Carrying the Lebanese flag, one export at a time

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Many Lebanese companies could pass as coming from anywhere – in technology, services, and even food. But a handful of them are unmistakably “carrying the Lebanese flag” as they expand across the world.

“Today, there’s a lot more [products] designed with the Western market in mind. It looks ethnic, but it’s edgy and modern,” says Tarek Sadi, managing director at Endeavor Lebanon, an NGO that supports high-impact entrepreneurship.

From food and wine to condiments and natural beauty products, already known for their quality across the Middle East and among Lebanon’s extensive diaspora, these products and concepts are making their way into global mainstream shops, shelves and neighborhoods.

From local vineyards to international glasses

With nine million bottles exported annually, wine is by far Lebanon’s most successful and fastest-growing export. International and Lebanese wine fairs in cities around the world have given wines from Lebanon a boost that have taken bottles from niche ethnic shops and restaurants to the likes of Marks and Spencer’s in the UK.

“It’s Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca versus the little Lebanese store in Chevy Chase,” said Sadi, who sees packaging and delivery as key to getting traditionally niche ethnic items into the mainstream market, which is seeing a growing demand for the exotic everyday consumption.

“People are traveling more, seeing more. Travel shows like Anthony Bourdain’s [Parts Unknown] have all had an impact on people’s perceptions. We’re on the coattail of that. People want things that they perceive as more real, authentic, from the land.”

For Lebanon, this also means shedding its most potent image as a war-torn country, something it continues to struggle with more than 25 years after the end of its civil war.

“It’s giving a positive image of a country that usually has a negative image,” said Lebanese wine expert Michael Karam, an organizer of Lebanon’s wine promotion campaign. “Commerce can do a lot for a country. See what wine has done for South Africa and Chile. It’s much better than thinking about conflict.”

This trend appears to be just the beginning of the difficult job of getting Lebanon to be a serious global exporter, not just of its wines, but also its brand. The sector still faces an uphill battle in reaching its potential, to the heights of international popularity of its regional neighbors Greece and Cyprus, whose wine exports are both more than twice that of Lebanon, and have long gotten past the ethnic niche market.

“Our first step is to go into Lebanese restaurants. But now it’s time to move. We need to go outside,” said Elie Maamari, oenologist and export manager at Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest and largest winery.

Meanwhile, people all over the world are starting to discover Lebanese olive oil soap, thanks to entrepreneurs like Bader Hassoun with Khan al-Saboun, whose soaps from Tripoli's old city now appear in shelves in Arkansas, Michele Shamiyeh's Zeetoon business in San Francisco, and these little green bars are even gracing the shelves of Harrods in London.

"We remember when the Harrods head buyer asked us to meet, we – three sisters went there ready to pitch our business, [she] asked us not to bother, as she already knew our brand. Her response was that she loved what we do as a family business, run by three ladies, luxury hand made 100 percent natural products, based on essential oils, look and smell gorgeous. That's what she was looking for to sell on their Body Bath department," recalls Rima Nazer, who, along with her two sisters in Tripoli, founded Jardin d'Eden, a soap company based on their late father's olive oil soap business.

The taste of Lebanon

Meanwhile, Lebanese restaurants are gaining a loyal following abroad, particularly in the US, where high-end dining establishments and fast-growing franchises are bringing Lebanese food onto some of the world’s busiest streets.

The posh Ilili restaurant in midtown Manhattan is showing a refined side of Lebanon, while chain restaurants are working to make shawarmas as popular as tacos and sushi, with the likes of Semsom, Aladdin and Naya.

Similarly, Youssef Fares, who sells his gourmet Lebanese olive oil, Zejd, around the world, has found an interest among non-Lebanese who are interested in high-quality condiments, with their subtle added flavoring, and slick bottles and packaging.

He says that image plays a big role in business, with the French seeing Lebanese in a good light, while many Germans and Americans he has met have barely heard of Lebanon, something he is trying to change through his business.

“I think the government needs to make a connection between Lebanese exports and building a Lebanese brand. There needs to be a kind of incentive to sell Lebanon through its exports,” said Karam.

Fortunately for Lebanon, thanks to some of its independent entrepreneurs combined with a growing demand of its products in the West, the country is gradually growing a reputation for some of its better qualities.

“All these products make us look good. It’s an important thing for us, because we all need to be ambassadors of Lebanon abroad,” said Sadi. “There’s a big sense of pride in being Lebanese and wanting to show off the best the country has to offer.”

Feature image via Flickr Insatiablemunch.

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