Canada’s Paramount Fine Foods takes its Mideast cuisine to the world

By Josh O’Kane, The Globe and Mail, Toronto

After arriving in Canada from Lebanon 17 years ago, Mohamad Fakih found he had a strange relationship with Middle Eastern smallbiz-paramount00sr1restaurants.

“It was mom-and-pops, or guys with no food standards, no consistency whatsoever,” Mr. Fakih says. Largely, he saw it squandered as street food, rather than something to sit down and enjoy with your family. “Middle Eastern food deserved better.”

So about a decade ago, when a debtor handed over a bakery’s worth of equipment, Mr. Fakih decided to strike out on his own. The result was Paramount Fine Foods, a chain that has grown from one Mississauga restaurant to a chain of three dozen eateries and butcher shops across Canada.

Mr. Fakih’s plans aren’t limited to this country, though: With franchise partners, he has begun opening Paramounts in the United States and even Lebanon, with an agreement to soon launch 20 locations in Britain. The restaurateur’s dream is simple: to run the world’s biggest and best Middle Eastern restaurant chain, with locations in the Middle East itself, from his home of Canada.

While he attributes the company’s success almost entirely to his colleagues and partners, Mr. Fakih – the owner, president and chief executive officer – does not shy away from ambition. “I am the Canadian dream, and I want to push it to the extreme,” he says, sitting at a booth in his freshly opened location in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood, before lunch arrives: pita, kafta, rice and fries, capped with a few pieces of baklawa.

There are numerous competitors with different offerings and service styles to which his conquest aspires – Chipotle Mexican Grill, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Tim Hortons among them – but many of his locations skew more ornate. A shawarma or shish taouk sandwich might cost only a fast-food price, $6 or $7, but there are chandeliers and a waterfall fixture here. Some locations even have playgrounds for kids. “I always see American brands coming here, and I really wanted to make it a bit different this time,” Mr. Fakih says.

The 44-year-old was born in Lebanon, but his parents left him with relatives in Italy for much of his childhood in the wake of their country’s civil war. He stayed for university, studying geology in Verona and Milan before coming to Canada at the turn of the millennium. His work began with café shifts but soon turned to running, then having a stake in, a variety of watch and jewellery businesses, followed by a stint building homes.

After a loan to a baklava bakery owner went unreturned, he inherited a struggling Mississauga business, named Paramount. This, to Mr. Fakih, was an opportunity to recast the food of his childhood in a new light.

“I’m Middle Eastern, and there were no places I could take my Canadian friends and be proud,” he says. He believes in the power of introducing people to a culture through its culinary experience. He wanted, he says, to “alter the way that people look at Middle Eastern food, the dining experience.”

His first Ontario location at industrial Dixie and Eglinton in Mississauga – “you couldn’t have found an uglier location” – soon led to restaurants in Thornhill and at Yonge-Dundas Square. Paramount restaurants and its branded butcher shops have since popped up across Ontario, in Edmonton and at McGill University in Montreal.

There are now 36 locations across Canada, the company says, with plans for 51 total worldwide by the end of the year; for comparison, Toronto-centric competitor Ali Baba’s has just over 20 locations. Mr. Fakih says the company has also pledged to hire 100 Syrian newcomers to Canada, with 73 hired so far.

Toronto’s Pearson Airport is home to two Paramount locations, marking the transit hub’s first halal restaurants. Sharon Rice, who directs Pearson’s food-service operations, says the eateries have been welcomed by both travellers and staff. “They’re a great brand to work with,” she says.

Being in Canada’s busiest airport connects Paramount with its next step – expansion abroad. Paramount has already launched several locations in Florida, and has just signed an agreement to open 20 locations in London. And there is one city, where Paramount opened a restaurant and butcher shop this summer, of which Mr. Fakih is particularly proud – Beirut.

The restaurant in Lebanon, he says, is already profitable, and there are already plans to add a second eatery and butcher shop. This, he believes, is an enormous success: a Canadian-owned Middle Eastern food company is making waves in the Middle East.

“It’s great to know that the quality of food we have in Canada can actually be very successful in Lebanon itself,” he says. “And that shows the Canadian consumer that Paramount never cuts corners.”

While most locations are run by franchise partners, the Beirut operation is half-owned by the corporate office. This will allow Mr. Fakih to proudly be a part of Paramount’s growth there – “that’s where I’m from” – and serve as a base of operations for what he hopes will be a chain of restaurants bigger than any that already exists in the Middle East.

Doug Fisher, president of Toronto franchise consultancy FHG International Inc., says he admires Paramount’s food and is impressed by its growth, but warns about entering too many markets at once, especially as a newer, less-known global brand. “Quick is dangerous,” he says. “Whoever is buying [franchise rights in] Lebanon, whoever is buying the United Kingdom, is building that brand for themselves.”

Expanding at that quick rate has sometimes put a damper on cash flow, Mr. Fakih admits, and regulations in some Middle Eastern countries are strict. He says he has turned down numerous offers for partnerships in the Middle East, and expects his regional growth to be slow.

Franchisors are right to be cautious when expanding to new regions and finding partners there, says Mark Siebert, CEO of the Illinois-based iFranchise Group consulting company. “A lot of companies will go international before they really should,” he says. “If you don’t have a strong partner from Day 1, it will be difficult for you, as a franchisor, to go to market.”

Richard Wade, a hospitality and tourism professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University who’s studied food-service chain market expansions, says Paramount’s fast-casual focus is a “segment with lots of growth opportunity in Canada” – but he wonders whether the company is spreading itself too thin.

“I would have thought that rather than going for the world, they would maybe have concentrated on Canada first,” Prof. Wade says. “See how well the concept does in Alberta – I see the Alberta market being more akin to the U.S. And then perhaps concentrate in the U.S.”

Mr. Fakih, however, says he – and the staff he leans on – want to keep on their trajectory. “They don’t want to stop, and they’re ready to put in the hours,” he says. “They’re excited about what’s happening. Their families are on board with it and everybody’s excited about that growth.”