Article by Lisa Evans from the Canadian Immigrant Magazine
An immigrant from Lebanon, Mohamad Fakih credits Canada for providing him the opportunity to fulfill his dreams.
Did you hear the story of the Lebanese businessman who walked into a restaurant to buy baklava and walked out the owner of the place? If so, then you’ve heard the story of Mohamad Fakih. Fakih arrived in Canada at the age of 26 to help a friend whose business was struggling. He never thought he would make Canada his home, never mind become the owner of a Middle Eastern restaurant chain. After all, Fakih was trained in gemology and had previously worked as a jeweler in Lebanon.
After helping his friend, Fakih decided to stay in Canada a while longer. He was attracted to the country’s multiculturalism and, as someone who believes in grasping opportunities when they come up, Fakih recognized Canada as a land full of them. Case in point, one day while walking around the Eaton Centre mall, he passed by a jewelry store. He entered and asked the owner if he could help him out for free, just so he would have something to do with his days while he explored Canada. The store owner accepted his offer and soon after asked him to stay on as a full-time employee. Within a year, he was the store’s sales manager. Having always dreamed of opening his own business, Fakih eventually found a partner and opened his own jewelry boutiques.
Fakih’s move from jewelry to the restaurant business came about as he says, “by mistake.” He was taking from friends out on a boat trip to Niagara Falls. His wife suggested that he buy some baklava. “They were not Middle Eastern so she said it would be great that we should offer them something that relates to the Middle East because we’re Lebanese,” he says. His wife suggested a place that sold the best baklava in the city, Paramount Fine Foods, but it was far from the lake. “I was huffing and complaining that there was no time to prepare the boat and I was going to be late,” recalls Fakih.
When he arrived at the restaurant, he was already annoyed. “I walked into this pretty ugly place with white walls and orange doors. I went to wash my hands and the sink was broken. The whole experience wasn’t the best,” he says.
Fakih walked to the counter and asked for some baklava. The owner recognized Fakih from a magazine article and asked if he would lend him $250,000 for his restaurant. Fakih declined, saying “I just need to buy baklava,” but the restaurant owner was persistent. “He said, ‘They’re going to shut me down in five days.’
“I said ‘Here’s my card,’ hoping he would lose it or he wouldn’t call,” laughs Fakih.
Monday morning at 7 a.m., the restaurant owner called. Fakih lent him the money. Four days later, the owner called. “He said the money’s gone. The debts are way bigger than $250,000. You helped me. Come get all the equipment, sell it and take your money,” recalls Fakih.
When Fakih went to the restaurant, he met with the staff and spoke with the chef. He then called some friends at a consulting company and asked them how the Middle Eastern concept would perform in Canada if the restaurant were saved. “They said there’s no authentic experience here yet. It’s all mom and pop shops and some of them shut down after a couple of years because they don’t have systems,” says Fakih, who smelled an opportunity for him to grow the Middle Eastern restaurant concept. The only problem was the only experience Fakih had in the restaurant business was five days working for Tim Hortons when he first arrived in Canada. “The only thing I knew how to do was to clean tables,” he says.
But Fakih felt he had a potential success on his hands. The restaurant already had a very buy generic cialis tadalafil good chef. What it didn’t have was a system, and that was something Fakih could do. He worked with consultants, putting in 18-hour days for the first year and half, building the restaurant from the back end.
A few years later, when Fakih hung Paramount Fine Foods’ sign on his third location, he sat on the street and cried. “I didn’t think that one day the guy that walked in as an immigrant, worked in a coffee shop, would have a sign beside the best theatre in the city and across the biggest, most important mall in Canada, the Eaton Centre,” he says.
But that was just the beginning. With a franchising model, Paramount Fine Foods is now expecting to have 55 locations at the end of 2016, not only in Canada, but also in the United States, Pakistan and England. They will be opening the first locations in western Canada, in Edmonton and British Columbia, this year and already have two locations in Toronto’s Pearson Airport in Terminals 1 and 3.
Popularizing Middle Eastern cuisine is one accomplishment Fakih is proud of. Paramount Fine Foods is not only popular among Middle Eastern clientele who are looking for a taste of home, but to Canadians who are seeking healthy, clean food. “We don’t freeze any of our foods,” says Fakih. “I feed the clients’ children what I would feed my children.”
Sixty-nine per cent of Paramount’s clientele are, in fact, non-Middle Eastern. “We’re a very proudly Canadian company,” says Fakih, adding that Paramount’s success speaks to the diversity of Canada.
Fakih credits his team with his success and has gone to extremes to show them his gratitude. “I’m the craziest boss you can find,” he says. Once, he asked them all to gather for an important meeting and surprised them all by taking them to Great Wolf Lodge. Sliding down tubes and acting like kids was a great way to bond as a team and show that the boss is just a regular guy who can have fun, too. “We play soccer every couple weeks. They throw me on the floor, they trip me with the ball,” he says. Reminding his team how important they are to his success is top of mind for Fakih. “Everyone is expecting you one day to forget about them because you became too big. You need to send the opposite message,” he says.
Fakih’s favourite part of being president and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods is having the opportunity to teach others. “I love hiring staff; waking up every morning, teaching them something and making changes in their lives,” he says. Several staff members have grown within the company. Fakih’s former executive assistant became a franchise manager and eventually an executive at the company. “It’s not me, it’s her hard work, but even if I’m responsible for two per cent of that success, it makes me feel I need to wake up every morning,” says Fakih.
While you could say Fakih was in the right place at the right time when he got the opportunity to purchase Paramount Fine Foods, he says all immigrants can achieve the success he has had simply by feeling that this country is theirs. While many newcomers arrive in Canada feeling that they have one leg in Canada and one leg in their home country, Fakih says newcomers would be well served to avoid feeling that Canada is their second country. “They need to feel that this country is theirs,” he says.
“I always say I am Canadian by choice,” says Fakih. “I had other options and I chose to be Canadian.” In fact, Fakih says he loves Canada more than a lot of people who were born here because he chose Canada over the country he was born in. “I think I’m living the Canadian dream because I got an opportunity that everyone dreams of.”