Lebanon’s restaurants ‘sinking’ after coronavirus lockdown

“The main title of this phase is flexibility,” says Walid Merhi, resting on a barstool in his small restaurant and pub, Ferdinand, in Beirut’s once-bustling Hamra neighbourhood.

“Yes, coronavirus was bad, but the main problem is the financial issue. People have no purchasing power any more,” he tells Al Jazeera.

Behind him, employees filter a maroon liquid from a metal container through a make-shift sieve into cups for takeaway orders. Cocktails-to-go seem out of place for a bar widely regarded as among the best in Lebanon.

But as the country is rocked by its worst-ever financial crisis, which has only deepened in the wake of a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, everyone is being forced to adapt.

Ferdinand’s path is one taken by many restaurants in Lebanon as the country eases a near two-month lockdown that helped arrest the spread of the virus but has nearly asphyxiated an economy that was already in crisis.

Many restaurateurs have tried to make food deliveries work. Daytime service is being added to places that were usually only frequented at night. Downsized menus sourced from local produce are replacing imports, which have become far too expensive as an acute dollar shortage led the national currency to depreciate by about 60 percent on parallel markets since last summer.

The country is desperately trying to get back to normal – more cars fill streets and pedestrians once again squeeze past each other on Beirut’s narrow sidewalks.

‘It’s been really drastic’

All restaurants closed for dine-in service when the country went into partial lockdown on March 15. Now, most are struggling to reopen, and many will not, say industry insiders.

“It’s been really drastic,” Maya Noun, Secretary-General of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-clubs & Pastries in Lebanon told Al Jazeera. She said 800 establishments had closed down permanently since October – when anti-establishment protests started sweeping the nation- with 200 shutting their doors in January alone.

Some 25,000 employees lost their jobs in the 4-month period between October and January, she said, in a sector that used to employ 150,000 people. Anecdotally, she said many of her colleagues had phoned her to say they were planning to cut their losses and call it quits.

Another headache for restaurants is Lebanon’s plunging exchange rate.

For instance, on the menu of Kudeta Bistro, a French eatery with a Lebanese twist, $1 still equals 1,500 Lebanese pounds, the official rate at which the local currency had been pegged at for 23 years. But on the parallel markets, $1 equals roughly 4,000 Lebanese pounds.

“[Restaurateurs are] legally not allowed to put the rate higher,” the syndicate’s Noun explained. “We’re buying at 4,000, selling at 1,500 and the customers aren’t even there.”

“We are sinking,” she said.

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