When Lina Abdo was a child in Beirut, she used to draw dolls on card stock, decorating them with scraps of fabric, discarded buttons and pieces of her mother’s broken costume jewelry. Abdo would give the cheery messages to her friends, who were delighted. Word spread and soon she was selling her customized cards and invitations — a welcome source of revenue for a girl of her age that lasted until the mid-1980s when Abdo entered medical school at American University of Beirut.
How the Stamford-based pediatrician returned to her childhood roots to become one of the area’s go-to providers of beautiful and personalized gifts is rooted in an unexpected illness. In 2002, Abdo, then at Stamford Hospital, was stricken with nonspecific tendinitis arthritis. It left her unable to practice medicine. For years, she could barely leave the house.
Knowing her tremendous gift for design, her daughter, Lara, at the time a high school student at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, asked for help preparing goodie bags for a party. And like that Abdo found her new calling: She could go back to making the world a prettier and more hospitable place. She would start by creating bags, boxes and baskets of the finest edible treats — punctuating them with unique and carefully selected ornaments from around the world, this time with the needs of the giver and the recipient in mind.
For example, each year, Salim Asrawi, president of the restaurant chain Texas de Brazil, has business associates, friends and relatives he wants to touch with memorable gifts. He knows what he doesn’t want, anything conventional or boring, but he’s at a loss to find the right thing. With a phone call, Abdo takes over.
“What she put together is just unique and the presentation, it’s amazing,” he says in a phone call from his office in Dallas. Each year he orders about 300 gifts from Abdo.
Her business launched in October 2007. Abdo’s mother and father flew in from Beirut to prepare for the first sample show and joined Abdo’s daughter Lara and her two younger sons, Fawzi and Philip, around the kitchen table. They worked with bags of colorful Jordan almonds, boxes of chocolates, dragées (hard-shell confections), containers, fabric and ribbons. Three generations assembled the first products of the company, dubbed Les Cinq Amandes, or The Five Almonds. They had one month because an open house was scheduled for Nov. 11.
“We were tying bows and cutting ribbons and I have pictures,” Abdo says, explaining she was unable to do much of the physical work herself. She was the conductor of the frenetic family orchestra.
The Sunday of the event, inventory walked out of the house under the arms of guests who were delighted by the unique compositions.
As a travel and aviation writer, I was smitten by the suitcase filled with chocolates wrapped like Louis Vuitton bags, which were snuggled into a Burberry lap blanket and topped with a vintage wooden airplane. Oenophiles might be giddy for the tailored box containing a bottle of Champagne surrounded by a selection of fruit, nut and liqueur-filled dragées.
A willow baby cradle filled with candies and topped with a musical mobile was sold right off its stand to a guest with an expectant friend. Like everything else, it was a one-of-a-kind sample and Abdo had priced it at $300.
Abdo questioned the buyer. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to buy her such an expensive gift? But she said, ‘Yes, yes, I want this one.’”
The day after the open house, Les Cinq Amandes had its first order and it was a doozy for a kitchen table startup; 2,500 jars of mixed chocolates and dragées, at $10 each. Before Christmas, Abdo had repaid the seed money advanced by her husband, Farid. Les Cinq Almandes has been in the black ever since.
Still a home-based business, the company now commands the entire basement of the family’s capacious house. It is still run entirely by the Abdo family. Fawzi handles marketing, accounting and sales and whatever else needs doing. Lara, who started it all, pitches in with marketing and social media as needed, though she has a full-time job as a pharmaceutical brand manager.
For a small business, the orders can be jaw-dropping. A United Nations mission ordered three separate waves of gift boxes, more than 1,000 in total this past August. But the one-off orders can also be memorable.
There was the customer who asked for a basket the size of a big screen television. Lined with embroidered cloth, it went out of the house with 7 pounds of chocolates. On the other end of the scale, parents sending holiday treats were delighted with the small candy boxes Abdo had personalized with caricatures of their daughters on bikes. Gifts can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but the little cardboard boxes were just a few dollars each.
Her most anxiety-producing — and now proudest project — was a thank you basket for former President George W. Bush. Planning it kept Abdo up at night until she decided the theme would be the 43rd president’s interest in oil portrait painting. Each chocolate was wrapped in special paper she created to reflect a painter’s palette.
“I really sit with my customers. I understand who they are and what they want,” Abdo says. A not-so-inspired gift-giver myself, it all seemed like magic to me until Abdo explains, “a gift is a bridge between two parties. There is a mission and there is an art in making sure the mission is accomplished.”
That skill has brought Blanca and Cedric Prouvé to Abdo’s atelier for the past seven years. In 2018, she produced a lacquer box with a colorful view of Provence, the region where Cedric Prouvé, Estée Lauder group president, grew up. The picturesque scene was a way to share something he loved with people he cares about, Blanca Prouvé says. The gift is a bridge, she says, confirming Abdo’s assessment after the Prouvé holiday gifts had all been happily received. “It’s connecting with this person. It’s saying ‘We care for you in a beautiful way.’”
Over the years, Abdo has acquired quite a collection of elements. Her mother describes the downstairs workshop as looking like the den of treasures Ali Baba finds in the “Arabian Nights” story. It is a riot of visual stimulation.
Brightly colored boxes sit beside brilliant blue Hamsa hand trays. Vintage porcelain dogs made in the former U.S.S.R. stay obediently atop decorative cake stands. And forming the backdrop for the desk where Abdo sketches her ideas is a wall composed of thousands of bolts of ribbon in every shade and texture.
“These are my tools to make things that are different and beautiful,” she says. “I put this bead and add this feather and I put this ribbon and I put it all together over this box, which you don’t recognize anymore because it is so unique,” she adds.
With Les Cinq Amandes, Abdo is back to her early days, turning bits of this and that into something wonderful. Only now, she’s sharing her gift with the world.
For more, visit the5almonds.com.