Lifestyle & Culture

Sarah Nagaty: How Zaytouna’s expat small-business owner survived Lisbon’s lockdown

Serenah Sabbat and Hendi Mesleh

Zaytouna, a Middle Eastern grocery store in Lisbon, is one of few places I go to when I feel homesick. And this is not only because I can make my favorite Egyptian dishes with the ingredients I find there, but also because of the warm, welcoming attitude of Hendi, the small-business owner.

Hendi Mesleh, a Palestinian, will honestly tell you if he thinks you will not like one of his products. He would also share with you his personal favorites (sometimes with screenshots of how he used this or that thing in his sandwich this morning).

Some organizing, cleaning and disinfecting ????

Posted by Zaytouna on Wednesday, May 27, 2020

With the cooking euphoria which hit all of us during the lockdown, I went to Hendi’s shop a couple of times to get some things I needed for my cooking plans. I was always wondering if the shop is doing okay during the current situation.

It always struck me how extra cautious Hendi was with disinfecting the shop, the products, the money and I felt that he was close to soaking me personally in a barrel of alcohol upon entering from the door. I just do not think he had a big enough container for that.

After all, yes, it is a grocery store which means that it might not be as affected by the pandemic as other kinds of businesses. However, it is also a grocery store of very specific products which if they happen to be essential for some, they might not be for everybody. So I interviewed Hendi about how the pandemic has affected a small business like his.

He considers himself more fortunate than others, but this does not mean that he is not having his fair share of difficulties. “It was quite exhausting to work under such emotional and psychological conditions,” he says. Hendi is an at-risk person due to his asthma, so during his contact with customers he felt under a lot of pressure, especially in the beginning when the virus was spreading quickly. He was also concerned about potentially spreading the virus to many people if he ever gets it.

Changing challenges

HENDI MESLEH IN HIS SHOP (photo by Sarah Nagaty)

The first two weeks of the crisis were actually good for Zaytouna. People were buying a lot and there was no problem. Later on, the sales started dropping. The second month of the lockdown was particularly a difficult one for the small business. Zaytouna’s biggest clients are Middle Eastern restaurants in Lisbon, so when restaurants closed down, it lost big part of its revenue. They relied only on individual clients, and it was also quite difficult to import goods.

At the moment, Hendi believes that things are getting better again as Lisbon is gradually opening up. It is still evident that people are reluctant to spend money though. Hendi says: “I cannot complain”: He managed to keep his shop open as opposed to other businesses, which had to close. He thinks Zaytouna did okay given the circumstances as it has managed to cover its expenses in the first couple of months.

He is aware that many small businesses are actually in debt at the moment. About the challenges he is currently facing, Hendi mentions that the whole process of work itself has become more lengthy and exhausting due to the need to constantly disinfect the shop and all the items.

Another challenge is his inability to invest more in his business at this time.

Before the crisis, Hendi wanted to expand Zaytouna’s activity by importing Persian products as well as making some changes in the shop. However, this plan has to be postponed. Moreover, he used to stock up on all the products before they ran out of the shop. Now, he has to think twice before doing that: “I have to be more realistic and careful now.”

Adding to Lisbon’s cultural scene

One of the changes Hendi introduced to his business to cope with the “new normal” is starting an online platform to sell his products. The website will be available soon and the whole point behind it is to reach clients who might not be able to reach them in-store.

Speaking of clients, I interviewed one of Zaytouna’s clients, Pooneh, who
owns a Persian restaurant here in Lisbon, Cafeh Tehran.

On how she started making business with the shop, Pooneh says:

I came across Zaytouna through the Internet! I had just opened a Middle Eastern restaurant and it was very hard to find the spices and ingredients of the region in Lisbon. I saw an article about Hendi’s shop and it’s been such a good collaboration since then. Besides finding ingredients like sumac, zereshk, rose bud, rosewater, dry mint, Hendi also grew a variety of products and he has even been kind enough to arrange specific things by request. It’s a very important addition to the multicultural environment of the city.”

As Portugal is opening up, small businesses are trying to make up for the difficult period which befell the country. Zaytouna was one of the lucky ones which did not come out of the lockdown with debts or big problems. However, it may take some time before things go back to normal and business owners, like Hendi and many others, can make up for their losses or manage to carry out their investment plans.

Business ideas like Zaytouna add a lot to the cultural diversity of Lisbon. Let’s hope they, as well as others, will be able to pick up where they left off quite soon.

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for two years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’s Lisbon story archive here.

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