If you think you’ve got it tough, consider what it’s like to own a business in Beirut right now. After the recent devastation witnessed in the news last week Jad Ballout talks about surviving a government in turmoil, the challenges of lockdown and experiencing the bar that he built with his wife being blown up mid-service.
Setting the scene:
Jad and Lin opened their dream bar Electric Bing Sutt in October 1st, 2018. Blending their backgrounds in the style of food and drinks served – Middle Eastern (Jad) and Asian (Lin), their bright, buzzy bar is also a testament to their combined personalities – think fun, approachable and a little bit quirky but conceived with a great sense of seriousness and style. All of which goes down like a charm with the guests, most of whom are of the creative persuasion – artists, architects, designers and the likes who occupy the neighbouring offices.
And Electric Bing Sutt isn’t just a hit with the locals. Jad, Lin and their bar have made a huge impression on the global bar scene as well. In under two years their plucky, self-built bar has boasted guest shift appearances from the big guns on the bar scene – we’re talking the likes of Dinos Constantinides (Lost & Found, Cyprus); Nico de Soto (Danico, Mace and Kaido/Miami, Paris, New York respectively); Agung Prabowo (The Old Man, Hong Kong); Jimmy Barrat (Zuma, Dubai); Vasilis Kyritsis (The Clumsies, Athens), and Alex Kratena (Tayer + Elementary, London), to name but a few. Not because they need to, or to raise their profiles you understand but because of the respect they have for Jad and his crew. Which explains the Help Electric Bing Sutt Rebuild GoFundMe page that was set up by Nico and Dinos as soon as news broke about the explosion.
“Our brother Jad is in trouble and what do brothers do? Everything they can!” they say on the page. “Lebanon is facing a uniquely harsh situation and Jad, although he has proven he has all it takes to succeed, under the circumstances, he just can’t. We are asking for the global bar industry, our extended family to support our cause and help raise £60k so that our brother can start over. We’ve got you brother!”
To make a donation, however large or small, follow the link here.
Above: After the blast
Like the rest of the world, we were devastated to see the events in Beirut last week. How is everyone? Are your family, friends and the team all safe and well?
Everyone is fine – my mother, sister – the whole family. As for the team, we’re lucky because we were all in the bar so we’re all safe.
You were in the bar?! From the photos of the aftermath it looks like anyone who had been in the bar would have been decimated.
Actually, the opposite is true: anyone who was in the street was injured. We were incredibly lucky because there are two floors above the building and the rubble fell on the entrance of the bar, so it’s great that no one was out there at the time.
Lucky indeed. Sorry to ask you to relive it but can you tell us what you remember about the explosion?
It was the afternoon and we had three or four tables of customers in the bar at the time. We were fully booked for the evening so we were really happy as there was a lot of excitement about the bar being busy after coming out of four days of lockdown.
Then all of a sudden, we heard a sound and the windows started to vibrate. The next thing we knew, we were all on the floor, with dust all around us. I dragged Lin under the table after the first blast because we didn’t know whether it was a terrorist attack or if there would be another explosion. After a few minutes, when we felt that nothing else was going to happen, the customers ran out and we went out into the street to see what had happened. It was an absolute disaster. There were people with blood running everywhere and devastation all around us. Lin’s car was damaged, so was our home. All of the windows were broken and the doors were on the floor.
Your home has gone too?
Our home is actually okay. We didn’t have any windows for two days but we were able to stay there – even on the first night – we just cleared up the glass. Yesterday we had someone come over to fix the windows and clean up the debris, so home is alright.
Thank goodness for that. What about the bar? What’s the situation there?
Like many of the properties in the street, the building is old and some of them have already started to cave in. Our bar? It’s tilted and looks like it’s going to collapse at any point but to be honest, we don’t really know what’s happening with it.
Have you had any guidance from the government?
The worst thing is the government haven’t sent anyone to check to let us know if we can go in or not. We did call the police and they came and looked at the building for a few minutes then they left but they haven’t given us any clear instructions on what to do.
So what are you doing in the meantime?
We’ve been going to the bar every day. We go in very quickly as the structure is unsafe and try to remove whatever kit we can. We’ve got things stored all over the place: some in our apartment, some things are with friends, others with members of our team and neighbours. The good thing is that there are a lot of volunteers on the street, so as well as our team, a lot of people are coming to help us.
What’s the mood like in the city?
Everyone is very sad. You see people walking around, crying – they’re still affected by what they’ve seen and what they’re seeing – everything is destroyed. On the positive side, there are a lot of people who have come in to help clean up; they volunteer, handing out food and drinks – everyone is helping each other. That’s one of the great things that’s happened during this crisis – everyone has come together, even if they haven’t been affected by the explosion, they’re out on the streets helping whoever needs help.
