Spotlight: Cafe YounesHamra, Beirut, Lebanon
By James Di Properzio
More than 70 years ago, Amin Younes returned to his native Beirut from working on the coffee plantations of Brazil, bringing his love of coffee with him. Through several wars and the destruction of its original location, as well as the opening of a Starbucks down the street, Café Younes has survived and thrived. Amin Younes, the 38-year-old grandson and namesake of the founder, has expanded it to four locations, each tailored to a different client base. Each generation has brought something new, from Turkish coffee made with Brazilian beans to espresso of Kenyan origin to modern niche cafes.
“Every day holds a new story,” reflects Younes. “Some are funny, and others are sad. The actors are my clients, mainly the regulars.”
A vivid recent memory dates from August 2006. “Lebanon was in the middle of an Israeli invasion. Beirut was relatively safe, but the ports and airports were closed so the goods were scarce,” says Younes. “My green coffee stock was getting critically low. I was worried and so were my clients, who used to gather daily during my short opening hours to escape the political mood. I managed to get a three-month supply by land, and when I started unloading coffee bags, I was surprised to see my clientele clapping and cheering and tapping on my back. I had tears in my eyes.”
The history of Café Younes is embodied by Abou Anwar, its roaster, who came to work for the elder Amin 52 years ago at age 16 and is still in charge of all roasting. When Amin returned from Brazil in the mid-1930s, he set up the first roaster in downtown Beirut. He imported Brazilian beans, as well as the more traditional Yemenis and Ethiopians, roasted them by hand, and brewed up the local style of coffee, which is commonly called Turkish coffee today: coffee ground powder-fine and brewed in a long-handled ibrik pot, sweetened and poured into tiny cups.
When Amin’s son Souheil took over the business in 1960, he opened a second location in the city’s Hamra neighborhood and brought back an espresso machine from Italy, installing it on the street so passers-by could see the Italian-style coffee being made. Within days, they were lining up to try it. He bought a 30kg Probat for roasting, which is still going strong today. He imported Kenyan AA and roasted it very dark, even for espresso—innovative for 1960. (Compare it to the espresso scene in North America at the time!) Today, the younger Amin recalls fondly his father’s passion for coffee, and how the aroma would come home with him at the end of each workday.
The two elder Younes were as cutting-edge as Amin is today. Before putting his own forward-looking stamp on Café Younes, he got a business degree from the Lebanese American University in Beirut and went off to pursue a career in banking. But after three years, he felt pulled back to the family coffee business; in 1996, he took it over from his father, who was moved to tears that his son wanted to continue the family business. It hadn’t always been easy for Souheil, who had seen his father’s original location downtown destroyed in the 1975 civil war. (The partially burnt sign still hangs inside the rebuilt downtown branch.)
Amin knew he had to innovate to stay on top of an increasingly competitive business, and on an initial loan of $20,000 and a lot of passion, he and his partner expanded to a total of four locations: the Café Younes roastery, Café Younes Gourmet, The Coffee House and The Coffee House Express.
From the old days of the ibriks, which are still available for the veteran clientele, the four locations of Café Younes now make dozens of specialty espresso drinks, and each branch offers something different. At the Hamra Café Younes roastery, Amin began roasting beans from a variety of origins, making his own espresso blends in the southern-Italian style and testing them out on Alitalia flight crews over-nighting nearby, who enthusiastically experimented with him on blends and eventually confirmed that the espresso was the best they’d had outside
Italy. His father had made espresso drinks without milk, so when Amin introduced milk-based coffee drinks that form the bulk of today’s café business, he began importing French syrups and inventing his own recipes with a local flair, such as the Rose Cappuccino and the lavender-laced espresso drink Sweet Temptation.
Today at the roastery, more than a dozen varietals are roasted and sold at any given time, as well as the coffee for the other café locations. In addition to the old Probat, Younes uses a small sample roaster for custom roasts. Because of Younes’ diverse clientele, the cafés offer perhaps the widest spectrum of roasts anywhere in the world, from the darker-than-French roast for the older generation to the Bedouin roast, which does not even approach first crack. The beans stay yellow, are ground even coarser than for a French press, and are mixed with green cardamom pods and simmered for hours in a stovetop pot to produce a bitter, yellowish brew.
This location is also a mini-museum, with the original hand roasting and grinding equipment on display, as well as the half-burnt sign from the destroyed original location and an antique cash register that is still in use.
Also in the Hamra neighborhood is Café Younes Gourmet, which features baked goods, salads and sandwiches made on site. Wireless Internet and jazz are piped into a stylish seating area full of bookshelves and newspapers, where customers enjoy iced coffee drinks, teas and juices. Other items on sale include mugs, French presses, teas and syrups, as well as roasted coffees. The space seats 100, including the patio, where smoking is permitted.
The Coffee House, across from the university, is a quintessential student hangout. The menu includes a daunting 150 drinks, with 10 varieties of hot chocolate alone. The vibe is unpretentious, the interior sunny yellow with jocular murals, the seating more suited to groups of friends than to lounging alone or in couples, as at the Gourmet location. Students can munch on sandwiches, pastries and salads, either in the seating area for 40 or by take-out. It’s friendly and bustling, staffed by students, and popular with faculty as well.
The Coffee House Express, just down the street from The Coffee House, is mostly for take-out and delivery service, though it has a cozy hideout with sofas for those wanting to escape from the university crowd. The food is entirely different, with savory and sweet crepes, panini pizzas, and Lebanese stuffed bagels called kaak.
When a Starbucks opened on Hamra Street a few blocks from Café Younes in 2000, some worried that it would be the end of local cafés. But according to Amin, “Rather than ‘stealing’ customers from existing cafés, Starbucks has raised the awareness of local consumers.”
Of his own adaptations, he notes, “When Starbucks opened, we had fewer than 10 varieties of coffee drinks on offer. Weeks later, we had expanded the selection to more than 20, and sales were higher.” Most of Starbucks’ customers are aware of the brand and intrigued by its cachet. Its prices are about 50 percent above the local standard, attracting mainly clients wealthy enough not to mind. By contrast, Younes keeps prices locally competitive and especially affordable at the university locations to keep them attractive to students as a daily option. Starbucks’ Hamra branch makes about 500 transactions a day according to Younes, and when he opened his newest Café Younes location earlier this year, it was up to 300 daily transactions in the second month, based on word of mouth and local brand reputation.
Younes’ biggest challenges are not from an international chain, but from local conditions and changes in his customers’ lifestyles in the vicissitudes of Lebanese life: economic recession, the absence of tourism, an unstable political situation, demographic changes, repeated wars and foreign incursion. During the recent standoff with Syria and the subsequent Israeli military action in Lebanon, he kept a blog of daily life in the café during a state of siege (yawmiyat-yawmiyat.blogspot.com).
For Amin, this coffee business, which has been part of Beirut for so long, runs on relationships. “We pay attention in every small step to build direct, meaningful and appropriate connections with customers before moving on. Café Younes is trying to define the modern coffeehouse experience in Beirut, and bring an element of leadership into every area in which we operate.” He uses local products when possible, employs locals (mostly students), and both educates customers and learns from them. Coffee has always been part of the culture in Lebanon, and as the younger generation has Westernized its tastes, coffee has only become more important. By integrating the emerging changes into the fabric of the Beirut community, Younes has found a way to make a traditional business more relevant than ever, and as resilient as the society of which it is a vital part.
“My late father supported me when I was in doubt, and without him, Cafe Younes would not be what it is now,” says Amin. “I hope that wherever he is now, he would be proud.”