader bid to help raise stan­dards across the sec­tor by en­forc­ing rules re­lat­ing to food safety and other ar­eas, while cham­pi­oning qual­ity. Its other ob­jec­tives, which in­clude pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of the F&B sec­tor and boost­ing in­vest­ment in hos­pi­tal­ity, will also be in the spot­light.

The syndicate’s proac­tive ap­proach is clearly de­liv­er­ing re­sults, with fig­ures show­ing that mem­ber­ship has rock­eted from 100 to 1,500 since 2015. Ramy be­lieves sev­eral fac­tors have con­trib­uted to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s suc­cess, rang­ing from the se­lec­tion of a “young, dy­namic and di­ver­si­fied” board to its choice of part­ners, all of whom have a high level of ex­per­tise in their field, which, he said, en­sures in­dus­try play­ers can re­late to them.

The li­cens­ing process is con­sid­ered the hard­est part that the owner goes through. We are seek­ing to mod­ern­ize th­ese reg­u­la­tions and unify the process

“Each com­pany is a leader in its field,” he told HN. “For ex­am­ple, they in­clude Alfa, Boecker, Café Na­j­jar, Clover Bro­kers, Di­a­geo, Natgaz, Vresso, Omega Soft­ware, Pepsi, Aqua­fina, VIP Park­ing Con­trol, GWR, Ksara, EBA, EMF and Ve­speed. With their help and reg­u­lar meet­ings, we are able to bet­ter un­der­stand the mar­ket needs.”

Le­gal chal­lenges

Asked about the is­sues most com­monly raised by the syndicate’s mem­bers, Ramy cited the lengthy pro­cesses in­volved in re­solv­ing the le­gal sta­tus of an out­let as the num­ber one bug­bear.

“And we mean here the very an­cient by-laws and reg­u­la­tions that no longer meet cur­rent needs,” he said. “The li­cens­ing process is con­sid­ered the hard­est part that the owner goes through. We are seek­ing to mod­ern­ize th­ese reg­u­la­tions and unify the process.”

The syndicate is also well versed with mis­takes that as­pir­ing in­dus­try play­ers some­times make when start­ing out or ex­pand­ing.

“Usu­ally, the key play­ers are more aware and tend to be pru­dent be­fore tak­ing any risk, but, the ‘in­trud­ers’ in the sec­tor, who are seek­ing a quick profit, and open­ing branches ran­domly with­out mak­ing a mar­ket study and a sur­vey, risk mak­ing deadly mis­takes that might lead to bank­ruptcy,” he ad­mit­ted.

This word of cau­tion comes from some­one who is proud to ac­knowl­edge that he was taught by his late fa­ther the im­por­tance of re­main­ing a ‘restau­ra­teur’ and re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to be­come an ‘en­tre­pre­neur’.

Plan­ning is paramount

Fail­ure, he be­lieves, can stem from in­vest­ing in a con­cept with­out a solid struc­ture, busi­ness plan, fore­cast or iden­tity. Ideally, a busi­ness plan should en­com­pass a fea­si­ble rental agree­ment, a prime lo­ca­tion, a unique brand­ing and new iden­tity, is his ad­vice.

Ramy’s back­ground and track record make him an ideal can­di­date to give an over­view on both the chal­lenges that hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try play­ers face and the op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able within the sec­tor. A grad­u­ate of the Grand-lycee Franco-libanais, he has also gained a busi­ness de­gree from Saint Joseph Univer­sity in 1996. Soon af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he be­came part of the man­age­ment team of Al Sul­tan Brahim & Di­wan Beirut group of restau­rants, where he over­saw the suc­cess­ful ex­pan­sion of the restau­rants in Le­banon and in the re­gion, in­clud­ing Al Fala­manki, BO18, Train­sta­tion, and Mama Pita. To­day, over 1,000 peo­ple are em­ployed at Ramy's restau­rants.

How­ever, he is the first to ad­mit that the cur­rent cli­mate is much more chal­leng­ing for op­er­a­tors than the ‘golden pe­riod’ be­tween 2009 and 2011, when the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor boomed, the num­ber of tourists reached a record 2.16 mil­lion (2010), and rev­enues and turnovers soared.

