How Lebanon’s food scandal spurred startup solutions

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The Lebanese are all over the world, and more often than not their cuisine acts as the ultimate ambassador for the tiny Middle Eastern country.

Tourists flock for gorgeous scenery but also giant plates of hummus.

A hummus world record for Lebanon
That’s a whole lotta hummus. (Image via NBC News)

But this isn’t la la land. The food and beverage sector is a very real one, not always concerned with Guinness World Records, affected by the country’s economic instability.

Research shows that price surges in real estate, especially in various parts of Beirut, like Hamra, Verdun, Gemmayzeh and Achrafieh, plus a lack of parking areas, have left restaurant owners struggling to cover rent cost, leading them to raise their menu prices, or worse, shutting down.

It doesn’t end there though. Add into this the national food scandal that rocked the country earlier this year. Supermarkets, restaurants, and bars, were scrutinized, to the point where customers were suspicious of any food vendor
, whether it met the national health standards imposed by the Ministry of Health, or not. This took the problems for restaurateurs to a whole new level.

The effect?

Unsurprisingly these events have brought around a shift in consumer behavior.

“Orders dropped by 70 percent during the first week of the scandal,” said Abed El Kader Majzoub, country manager at food delivery app Onlivery.

“People would contact us asking whether we’ll be sending them a hospital bill as well,” he jokes.

After orders began to pick up again, Majzoub said, “they went towards specific places. People before [the food scandal] would try different choices, now they only go to the places they know.”

As a frequent restaurant goer, Danielle Issa, who blogs at Beirutista, was cautious during the scandal and made sure to stick to the “venues with verifiable or visible standards, particularly those that have open kitchens [...] My appetite for trying new places diminished, and I clung to only the tried, true and blemish-free.”  

This new shift also led SerVme, an industry platform for booking and restaurant data analysis, to add a list of popular places to their newly improved app, from casual to fine dining venues.

Data and reviews, an answer?

The ‘review’ has become a massively helpful, and sometimes dangerous tool, for both a business and a consumer.

“Online data [input from customers, blog reviews, ratings] can go a long way in creating a virtual restaurant visit, even before the real one transpires,” says Issa.

A look into SerVme's soon-to-be launched iOS app.

“I can often make a decision about whether the restaurant merits a visit merely from the variety of food served (and creativity in the dishes), price range, and the general attitude of previous diners,” Issa concludes. “I wouldn’t say I rely exclusively on visitors’ remarks, but I like to be aware of everything and use that information to make an informed decision for myself.”  

By giving their clients data on spending and preferences, SerVme’s CEO Sarah Hawilo says “restaurants can directly market to their target audience without having to continuously spend on PR and social marketing.”

When startups take notes

While customers are getting pickier about their food choices, Lebanese startups have been taking note.

Aside from giving their users a portal to order food, Onlivery is also saving user data, such as addresses and what they order from which restaurant, in order to provide a seamless experience for the users. In the future, they might also save customer’s food preferences to suggest new places nearby.

Away from food ordering platforms, a new concept is being introduced to the Lebanese market to enhance convenience and food safety.

ChefXChange and Bibayti (‘in my house’ in Arabic) will soon be launched in Lebanon to offer users the chance to book their own private chef online who’ll come to their home and cook for them.


Heavenly bites in the making. (Image viaChefXChange)

With Dubai as their primary market, ChefXChange also operates in London and Washington DC.  “It was always a pain hosting events at home, having to spend time cooking and cleaning,” founder Karl Naim told Wamda. So,why not launch “the airbnb of food”, where you can rent a chef to come cook for you, then clean up, and leave.

While Naim admitted that they have faced challenges convincing people to invite a chef into their home  - ChefXChange has now more than 200 registered chefs and more than 600 foodies. The cofounders claim to vet the registered chef by asking them to do a demo.

Chefs on ChefXChange vary between amateurs, apprentices and professionals. And so too does the price, which ranges from $50 to $200 per person, as set by the chefs themselves.

Bibayti, cooking soon in Lebanon. (Image via Bibayti)

Similarly, Bibayti, soon to be launched by Jean Fares, Fadi Kharrat and Makram Raydan, is also featuring all levels of chefs on the platform with a price range of $30 to $120 per person. While the concept of such services is niche, it might set a new trend in the Lebanese market.

And again, information from users will be key. “We hope that the data [...] will allow the chefs and amateur cooks to better refine their offers to meet clients demands,” said Lynn Bedran, one of the people involved in Bibayti. 

Lebanon has its own share of problems, that we can all agree on. From electricity cuts to the recent garbage issue, food poisoning is just adding salt to the wound.

This time however, Lebanese startups are rolling up their sleeves and getting ready to take action.

Feature image, Lebanese man selling kaaks, via Eating The World blog.

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