The growing popularity of Lebanese cuisine

A look at the growth & profitability of Lebanese food in the MidEast
The Lebanese restaurants in the UAE often mix food with other MidEast traditions to create Arabic fusion concepts.
The Lebanese restaurants in the UAE often mix food with other MidEast traditions to create Arabic fusion concepts.
Selection of mezze at Fakhreldine
Selection of mezze at Fakhreldine
Interior of Topkapi; Al Nafoorah
Interior of Topkapi; Al Nafoorah

The rise in popularity of Lebanese cuisine is a response to the region’s growing multiculturalism. As a fusion cuisine, Lebanese F&B has a wider target market because it can appeal equally to the indigenous populations, expat communities and international visitors.

“There is a strong demand for Lebanese food here in the Middle East thanks to our food culture and the history of Lebanese cuisine,” explains Ibrahim Hadla, executive oriental chef at Al Khayal Restaurant, Jumeirah Beach Hotel. “The majority of food in the Middle East originated in Lebanon and this is why it’s so popular today.

“I think of Lebanese food as more of a Mediterranean cuisine, rather than an Arabic one,” explains executive chef Paul Hage, who has responsibility for the Al Basha Lebanese Restaurant at Habtoor Grand Resort & Spa in Dubai.

“It borrows from the palates of countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Italy, France and, most importantly, Turkey. In this sense it is a very popular cuisine that can appeal to an incredibly wide spectrum of tastes.”

The broad appeal and popularity of Lebanese food is perhaps most evident in the strong demand for the cuisine in events catering. At the Taj Palace Hotel Dubai, the Lebanese food served in its Topkapi Restaurant is the cuisine of choice for local events, as
general manager, Andreas Mueller confirms: “Demand in events catering is very strong for Lebanese food. If we sell a local event, around 90% of the food will be Lebanese or Lebanese influenced, and we often get requests for Lebanese-style appetisers, mezze, grills and main dishes.

“In fact, the entire restaurant scene here is very heavily influenced by Lebanese cuisine and it has definitely established a firm tradition for itself throughout the region. I think the attraction comes from the fact that Lebanese food is ‘real’. It is fresh. It is healthy.

“Typically, a meal will consist of fresh salads, raw vegetables, olives and pickles. The meat is simply grilled so the flavours are retained and it is enhanced by garlic, lemon and herbs. This can be compared in many ways to Mediterranean food and can be enjoyed by both Arabian and European diners. For this reason, I think we will only continue to see growth in outlets serving Lebanese cuisine.”

Healthy upward trend
A key driver in the growth of Lebanese outlets in the region is that fact that the cuisine can tap into the emerging healthy eating trend. Consumers are becoming increasingly more concerned about the origin, freshness, and the health benefits of cooking methods used in restaurants – and Lebanese food can deliver on each of these points.

“I really do see Lebanese cuisine growing in the future as a result of the healthy eating trend,” continued Mueller.

“Everyone already knows about the health benefits of Mediterranean cuisine. As a close relation, Lebanese outlets can utilise this for growth.”

The F&B operators that can successfully align their brands with the emerging health-driven consumer trends that we are seeing will be best positioned to grow their revenue and profitability in the coming few years – up to a maximum of 55% profitability, according to Hage.

“The health trend has certainly prompted the region’s chefs and restaurateurs to introduce exciting Lebanese items in their menus,” explains Frank Owens, group general manager of Emirates Grand Hotel in Dubai, which includes the Lebanese Fakhreldine Restaurant & Café.

“One of the more healthy aspects of Lebanese cuisine is the manner in which it is served: the mezze. This array of small dishes is placed before the guests creating a sweep of colour, flavour, texture and aroma.

Although impressive, the dishes are also easy to prepare and suitable for a healthy diet. Therefore, the combination of health and entertainment will be the key factor in Lebanese brands expanding in the Middle East – especially in the UAE.”

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Lebanese is a very affordable cuisine and can generate good margins – especially in the high end outlets. This is welcome news to F&B operators in the current economic and political climate who are constantly remodelling their menus to combat rising food prices.

In comparison to some “meat heavy” brands like steakhouses, Lebanese outlets can source ingredients relatively inexpensively, as Frank Owens confirms: “Lebanese cuisine can deliver strong revenues because it is rich in things like olive oil and garlic – products that are relatively inexpensive. We source most of our ingredients locally, but we also import some from Lebanon.

We deal with reputable companies that supply quality but inexpensive ingredients. Also, some of the products are made in-house which is another factor in the affordability of the dishes.”

In the current tough economic climate, affordability of ingredients is particularly appealing to F&B operators. However, the commonly held view that Lebanese food is profitable because it is quick and cheap to make is not borne out in practice. The reality is a little more complex.