Ramy be­lieves that just as po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity helped to de­fine th­ese suc­cess­ful years, they will also play a key part in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor’s re­vival.

“Dur­ing this pe­riod, the coun­try was show­cased on in­ter­na­tional plat­forms through the for­eign me­dia, and Lebanese cui­sine was high­lighted as among the best cuisines in the world and won sev­eral awards,” he said. “Un­for­tu­nately, the war in Syria erupted in 2011 and Le­banon was strongly af­fected on all lev­els.”

Aim­ing high

He is con­fi­dent, how­ever, that Le­banon has the po­ten­tial to re­claim its cov­eted po­si­tion, high­light­ing the ini­tia­tives un­der­way within the tourism in­dus­try to help the coun­try re­gain its pre­ferred sta­tus.

“The Syndicate, in co­op­er­a­tion with the Min­istries of Tourism, Econ­omy and Trade, Fi­nance and La­bor, as well as all the con­cerned gov­ern­men­tal bod­ies, is ex­ert­ing ut­most ef­forts to keep this sec­tor alive amidst the cri­sis,” he told HN. Na­tional ini­tia­tives in­clude the Lebanese Gas­trodiplo­macy, launched re­cently by the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs. The syndicate forms part of the com­mit­tee for the project, which is look­ing to raise the pro­file of Lebanese food and out­lets in coun­tries with size­able di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties.

The syndicate in co­op­er­a­tion with the Min­istry of Tourism, is ex­ert­ing ut­most ef­forts to keep this sec­tor alive

Pos­i­tive signs

The stats are also look­ing pos­i­tive, with the num­ber of tourist ar­rivals reach­ing 1.86 mil­lion in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Tourism, mark­ing a seven-year high. Other high-pro­file suc­cesses in­clude Beirut be­ing named the ‘Best In­ter­na­tional City for Food in 2016’ by Travel + Leisure, and Joseph, in Sin el Fil, win­ning Food­iehub’s 2015 ‘World's Tasti­est Sand­wich Award’ for its ex­cel­lent shawarma. Asked where he sees pos­si­ble open­ings in the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment, Ramy pointed to the en­trepreneurs who are launch­ing star­tups or hands-on man­age­ment busi­nesses, with a rea­son­able cap­i­tal in­vest­ment and well-priced units. “Nowa­days, fast-ca­sual con­cepts are trend­ing and mak­ing a great suc­cess,” he said. On the sub­ject of changes wit­nessed in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor, he also cited the “huge ex­pan­sion” of clus­ters across the re­gions. “Another phe­nom­e­non is the ‘restau­rant streets’ that have in­vaded ev­ery re­gion in Le­banon, not to men­tion ru­ral tourism, which high­lights the beauty of Lebanese vil­lages,” he added. He is adamant that while hos­pi­tal­ity is con­sid­ered to be the most chal­leng­ing sec­tor to en­ter, the re­wards are there if the ba­sic rules are fol­lowed and the op­er­at­ing cli­mate is at­trac­tive. “Fo­cus­ing on qual­ity, value and taste is the magic equa­tion to keep­ing the busi­ness go­ing,” he said. “For the tourism sec­tor, the sky is the limit if the sit­u­a­tion in Le­banon is sta­ble and se­cure.”

The Spaniards ar­gue that crème brûlée is just a French ver­sion of crema cata­lana. Welsh his­to­ri­ans claim Arthur Guin­ness smug­gled his fa­mous stout recipe from a Welsh tav­ern to Dublin. And Le­banon … Le­banon wants their hum­mus back. Of­ten over­looked as a culi­nary des­ti­na­tion, Le­banon crafts the ideal sum­mer mezze ta­ble in an equally ideal tem­per­ate cli­mate. Stroll open air mar­kets in By­b­los, one of the world’s old­est cities. Cool off at the Baatara Gorge Wa­ter­fall. Then set­tle in be­neath the cedars for a feast of lo­cal wine, tab­bouleh, tiny rounds of hot sesame pita, baba ghanoush sprin­kled with pome­gran­ate seeds, and plates of herb-y cheese, all driz­zled in bright swoops of lo­cal olive oil na­tion­al­geo­­tion­al­geo­­tures/fea­tures/best-best-trips/trips/where-where-to-to-go-go-sum­mer-sum­mer-2018/2018/

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