A storm in a coffee cup as Beirut's bean-lovers boycott Starbucks

In Lebanon, a local-owned rival to the US chain is winning hearts and minds

Lebanon’s coffee drinkers boycotting Starbucks over perceived support for Israel

Lebanon’s coffee drinkers boycotting Starbucks over perceived support for Israel
Powered by automated translation
An embedded image that relates to this article

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

The Starbucks branch in Beirut's northern suburb of Zalka has been a local landmark for more than a decade. But due to widespread anger over Israel's military assault on Gaza, many of its former customers are now sipping their coffee on the other side of the street.

Stories Coffee, which opened an outlet opposite the Zalka Starbucks in December, has been growing in popularity amid calls for a boycott of international companies perceived to be supporting Israel.

While the two coffee shops have many similarities, from their dark green and white logos to the cosy ambience inside, the key difference is that while Starbucks is a US chain, Stories Coffee is home-grown.

“I’m boycotting, and since there's an alternative across the street, I might as well go there. That way, I don’t feel guilty when I sip my coffee,” says Grace, a customer at the Stories Coffee outlet.

“The taste is just as good, so I can boycott without sacrificing quality or flavour,” adds Yasmina, 20, another customer, while enjoying an iced yoghurt – a speciality of the Lebanese chain.

“We should all be participating in boycotting; it's a matter of humanity,” another customer, Fidel, 22, chips in.

Since the Gaza war started, calls to boycott Israel-friendly brands have surged. Lists of western companies to boycott have been circulated on social media, often without a clear explanation of their connection to Israeli interests. Some brands appear to have been included solely because they are from the US – Israel's staunch ally which has been criticised for its support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in the war.

Starbucks, which has 42 outlets in Lebanon, is not included in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign advocating various forms of boycott against Israel since 2005.

However, the coffee chain sparked outrage when it sued its US union, Starbucks Workers United, for trademark infringement over a social media post in support of Palestine.

On its website, Starbucks denies any “political agenda” despite “false statements spread through social media”.

“We do not use our profits to fund any government or military operations anywhere – and never have,” the statement added.

Starbucks Mena, run by the Alshaya Group, which owns the Starbucks franchises in Lebanon, did not respond to The National’s request for comment.

However, this week, it announced it will lay off more than 2,000 workers after the business was affected by consumer boycotts linked to the Gaza war.

The decision to reduce the company’s regional Starbucks workforce by about 18 per cent followed “challenging trading conditions” over the past six months, a representative told The National.

No political stance

In the meantime, business at Stories Coffee is booming.

Launched in 2021 by Lebanese entrepreneur Tarek Nasser, the chain now employs 150 staff and welcomes thousands of clients a day at its nine branches. It has opened at least two outlets since the Gaza war began on October 7 and plans to open five more this year.

Elias Hanna, a representative for Stories, says the chain offers a unique concept and experience, serving freshly baked pastries and iced yogurts as well as coffee.

“Stories is a lifestyle destination: we are now beyond old coffee-shop concepts and we believe we are not in competition with them,” he says, taking care not to mention the chain's US competitor by name.

He says the company's growth is not a result of the Gaza-related boycott movement and that its expansion was already being planned before the war.

“The movement has positively impacted our sales but it has helped many other local brands similarly.” He also stresses that Stories does not have a “political stance”.

Appetite for Lebanese

Ahmad Chanouha, export sales manager for Lebanese drinks maker Cedars Premium, says the boycott has had a clear effect on his company's sales, particularly its alternatives to international brands of carbonated drinks.

“We've seen a consistent increase in sales, from 20 per cent to 30 per cent each month. The boycott is driving our sales, especially in Palestinian and Muslim areas. We've also expanded our points of sale by 40 per cent since October 7,” he says.

“We've been performing very well.”

Mr Chanouha says exports are increasing as well but not as much as domestic sales because of competition from Turkish companies with a greater market share.

Lebanon's economic crisis has affected the competitiveness of local businesses, he says.

“We pay $200 per day for electricity. We have many problems in production, no industrial support and high production costs.”

Like Stories, Cedars Premium is keen to emphasise its political neutrality.

“We've been asked to display labels for the boycott but we refrain from engaging in politics. We do not exploit the movement,” Mr Chanouha says.

While some brands may avoid explicitly supporting the boycott, for many of their customers it is enough that they are Lebanese.

“After October 7, we stopped purchasing from companies with ties to Israel and began favouring Lebanese brands in our kitchen and bar,” says Jad Hamdan, operations manager of Mezyan, a popular restaurant in the Hamra neighbourhood of Beirut.

“We did our own research on every company's background and stance on the war. Some American companies were not in favour of the war, so we continued with them. If we couldn't find an alternative to a pro-Israeli product, we stopped buying.

“This is our way to support Gaza and the south of Lebanon.”

More than 40 civilians have been killed in Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon since Lebanese group Hezbollah and Israel began exchanging almost daily fire across the border on October 8.

Mezyan has challenged Pepsi and Coca-Cola with Lebanese alternatives Jalloul and Zee Cola, Mr Hamdan says, “despite attempts by Pepsi managers to convince us otherwise”.

But the boycott hardly sounds like the death knell for western brands in Lebanon: across from Stories Coffee in Zalka, Starbucks was full.

Updated: March 07, 2024, 10:15 AM