Electric Bing Sutt pre-blast
Before this there was lockdown. How was it in Lebanon?
Even before lockdown we were facing lots of issues which started from October last year. There was a revolution because dollar rates to Lebanese lira were climbing rapidly. To put it into context, in October one dollar to Lebanese lira was 1,500; now one dollar to Lebanese lira is 8,500 to 10,000. As a result, we’ve lost almost all of our savings. So business was hard even before Covid and every month it’s getting worse.
In what way?
For example, all of our repairs have to be paid in dollars and as I mentioned, the dollar rate is very high. Also because most alcohol is imported, it’s now super expensive – for instance, a bottle of Campari is $60! So obviously, companies have had to increase their prices to match inflation which they then sell to us at a high price and we have to pay in Lebanese lira. Also the government have stopped all of our cards so all of our dollars are frozen and we can’t buy anything from abroad through our bank account. So you have no choice but to go to the black market to exchange your lira to dollars at a higher rate.
How have you managed to survive up to this point?
By finding solutions. It’s too expensive to buy alcohol so we built a lab to make our own spirits and distillates. We can’t buy imported goods so we came up with creative ideas for the kitchen. For instance, we use a lot of sriracha so now we make our own. We used to import lots of exotic herbs and ingredients such as shisho and kefir lime leaves but now we’ve partnered up with local farmers to plant and grow them for us. So as well as finding solutions for ourselves, we’re helping the community.
Then Covid-19 came and we took another hit. But we’ve used the time to create new things and think of solutions – we’ve been thinking about the next steps.
When did lockdown hit in Lebanon?
At the end of February, we came out of it on May 4th. We were allowed to open on a day-only basis as our licence is also for a restaurant. At first we operated at 50% capacity but it’s gradually built up. Then last month we had another lockdown, first for four days, then we opened again then we had another lockdown for four days, then the explosion happened.
What are your plans going forward?
We’re 90% certain that we won’t be able to operate in the same spot, so for the moment we’re thinking about finding another location or a doing a pop-up until we figure out our next steps. That’s why we’re trying to retrieve as much as we can from the building.
At the moment our priority is paying our 14 staff. We actually paid them yesterday even though they didn’t want to accept the money. I told them to take it, they’ve worked for it and they need money as well. They’ve been so good to us, they’ve all been coming to the bar every day.
You’ve had some major setbacks, have you thought of packing it all in?
It does seem that every time we find a solution, something else comes up but we’re determined to keep going.
One thing that has really helped keep our spirits up is just how much support we’ve been getting from around the world. I can honestly say that our community is the best because I haven’t seen any other community get so much support as we have. Everyone has been sending us messages – even people that I’ve only met once at a bar show or had a quick chat with – they’ve been calling and messaging – it’s been really amazing. Then Nico and Dinos set up a GoFundMe page for us which we didn’t know anything about. This is what keeps us going, it’s really helped to keep us strong because we don’t feel alone – it gives us hope. It makes us feel that everyone is with us and it really, really has been incredible.
And now over to Lin. Lin, how has the experience been from your perspective?
I got hit by a balcony! After the blast stopped I went out to see what was going on. I turned and the balcony hit me on my chest and the blast blew me back into the bar. I’m fine but I was very shaken. At first I thought it was a bone fracture but it’s starting to feel better. The thing is, I can’t go to the hospital to get it checked out because they’re so full. Let’s face it, there are people with far more serious injuries than me…
Going back to the explosion, my first thoughts was disbelief, I couldn’t believe what was happening. It’s different for Lebanese people, they’ve seen wars and conflict but coming from China, I’ve never seen anything on this scale before. I was in complete shock. There were sirens, alarms, people yelling and crying, this weird smell in the air and dust everywhere. I didn’t cry immediately, I was just in shock.
Yesterday I went to the bar and it was really emotional. The building is kind of hanging there. I keep thinking, ‘is it going to fall, is it not going to fall?’ I had a moment when I just thought, ‘if it’s going to fall, let it fall now’.
We built the bar from scratch so there’s all of the emotions and struggles that go with that. It’s been our dream – the theme, the decor, the glassware – everything there was something we made for a lifetime – it’s exactly who we are.
Now I feel a bit better – what can you do? We’re going to make a new and better bar. For me and Jad and our partner Andre, this is in our blood, there’s nothing else we want to do and more than that, we’re going to come back strong.
Many things happen in life. Some things you can control, some you can’t but you have to stand strong and thank God that everyone is safe. You don’t have any other choice. It’s unfortunate yes, but we can rebuild another bar and the next one is going to be even better.
To donate to the Help Electric Bing Sutt Rebuild GoFundMe page, follow the link here