December 01, 2017 Lebanon Middle East

STREET FOOD SOUK GIVES STARTUPS A MARKET TASTE

Bimpos.com The street provides a training ground for food and beverage concepts to own their own bricks and mortar property.

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Souk el Akel is described by Co-founder Anthony Rahayel as a “Street market showcasing Lebanon’s vibrant culinary world of foods including Lebanese, Middle Eastern and international bites.” In an interview with a Lebanese business magazine, he says: “Souk el Akel introduces new foods to Lebanon, pushes ideas further and lets small businesses realize their dreams.” For some F&B concepts, standing on this popular street food market has made the dream of owning a bricks and mortar venue finally come true. But it’s not without its challenges.

Located on Mar Mikhael’s Madrid Street, The Bros is a recently opened burger venue. Walk past it on any given day or night and a large crowd of young foodies can be seen gathered outside eating and drinking. Its popularity has led to the expansion of the venue, despite that not too long ago, it begun life on a street food market.

“We worked with the three brothers behind The Bros concept,” says Manal Syriani, project manager at N4TC, a tourist and hospitality consultancy. “The brothers loved cooking and over time were able to build clientele at Souk el Akel, so began thinking about officially taking their concept into a physical business.” 

It’s no secret that street vending at food markets offers direct access to the target audience without the significant overheads that come with a permanent space. Therefore, being able to test and grow a concept before having to commit to it financially is invaluable for street food entrepreneurs.

“Many outlets started in similar places before going on to become typical food and beverage outlets,” Syriani says, adding that such street markets provide opportunities to meet people, test the food, test the market, and ultimately test the concept before investing into a full-fledged bricks and mortar restaurant. 

Elias Saade, owner of Frooza, a concept that handcrafts ice cream rolls in front of customers, had a clear strategy in place when he first stood at Souk el Akel two years ago: “We planned from day one to create a loyal crowd in the first eight to 12 months at the Souk, so we could open a physical shop.”

It opened 12 months later and the risk of investing around USD $50,000 into the physical space has seemingly paid off: “People come every day. They enjoy the live show of us making the ice cream rolls, and take photos and videos to post on social media,” he says.

Syriani says that the typical challenges faced by street food vendors wanting to set up a bricks and mortar shop are the same faced by small and family run businesses. “All these concepts have a passion for food and enjoy what they do, so much so they just want to open an outlet to express it,” she says. “But when they do, it is a challenge for them to organize it and put a structure for it like trying to put systems in place.” 

“Obviously, overheads have increased − monthly rent, staff payroll, and utilities all have to be paid yearly, which can be a challenge” says Saade.

To keep customers aware of their new bricks and mortar shops, many of the street food entrepreneurs have remained at Souk el Akel “I’m still there because you have people visiting the Souk who are unable to get to Mar Mikhael. It also gives me the opportunity to market the shop and tell them about it face-to-face,” he says. 

Street food vendors Joseph Astourian and Roy Chehadeh have also remained on Souk el Akel, despite opening Das Küche (German for The Kitchen) this week (November 28, 2017) just three doors along from The Bros. Both Astourian and Chehadeh our managing partners of the space, which is a combination of two concepts – The Potato Bar, by Astourian, and The Sausage House, by Chehadeh, both of which began life separately two years ago on the Souk. According to Astourian, investment in Das Küche is around $200,000. “It was a big step,” he says, “but being at the Souk has been a big success for us. We were always busy so decided to have a shop here in Mar Mikhael.”

The Sausage House imports 16 type of sausages from Europe and grills them live in front of diners. According to Astourian, the sausages can also be bought raw by the kilo and taken home. The Potato Bar offers the same jacket potatoes and fillings it sells on Souk el Akel. “We have added a gourmet line here at Das Küche, says Astourian, “which includes fillings like pulled pork and salmon, and sweet potatoes.” The restaurant also sells eight draught beers and a selection of German, English and local bottled beers.

The list of F&B street vendors that have made the transition from market to bricks and mortar is growing. Mac ‘N’ Cheese, The Pasta Guys and Kharouf Beirut are just a few from a long list. “Street food is very popular. It’s a growing trend,” says Syriani.

Charbel Akiki managing partner with Gino Khoueiry at Kharouf Beirutopened their physical restaurant four months ago, also in Mar Mikhael. “It a restaurant that has lamb rotating on a spit that diners can see,” says Akiki, who first began the concept eight years ago through providing BBQs at small events. In 2015, he partnered with Khoueiry and moved to Souk el Akel. “We only sold sandwiches at the Souk. But because we had the rotating spit, it created a huge amount of traffic,” he says.

Around USD $100, 000 was needed to create the bricks and mortar space, according to Akiki. “It’s an investment,” he says, “and allows us to widen our menu offering. But more importantly, it allows us to expand the concept.”

It is clear that the street is a training ground for the possibility of food startups to open a future bricks and mortar venue. The street market provides a viable way to interact with customers and see if there is a potential to take the concept to a more permanent level. But setting up shop in a permanent location doesn’t always mean leaving the street behind entirely.

Original content on Bimpos.com

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