“While Lebanese food is perhaps cheaper on a product-by-product basis, you really need highly skilled chefs to execute the recipes properly,” explains Hage, “and that doesn’t come cheap – especially in Dubai!

“On top of that, we’re still dealing with rising food prices on a day-by-day basis. You have to find ways to sacrifice a bit, but without affecting quality.”

However, the fact remains that Lebanese restaurants do continue to thrive in difficult times. This is possibly because they offer more than just food – they offer a unique dining experience reflecting the Lebanese tradition of providing great entertainment around eating.

For example, the Lebanese mezze is an intrinsically social event with informal sharing of small dishes over a long period of time. In the current economic climate, consumers attach more importance to the dining experience – and Lebanese restaurants can offer an entertaining, filling and affordable F&B experience.

“We’ve seen a steady growth in both demand and supply at the same time,” says Alfred Moussa, director of F&B at Al Tannour, the Crowne Plaza Dubai, . “Even through the height of the economic crisis in 2009, Al Tannour performed well as an outlet and experienced healthy figures.

“I think that guests enjoy the entire experience when choosing a Lebanese restaurant. On top of tasty cuisine, Lebanese restaurants have a unique ambiance that is infectious – there is always live entertainment, an abundance of dishes and traditional aromatic shisha.”

A new wave?
In an expanding market, one would expect Lebanese outlets to reinvent their recipes in order to differentiate themselves from the growing competition in the market. As a fusion cuisine, this seems like a natural progression for Lebanese F&B operators, yet many top Lebanese chefs seem reluctant to deviate too far from traditional recipes.

“We are seeing Lebanese fusion restaurants popping up in Dubai,” observes Al Tannour’s Moussa. “These outlets take a modern twist on traditional Lebanese foods and have developed new presentation styles. However, at Al Tannour we believe the original and authentic tastes are best and we do not want to stray away from the formula that makes Lebanese cuisine so popular and Lebanese restaurants so successful.”

However, chefs are finding new ways of presenting tried and tested dishes. In many respects, the mezze lends itself to this as a modular, multiple small portion method of presenting food.

Keeping in line with the emerging health trend, Lebanese dishes are becoming smaller, which is good for healthy eating, good for profitability and good for more creative presentation.

“Because traditional Lebanese dishes are usually generously sized for sharing, the scope for creative presentation is somewhat limited when compared with contemporary dish presentation,” concludes Mueller.

“However chefs are becoming more creative in their presentation of Lebanese food to a growing customer base by using smaller portions on the plates and by innovative use of contemporary angular tableware.

“And the great thing about Lebanese cuisine is that this does not have a sizable impact on cost. The simplicity of Lebanese food means that ingredient costs are generally quite low allowing chefs to invest in higher quality ingredients.”

New fusion brands will undoubtedly emerge, but Lebanese food has a strong identity that is shared in many markets around the world. It makes good business sense to stay close to this truly international brand that has built a reputation over many hundreds of years.

Lebanese cuisine has a rich and proud heritage. Why should we mess with it now?

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How profitable is Lebanese cuisine?

Three restaurants’ demonstrate their business cases:

• Outlet: Al Basha Restaurant (Dedicated Lebanese outlet).
• Covers: 2,400 covers per month approx.
• Ingredients expenditure: 108,000 AED per month approx.

A note on profitability:
“Profitability is growing, and currently stands at around 40%. Last year, we saw strong growth of 21% on 2010.”

Outlet: Topkapi Restaurant (mixed menu).
Covers: 900 covers per month approx.
Ingredients expenditure: 25,000 AED per month approx.

A note on profitability:
“We are an Arabic food outlet and the popularity of the Lebanese menu items drives revenue and makes a significant contribution to the profitability of the restaurant.”

• Outlet: Fakhreldin Restaurant (Dedicated Lebanese outlet)
• Covers: 5,400 covers per month approx.
• Ingredients Expenditure: 40,000 AED per month approx.

A Note on profitability:
(New restaurant – no data)

Top 5 tips:

Maximise revenue from Lebanese cuisine
•Align the brand: Ensure your brand communicates a healthy eating message to capitalise on the trend.
•Keep it simple: The simplicity of Lebanese food is its key selling point.
•Keep it social: Ensure your restaurant allows for the social, food sharing side of Lebanese cuisine to shine through. Consider in-restaurant entertainment.
•Costing: As always, carefully cost your menu. Regularly review the performance of individual items on the a la carte menu.
•Upsell: The wide array of options on a Lebanese menu makes it more important to put training in place for the service team to upsell.

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