Mitchell Lapenid suspected her boss had a brilliant idea when he started bombarding her with questions about vending machines. It was, he told her, extremely top secret.
“He said, ‘Just tell me, but don’t tell anybody [else]’,” said Lapenid. “Afterwards he conceptualised.”
The conversation was followed by Essam Al Wari locking himself in his Sharjah workshop for several weeks and taking apart and examining a cola dispenser.
Months later, the Syrian perfumer emerged victorious with the UAE’s first luxury perfume vending machine.
It was no ordinary machine. In other places, perfume dispensers are flimsy and eject small plastic vials of cheap cologne in seedy public toilets. But in a country where vending machines dispense gold, Al Wari knew nothing but elegance would do.
Al Wari tinkered with the cola dispenser, adding what he needed and removing what he didn’t. He put samples at the side with paper slip holders so people could sniff perfumes before committing to a 50 gram bottle.
“Now you will also see the sales lady there to explain to customers this machine because in 2010, people did not understand this machine,” said Al Wari’s son-in-law, Mohamad Al Hafar, who is the manager of the company’s vending section. “Some people thought it was for cigarettes.”
Each of Al Wari’s 63 scents, which he promises will make you smell like a sheikh for a mere Dh50, are produced under secret conditions.
Al Wari competes in a country where perfume is not a luxury, but a daily essential nearly as indispensable as clothing. Al Wari does not just sell perfume, he is a second-generation Damascene perfumer who has spent decades of his life hunched over vials of musky oils and blends of crushed seeds and resins.
“In an Arab country, perfume is part of the basic needs,” said Lapenid, a perfume expert at Sahar Al Sharq Perfumes.
As essential as perfume is, sales dropped during the recession. The vending machine enterprise provided just the financial boost Al Wari needed to survive the downturn, with his 14 machines generating average monthly sales of Dh20,000.
Al Wari, 47, started his perfume empire in a room in a Sharjah villa. He produced the perfume and his wife, Rosanne, took charge of sales. Once the business became established they opened their first UAE showroom in 2001. They now have 10 showrooms in the UAE, two in Oman and one in Syria.
“It was his hand only,” said Al Hafar, 28. “I will tell you the story. Mr Essam was in a room, a small room. His wife was doing sales and then they grow up the company shops, one by one.
“His nose is really tired now, he always takes atropine,” said Al Hafar. “He has his hand in everything. Mr Essam mixes everything, smells everything with his nose.”
After years of experimenting with perfume production, Al Wari turned his attention to mechanics. The luxury vending machine was not his first.
His perfumes are sold at 250 mosques in five emirates. Small dispensers sell three grams of oil for Dh3, enough to cover the cost of the glass bottle. No profit is made from this. It’s simply his way of giving something back to the community.
“Some people don’t have money to buy perfume, and then when they go inside the mosque, it’s a nice smell for the people,” said Al Hafar.
“People go make ablutions and they go inside the mosque, but some people have a bad smell because they work outside. In our Islam there should be a nice smell.”
The secret to perfume success is to know the people, Al Hafar says.
The company plans to sell Dh10 pocket perfume and Dh15 air freshener at petrol stations following its success at Dubai Metro stations.
Perfumes are made using secret formulas in a warehouse in Sharjah’s industrial district.
In the UAE there is a strong preference for a mix of sutble European scents and heady oriental oils such as oud, an essential oil distilled from the resin of aquilaria trees.
“Arabic is always more strong,” said Al Hafar. “Ah, you don’t know oud? Let me check this one. Nice smell, totally you. This is the oud. This is the pure oud.”
Just as major perfume brands use celebrity endorsements to sell perfume, in the UAE people want to smell like royalty.
“This is one of the best,” Al Hafar said, pulling up bottle after bottle. “Sheikh Mohammed perfume. This is coming only for him before and this, this one is for Sheikh Zayed only.”
The popularity of Turkish soap operas is making perfumes from that country increasingly popular with Gulf citizens.
Lapenid is a specialist in Turkish perfumes and she loves classics like Chanel No 5 but did not even know how to pronounce most of the product names before she joined the family business in 2006.
She began working for his family as a domestic employee and is now Al Wari’s right-hand woman. The family supported her education and gave her the chance to prove herself as a sales associate.
“I applied for work as a servant but of course I will not be forever like that,” said Lapenid, an MBA student. “I’m telling them what I want, I’m telling them what I can do. Then I think they saw me, that I’m capable. This is my humble beginning.”
She has since declined many offers from rival companies.
“I am really attached to this family, I really love them and I really love the company and also I love my work,” she said. “Mr Essam he’s a typical man, he never talks too much.
“He’s very conservative but at the same time very fashionable. I don’t know how I will define him. He is mysterious.”