Have you ever looked at a bag of Al Rifai nuts and thought to yourself, how did this all start? You know, like how did the “kri-kri” start, or how the entire company come about? Well, lucky for you, we have the inside scoop and you are about to get the most interesting history lesson. We were lucky enough to sit down with Hajj Moussa Al Rifai for an exclusive interview about the empire he built and is still building. So grab a bowl of your favorite nuts, sit back and enjoy reading a dream come true!
The minute Hajj Moussa walked into the room we knew this wasn’t going to be an interview like any other we’ve conducted before. He walked in with by far one of the biggest smiles we’ve ever seen, wide enough enough to warm anyone’s heart. You could tell by the way he walked into the room and presented himself that you were going to get an amazing story with definitely a few laughs here and there. So we got straight to it, he took off his utterly cool shades and we got straight to it! Actually, he got straight to it – we didn’t even have to ask a question in order for the journey to start.
“I started working 70 years ago at the age of 13!” Unlike the thousands of 13 year olds today riding air boards instead of walking, Hajj Moussa was making money and providing for a family. He would work with his dad at his bakery in Tyre until he decided to pack his bags and move to Beirut. When he arrived he continued to work at a bakery for 5 months until the bakery he was working at closed down, forcing him to move back to Tyre. Not even a week later, he felt like the town was too small for his big ambitions and he persuaded his family to pack their bags and move to Beirut – and they listened, not knowing that this was the best move for their son’s career and the Al Rifai family future.
Taking Beirut, round 2, as you may call it – Hajj Moussa started working for a roastery that would prove to be the beginnings of his future legacy. After 12 years of learning and training in the industry, Hajj Moussa decided to open his own shop in Tyre. Once he got there he explained, “ There was something missing there, I felt like there were more bakeries in Beirut, than they were houses in Tyre and it just didn’t feel right.” His final decision? Mazraa, Beirut. In 1956 he opened his first official branch in Beirut, in what today is known as Barbour. The 2×3 meter space was just enough for his gas roaster (a stone basin that had to be operated by hand). The space wasn’t even big enough to welcome customers – Hajj Moussa’s clients would have to make their orders by standing on the street. It wasn’t the most luxurious start, but it didn’t matter because he loved what he was doing. “If I didn’t love what I was doing, I wouldn’t have pushed myself and made it this far; until today I still roast nuts and I love doing it, it’s my passion.”
Things started to slowly pick up; from the store’s first day of sales of LL3.5 – the earnings rose to LL 20 per day. That’s when Hajj Moussa bought the space from the owner for LL750 and continued working as hard as ever. He then opened a second location, right across the street. Hajj Moussa and his brothers worked hard to get the Al Rifai name across town. While Hajj Moussa hand roasted nuts in the store, his brother would pack them into paper bags to sell and deliver them to stores around town.
If you look around nowadays you can’t drive too far without seeing a billboard, or go into any supermarket and not see some kind of advertisement for Al Rifai. We had to wonder: how was advertising back in the day? Hajj Moussa laughed, “By word of taste! There was a grocer at the time that would pick up vegetables from the local stores around me and go and sell them on the street, so we would sneak in paper bags of mixed nuts! He would share them with the people around the city and they would come back and buy it from us. There was no advertisement at the time, not even TVs existed! We had to improvise.”
In the middle of our interview Hajj Moussa looked around and then looked at us and said, “You know this business all cost $1.” We looked at him immediately confused. He smiled and said, “How much is a dollar these days?”. We answered “1,500LL”. He replied, “and that’s all I had, 1,500LL – I started this business with one dollar.” Of course Hajj Moussa knows that inflation has made the value a little different than it was then, but it has to be said that making a household name of such a relatively small investment is no mean feat. He then continued, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 70 years it’s that you never truly know someone until you see him working with people. When you see a person deal with other people, is when you see their true character.” Hajj Moussa has also made it a mission to let his kindness, his quality, and his customers always be top priority. “I’ve loved this profession for a very long time, and if there’s one thing that’ll never change about me, it’s seeing my customers satisfied. I don’t care if they take the goods for free but they are not allowed to leave my store sad, angry or not satisfied.”
Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite nut for a second! Did you know that Hajj Moussa is the one who created the “Kri-Kri” – nut and even the name! He explained that at the time, a man from Brazil came to Beirut and was showing them how to make something called the ‘Brazilian’. It was similar to what we now know as Kri-Kri, but it was lightly roasted, unsalted and was white all over. Of course, Hajj Moussa, not satisfied with the result took matters into his own hands. He started roasting it with salt, using a different technique and called it the “Kri-Kri.” We had to ask why he named it that he laughed and said, “When you eat it all you hear is the chattering sound of the shell cracking in your mouth, it sounds like “kri, kri, kri!”
Then the hard year of 1975 rolled in. At the time, he had 2 boys and 2 girls of his own and needed to ensure their security. In that year he put his 2 boys in charge of the Al Rifai. While they worked in the stores, he worked in the factory – still personally supervising the roasting process. He continued to guide and supervise his children in the business, until in 198, he divided the business between his sons and daughters. Today, his son Mohamed has followed in his footsteps, as well as his grandson and granddaughter, Moussa, Mayssoune, Ibrahim and Youssef.
If this isn’t enough motivation to start your own business, we’ll leave you with a few final words Hajj Moussa left us with, “A person who loves their career moves one step at a time rather than go up the ladder in one step, he goes step by step and watches his career blossom.”
Cheers to that!