Beirut vendor's growing business bears fruit
Author: Talia Abbas
Posted November 6, 2018
It’s an unusually warm November day in Beirut, but inside an air-conditioned warehouse, shoppers find a moment of relief perusing piles of local and exotic produce that line the 20,500-square-foot store. As they make their way through the brightly colored rows of guavas, persimmons and cherimoyas, they pause to nibble on a date or a grape. This vast space has been the home of Fadi Fruits for the last four years. Once considered one of Beirut’s best kept secrets, they are now one of the city’s most sought-after fruit and vegetable vendors.
In 1994, founder Hassan Alhabra began selling produce at a local vegetable souk from his van near the Egyptian Embassy. When the market closed in 1999, Fadi Fruits moved to Wata al-Msaytbeh, a suburban area in Jnah. Working out of an old garage, Hassan’s four sons — Fadi, Houssam, Ayman and Hasan — slowly began taking over the day-to-day operations.
In 2003, they were faced with the unlikely opening of a store of the British supermarket chain Spinneys just across the street. Instead of cannibalizing their business, their presence had the opposite effect, Houssam told Al-Monitor. People would shop for general supplies at the supermarket, but came to Fadi Fruits for fresh produce. Ironically, Spinneys Jnah has since become the de facto landmark for locating Fadi Fruits — “just opposite Spinneys,” people would tell each other to describe its location.
In the decade that followed, Hasan, the youngest of the four, said the family attended annual agricultural trade fairs and forged relationships with growers and sellers in Africa, Europe and Australia to source their produce. Armed with discerning taste buds, the brothers shipped in fruits and vegetables from all over the world that became equally known for their taste as their high price.
Riding a wave of success, they took a risk about four years ago and moved the business into the large space across the street from their old garage. This expansion brought a whole new set of creative, lucrative opportunities — a juice shop, a fish restaurant and ice cream stands — as well as challenges. For one, Lebanon’s market is flooded with competition, as there is a fruit vendor on nearly every other street corner, and copycats have taken notice.
This February, they scoured Turkey’s farms high and low to find the "jenerik" (a Persian green plum that is small in size, tangy in taste and eaten with salt) to appease a pregnant woman’s cravings ahead of the fruit’s May season. They eventually found a farmer selling 10 kilos (22 pounds) and shipped it to Beirut, where it sold out the same day, at $130 per kilo.
Hassan Hmadeh has been working with the brothers for the last 10 years. “They’re like my family,” he told Al-Monitor. Hmadeh starts his day at 7 a.m. and works until 8 p.m., organizing the various colorful displays. The busiest time of day is usually in the late afternoon, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., when people come in to shop after work.
Hmadeh is a recognizable face among clients, including Mohammad Assaf, a regular customer who lives in the neighborhood. He told Al-Monitor that he has been buying all his fruits and vegetables from Fadi Fruits for the last 15 years. He favors their seasonal produce, and today he is buying apples, mangoes, avocados and grapes. What keeps him coming back, he said, is the warm welcome. “They make you feel at home and they treat all their customers with the same deference,” he noted.
This sense of loyalty and community is shared among families in Lebanon, passed down through generations despite changing shopping habits. Where one grandmother or grandfather would come alone in the morning to have first pick of the day’s tomatoes or onions, their children might come after work, or if they have the means they send a driver with the nanny to do the shopping. Still, with ever-changing technologies, others might call or place orders through WhatsApp that are then delivered to their doorstep.
Besides their fresh produce, Fadi Fruits sells all kinds of nuts, spices, jams, dried fruits, honey, ice cream, juices and fish across the street. The brothers are keen on growing their business even more, which would include supplying bigger clients such as hotels, restaurants and other businesses, and building their trade network. Hasan said they are taking it step by step, despite investment offers to franchise. They employ roughly 110 full-time employees now, and maintaining quality is key, he stressed, “both in the products we supply, as well as the pristine customer service we offer.”
One way they try to control the quality and variety of products is by working with local suppliers. They have been collaborating with women from various Lebanese villages to buy a year’s worth of their supply of mouneh or speciality preservatives, such as labneh or makdous (tiny, tangy eggplants stuffed with walnuts, red pepper, garlic, olive oil and salt) that are specific to each village. Hasan said it incentivizes them to keep these traditions alive, while also providing livelihoods and a sense of independence among the women.
But in a country where resources are scarce, many Lebanese are mindful of the way they consume their water, electricity and food. Fadi Fruits donates its unsold perishables to charities such as Dar El Aytam, a local orphanage.
Sometimes, they also find themselves experimenting with ice cream flavors — zucchini, beetroot, avocado or even spicy chocolate — to be tasted separately. Hasan joked that the zucchini-flavored ice cream ("bouza 3a koussa") is by no means tasty, but it caused a stir among locals — "Bouza 3a Koussa" is an old joke referring to something that’s wholly unappetizing — and went viral on social media when it was first introduced in April 2017.
Talia Abbas is a journalist based between New York and Beirut. She is currently working in Turin, Italy, as a digital editorial fellow at La Stampa. Talia has a master’s degree from the Columbia Journalism School and has worked for Vice News Tonight and The Daily Star. Her work explores cultural identity through art and fashion. She speaks English, French, Arabic, Italian and Flemish.