Small Lebanon Businesses Struggle to Survive
After Beirut went into lockdown in March, Walid Ataya returned to his bakery, pizzeria and wine room each morning, perching on a stool at the sidewalk bar to maintain an outpost of commerce and consider his next moves.
Before the pandemic, Lebanon faced an economic crisis rooted in years of government mismanagement and corruption that had sparked nationwide protests. Ataya, who fled when Israel invaded in the mid-1980s, had no intention of leaving again.
“Over here in Lebanon, we can deal with crises,” said Ataya, whose Bread Republic presides over a busy intersection fronting the swanky Furn al-Hayek neighborhood. “We have been through wars and turmoil. ... So the pandemic came and for us it is just another crisis to overcome.”
Bakeries were exempted from closure, so Ataya’s expanded beyond bread to sell fresh pasta. He also kept up a limited flower business, only delivering orders and selling bouquets at the bakery.
Ataya kept on 10 of his 40 employees, sending others home at half-pay. Eventually, he let 10 go, recalling the rest at full wages. He negotiated a rent reduction and cut ties with some suppliers when an 85 percent drop in the nation’s currency left many accepting only dollars.
When rules were eased in May, he reopened the wine bar and pizzeria, albeit at 30 percent of capacity. At first, no one sat indoors and staff circulated among the tables, spraying disinfectant. Police still fined Ataya for overcrowding at his outdoor tables. He is contesting it in court.
Finally, in early June, restrictions were reduced enough for Ataya to reopen his restaurant across the street from the bakery and pizzeria. Protests had resumed and he had his hands full dealing with government paperwork. Then masked men broke into his office and carried out a safe holding thousands of dollars.
In recent days, though, customers filled the tables outside his businesses.
“We are in the stage of surviving day to day now,” Ataya said. “You cannot sit and do nothing. You have to take your chances.”