Here’s a copy of my monthly column in Bold Magazine.
The Day Good Journalism Died
WORD THAT BEIRUT’S HARD ROCK CAFE WAS CLOSING ITS DOORS PROMPTED A FLURRY OF ARTICLES DEEMING ITS FAILURE A CATASTROPHE FOR LEBANON. BUT HARDLY A REPORTER BOTHERED TO CONSIDER WHETHER SOMETHING ELSE WAS TO BLAME
By Habib BattahThe American restaurant franchise Hard Rock Cafe has suffered mixed success in many global markets. Over the last decade, the chain has shut down some 50 outlets, according to fan and memorabilia sites that track worldwide openings and closings religiously. Closures this year in Mexico City, Ottawa and Nicosia generated few headlines. But when word spread that Hard Rock was closing its doors in Beirut, a media frenzy ignited.
Mountains of articles, blogs and tweets can be found bemoaning the end of the US chain’s local presence as a national tragedy. Lebanon’s Daily Star called the kitsch theme restaurant “a symbol of post-war reconstruction.” The National in the UAE deemed the closure “an indicator that Lebanon’s economic feast was turning into a famine.” Meanwhile a headline in Al Bawaba cried: “The day the music died.”
Based entirely on circumstantial evidence, many journalists drew a direct correlation between one restaurant’s failure and an entire country’s political and economic climate, blaming Hard Rock’s demise squarely on the war in Syria and the subsequent fall in tourism. Interestingly, none of these factors were noted in all of three sentences issued by Hard Rock management following the move. In a message posted on Facebook, the owners simply thanked patrons and promised continued “expansion in the region” while “looking forward to finding a new site for a Hard Rock Cafe … in Beirut.”
This last line “offered a glimmer of hope,” according to The Daily Star. But since when are dated theme restaurants national economic indicators? And what does it say about our future when “hope” is contained in the “possible” return of “Beer and Wings Mondays”? More importantly, what is the state of our business journalism when barely a single reporter entertains the possibility that Hard Rock’s product or management may have also played a role in its bankruptcy?
If a steady stream of worldwide Hard Rock closures were not convincing enough, why not consider the death of many American theme restaurants in Lebanon? The articles above reminisce about Hard Rock’s opening in 1996 during the “brighter days” of postwar reconstruction, which was dominated by the neoliberal Hariri administration. But it was precisely during Hariri’s reign in the 1990s – and well before the Syrian war – that many American chains shut their doors.
Few may remember the sprawling, hangar-like Sbarro Pizza outlet in Jounieh that opened and shuttered within the space of a few months in the mid-1990s. Or what about the memorabilia-stocked Planet Hollywood and TGI Fridays, which were some of the first foreign chains to open in post-war Beirut? Both lavishly furnished, multi-story establishments were also among the first to close. How about Johnny Rocket’s ill-fated drive-in theatre, which now serves as a parking lot and billboard in downtown Beirut? The details of these failures remain shrouded in mystery, but one would be hard-pressed to understand the logic of opening such enormous initial outlets in a country with barely a middle class that could afford them.
This odd habit of entering the food and beverage market with a massive “5-star” space continues to fascinate some Lebanese investors as we saw with the opening of a three-story Fuddruckers branch – larger than any I have seen elsewhere in the world – in early 2011. It closed earlier this year, again sending shock waves through the blogosphere that the country was headed for economic doom.
Opting not to rely on costly imported products, wiser Lebanese restaurateurs came up with a different business plan by the early 2000s. They created local brands that could offer the same nachos and cheese sticks at far more affordable prices. And they started small with modest, working-class locations. Today these home-grown outlets such as Crepaway, Roadster and Zatar W Zeit dominate the diner market, contributing significantly to the losses of their foreign counterparts. When visiting Hard Rock several years ago, it was so empty I was surprised it managed to stay open.
This isn’t to say all US chains are fated to fail here. Burger King, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts and the like seem to be perpetually expanding, popping up in the most unexpected provincial areas. Sure these restaurants have powerful marketing strategies, but price point is equally important. Far more Lebanese will be able to afford a Big Mac than a $15 sandwich from TGI Fridays or Fuddruckers.
There is no denying that instability and falling tourism numbers will affect many local businesses, particularly those offering products beyond the reach of most households. But over the past two years, there have also been many new openings from Lebanese chains. And as Hard Rock was going bust, an equally famous Damascus-based establishment had just opened its first branch in Beirut. Unlike the vast and expensive Hard Rock location at a towering seaside hotel, Al Farouk – for whose shawarma Syrians are known to drive for miles – has opened a one-room diner on a side street of pedestrian-friendly Hamra.
Like the local brands that preceded them, Al Farouk’s owners understand that Lebanon’s demographics are changing. It may be a gamble, but by exercising a bit of humility, they will be a lot less likely to fail or at least cause a national drama if they do.