But in the past year, a devastating economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic have converged in Lebanon, pushing many businesses close to ruin. When an enormous explosion struck the beleaguered capital in August, killing nearly 200 people and devastating entire neighborhoods, it unleashed a new wave of suffering for business owners.
More than half of the roughly 2,100 bars and eateries in greater Beirut, including the Ghattas Bakery, were damaged in the blast, according to a survey carried out by the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Pastries in Lebanon. The damage to such establishments is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars — an enormous sum of money in a country where the local currency has lost 80 percent of its value in the past year.
Lebanon’s tourism sector, which includes restaurants, has lost about $500 million a month this year, according to the syndicate. Tens of thousands of restaurant workers have lost their jobs.
“I knew Lebanon had its ups and downs, but the explosion tore us apart,” Ghattas said through tears this month on the sidewalk outside his once-bustling shop, surrounded by piles of debris. “It tossed us away.”
He and other small-business owners were essentially left with two options: abandon their life’s work or scramble to put together the money to rebuild — without any help from a cash-strapped government.
Ghattas surveyed what was left of his 225-square-foot shop in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, where for decades he had proudly presided over the creation of hundreds of pastries each day.
The ceiling had crashed to the floor, burying his oven and refrigerator in rubble. His aluminum door was destroyed. The sign that hung above the shop, embellished with a picture of his late father, was torn off. In all, Ghattas estimated that the repairs would cost around $10,000 and that it could take five years to make up for his losses.
Taking over the family business
Ghattas learned at a young age that running a business in Lebanon comes with its fair share of complications.
He was born to a family of bakers. His grandfather, he said, opened the first family bakery in 1920 and mainly sold bread. Ghattas’s father followed in the family business. But when he died young, Ghattas had to drop out of school to take over and provide for his younger siblings.
His landlord’s plans to renovate forced Ghattas to leave the original bakery behind, but he soon opened his own shop near his grandparents’ old house. And he turned his focus away from bread, mastering the art of the manousheh, a pizza-like delicacy often topped with spices, ground meat or cheese.
His first menu was slim, but Ghattas thrived behind the counter, where he charmed his customers, often serving his creations with a side of chitchat. His success allowed him to eventually expand the menu to around 35 items and feature ingredients such as imported Bulgarian cheese.
His sons grew up visiting the bakery, where they learned their father’s secret recipes. The family stood by the business through the unpredictability of life in Lebanon, even after a bomb fell nearby during the Lebanese civil war and some regular customers began migrating abroad.
In the early 2000s, Ghattas briefly moved to Texas, he recounted, and tried opening a Lebanese restaurant with his brother. His wife, Theodora, stayed behind to manage the shop and continue her day job as a banker. But Lebanon called Ghattas back, and eventually his hole-in-the-wall shop emerged as a manousheh landmark in a historic district frequented by tourists and Lebanese alike.
“We are a family of fighters, and we fought hard to keep this business open,” said his son Elie, interviewed in Canada, where he now lives.
'A man and his manousheh guy'
Last year, as anti-government protesters took to the streets, the prime minister resigned and the currency was tanking, customers kept showing up to buy their breakfasts.
Ghattas reluctantly increased his prices, but what money he made was only enough for him to scrape by.
“I stuck to my personal principle: Sustain yourself, but don’t be a thief,” he said.
When the coronavirus hit and the government called for a lockdown in March, Ghattas told his workers that he would keep them as long as he could but that some should also look for work elsewhere. Still, he hoped that the economy would recover and the bakery would soon be up and running at full capacity.
Then came the Aug. 4 explosion. He rushed to his beloved shop — and, he said, had trouble finding it under the rubble.
He said he knew he couldn’t abandon the bakery, but the costs seemed insurmountable.
Soon, donations started to roll in. A neighboring business gave him its oven. A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $5,000 to help with repairs.
Ghattas was able to pay to fix the ceiling and start cleaning up the mess. The floor is still damaged and he’s short on cash — but suddenly it seemed like reopening might be possible after all.
Many of his customers have temporarily moved away — their apartments and offices still damaged from the blast. Others, traumatized by the experience, are unwilling to return.
But Ghattas said he hopes that if he fires up his new oven at the end of the month, his faithful clients will show up to support him or place orders by phone.
When the first one appears at his door, he will carefully sprinkle whichever ingredients they choose — za’atar or cheese, bacon or turkey — on top of his rolled-out dough, before sliding it into the oven to bake until golden brown.
He hopes that when he hands over the warm pastry, wrapped in paper and steaming with the smells of his grandfather’s kitchen, his displaced customers will get a small taste of home.
There’s no relationship quite like that between “a man and his manousheh guy,” he said. For Ghattas, that’s what gives him joy. “When you love your job this much, you can’t go wrong.”