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One-on-one with Dr. Mohamad Fakih, CEO of Paramount Fine Foods

When and why did you start your business? 

We started Paramount at the end of 2006, but incorporated in 2007. The business was actually close to bankruptcy when I bought it; I saw how the previous owner was helping out by hiring new-to-Canada chefs and knew that at the time, there wasn’t a ton of places where you could get great quality, authentic Middle Eastern food. There was a need for a restaurant like this in Canada so I decided to buy the business from him.

You were a newcomer to the foodservice industry, what was it like to jump in feet first to the restaurant business?

Paramount was not my first business, but the foodservice industry was a totally new experience for me. I didn’t even know how to fry an egg! However, food has always been an important part of my culture, and of my life. I’ve always felt that there was something special about the idea of sharing a meal and breaking bread together, going into the restaurant business, I held onto this idea.

I wanted to share my love of Middle Eastern food with the rest of Canada, I wanted people from other backgrounds to venture out and try Middle Eastern food. My goal was to bring a high-end but approachable, Middle Eastern food experience.

I believe that Paramount has raised the bar for any minority or ethnic restaurant chain. Paramount delivers high quality décor, service and food.

What was the most important or surprising lesson you learned along the way?

One of the biggest lessons in the food industry that I learned, is really how small the margins are. The attention to detail you put into your restaurant makes a big difference between success and failure. Being meticulous with quality (in terms of both food and overall customer experience) is so important.

Studies shows that the biggest reason for a customer’s repeat visit to a restaurant is their customer and food experience. You can have an amazing social media campaign with thousands of followers, but if you don’t have the in-restaurant experience to back it up, you won’t get customers returning.

If you could go back to when you were developing Paramount into what it is today, would you do anything differently?

I would be more careful. I would pay a little more attention to the cost of building my business because overspending on certain things does not always give you the return you hope for.

I would also spend more time thinking about the consequences associated with leasing and franchising – when you partner with someone else, it’s your name signed beside their’s. It can be much more of a liability than you think.

What do you love most about having your own business?

What I love most about owning a business is watching your ideas blossom from notes jotted down on a piece of paper to actual, physical or tangible products.

Most importantly, I enjoy hiring people, watching them grow, and creating a positive work culture. Your team members become ambassadors for your business. Paramount makes an effort to work with the community and what we do outside work is a source of pride for all our team members.

What’s your favourite customer story?

Not too long ago, I was at one of our Paramount locations and a customer was inquiring about a specific dessert that she wanted to bring back to family that was she visiting. Unfortunately, we had run out of that dessert at that location. I knew that having this special dessert would make her day, and create a nice memory for her and her family so I decided to deliver the dessert directly to her myself!

We arranged to have grab the dessert from another Paramount location and I drove over to the customer’s house. She was floored when she opened the door, and so appreciative of the gesture. The customer has become not just a regular patron but a genuine friend of Paramount’s.

How many people are on your team?

Worldwide, our team consists of about 2000 people. Our team at head office is around 35 people.

What are some goals that you have for your business? 

Of course, I’d love to see Paramount become the biggest, most successful Middle Eastern chain worldwide. We’re actually launching our latest concept very soon – Box’d, and we’re still enjoying the success of our last venture, Paramount Butcher Shop. We’re the biggest Middle Eastern chain in North America so give us a year or two to become the biggest in the world!

More than financial success though, my goal is to show the world that immigrant entrepreneurs can do it. I want to show that other immigrants and newcomers that Canada has incredible opportunities. I want to show everyone that accepting immigrants and newcomers is the right thing to do.

What are some of the biggest challenges in the restaurant industry that you face?

One of the biggest challenges (for everyone) is hiring. Many people don’t think of the restaurant industry for a career path, they consider it a temporary job but this is a big mistake, in my opinion.

I consider working in the restaurant industry a great honour, and one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve learned so much and it’s made me a stronger leader and better CEO on all levels.

Franchising is also very difficult. Franchisees are very important to the success of the brand. You need to be very careful to pick franchisees that are a good fit for your business.

A lot of people think that buying the restaurant is the challenge, that after buying the restaurant you can just leave it be and it will be successful on its own. This is not the case at all. Buying the restaurant is step one out of 100. Running a franchise requires hard work, attention to detail, and being present at your restaurant. Not all potential franchisees are prepared for that, so properly vetting them to ensure they will uphold your brand standards is vital.

What is your proudest business achievement?

One of my proudest business achievements has been putting the Paramount Fine Foods name on the former Hershey Centre. It meant a lot to me personally as someone who arrived to Canada with $1300 in his pocket, the fact that I could, in less than 20 years, have my name on one of the biggest buildings in the GTA feels incredible.

What are some of the ways that your business contributes to your community?

Part of Paramount culture is giving back to the community. We aim to be as inclusive and diverse with our charity efforts, as we are within the team.

We have supported the Canadian Cancer Society, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Sick Kids Hospital, the Make a Wish Foundation in Toronto and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in Canada. We take pride in building bridges with communities while giving back.

What keeps you inspired and motivated to continue doing what you do?

My father told me, it’s not about how much money you have or how many days you live. It’s about what you do with your money and what you do with your days.

The opportunity to change other people’s lives is what gets me up in the morning. I feel like I owe it to Canada. When I came to Canada, people helped me, so I want to give back. I believe that when you give, you get so much more.

What do you do to ensure that you have a good work-life balance?

Honestly, it’s a challenge for me so I try to focus on quality over quantity. For me, it’s more important to be with my children and wife, and friends when I’m needed most. Always find time to spend have those meaningful moments with people who mean the most to you.

When you love your work, every minute is enjoyable and when your family is so supportive and celebrates what you do, that balance just comes organically.

Why Canada is a great place to run a foodservice business?

I love how adventurous Canadians are when it comes to trying new food. I think Canada is really inclusive as well, which allows for so many different type of cuisine to be highlighted. From a financial perspective, there are also various programs to help start a restaurant – you just need to do a little digging to get the info!

What three trends do you see impacting your business most over the next year?

Third-party food delivery apps are definitely one of the biggest trends that I see impacting my business as well as the movement towards more sustainable business practices. Lastly, I think it’s important to consider all the other external factors that are affecting restaurant bottom lines (taxes, transportation issues, agriculture, labour costs) and how that’s playing out in menu prices.

Give us the words of wisdom that you live by.

“Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice.”

What is one piece of advice you would give to somebody thinking about opening their own business?

You need to be ready to fall and stand back up. Find a mentor and never underestimate the importance of planning. Do what you love, if you don’t you’ll never succeed at it.

I have four major business areas that I focus on that I pass on to any new business owner, I call them the four big Ps:

Profit – You need to open a business that is profitable.

Purpose – You need to open a business that has a purpose. Having a company with purpose makes a customer want to support it and will help you recruit and retain talent.

Planet – You need to open a business that relates positively to the planet.

People – Surround yourself with people that support you and your business.

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