When I first heard the news of the massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, my thoughts instantly turned to my cousin Tommy Gargatdzidis, his wife Natasha and their two children.
Tommy has lived in Beirut for 16 years and owns a popular restaurant there. I immediately messaged Tommy. He messaged me back within minutes.
“We are okay. The team and family are okay but the restaurant is destroyed. This country is a nightmare,” said the message.
The blast occurred in Beirut’s port. A storage unit, housing ammonia, blew up killing at least 200 people, injuring at least 6500 people. There are at least 300,000 people homeless and the damage is in the billions of dollars.
Tommy grew up in Regina and the city is still home to his parents and brother. His travels took him to Beirut where he fell in love with that city’s energy, culture, people and its diverse and quirky cuisine. Tommy also met and fell in love with Natasha, a local girl with deep family ties to Lebanon.
After working in the restaurant industry in various capacities, from chef to management, Tommy opened Baron (pronounced buh-ROE) in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district. The area, about a kilometre from the blast’s epicenter, is a mix of fashion boutiques, design showrooms, bookshops and music bars.
The restaurant was a hit from the start, garnering positive reviews and receiving the 50 Best Discovery Award (top restaurants in the world).
There are added challenges to running a successful restaurant in Beirut. Prior to the explosion, the country was mired in a currency and political crisis. Those problems were magnified with the onset of the pandemic. All that was bad enough. Then the explosion hit, destroying a third of the city.
I interviewed Tommy on In Real Time and asked him his thoughts after having had some time to absorb the news.
“We’re still under shock to understand everything that happened. It still hasn’t really sunk in,” said Tommy. “Nothing surprises in Beirut but this didn’t seem real. The force just came down the street and took out everything.”
Security cameras posted inside and outside the restaurant captured the moment the blast occurred. One scene shows two Baron employees calmly preparing for the evening’s rush when the explosion hit.
“It was right between the lunch and dinner service. Everyone was doing their regular daily prep and you see them moving with the initial sound of the first blast and the second you see how it just pulled out the glass and moved everything around. It’s a miracle. They are fine aside from a few scratches,” said Tommy.
So now what?
“What is the next step? You can’t really have a next step,” said Tommy. “The currency crisis means you just can’t go to an ATM, get money and fix the glass for a broken business. There are so many steps to get all of that done.”
Once those steps are done, Tommy is now looking to the day he serves his customers again.
“We took some time to gather. We have decided we will try to rebuild,” he says.
Baron received much-needed donations to help cover some staff wages from the group that runs the 50 Best Discovery Restaurants Awards, to assist in the restaurant’s recovery.
“We really appreciated this donation,” says Tommy.
In the face of the devastation of the cleanup, Tommy told us about a fundraising campaign to assist Beirut’s Red Cross. He’s teamed up with New York-based TILIT, a clothing company catering to the restaurant industry. Proceeds from the sale of the Love Lebanon Apron will be directed to the Red Cross.
Tommy is also raising funds to help with his restaurant rebuild. A Go Fund Me campaign is underway.
“We are now looking for help to reopen the soonest and to bring us all back to the street and area we have called home for the past five years,” says Tommy.