TORONTO — Mohamad Fakih survived a civil war in Lebanon and living for months in a bunker. Today he’s fighting a different kind of war, this time with an enemy he can’t see but whose impact is being felt on many different fronts — COVID-19.
While the passionate entrepreneur and philanthropist is confident there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, the pandemic has left his company of 74 restaurants reeling from the impact, with only 18 of his Toronto units open for takeout (all of his units in food courts, universities and airports were shuttered immediately). Internationally, a unit in the United Kingdom is readying to open next week and his Côte D’Ivoire unit is fully open for sit down. Fakih was one of the lucky ones who was able to morph to takeout and delivery and bring his sales decline to 50 per cent from the initial 70 per cent of lost business.
Fellow restaurateur and chef, Hemant Bhagwani, also experienced serious impacts to his business, with only four of 29 units still operating. He’s not sure how his chain of restaurants — with brands such as Amaya, Goa Indian, Good Karma and Popa — will move forward and he’s unsure how he’ll fare given the big rents he still has to pay and the damage that will ensue as the world waits for a vaccine.
But, he says, the time in lockdown has afforded him time to think and be retrospective on both his personal and professional life. “I’m actually taking it slow, day by day, being in touch with my staff and but also reassessing our industry. COVID-19 has basically fast-tracked what was going to happen in the next couple of years, anyway,” he says, explaining the industry was quite behind in technology. Now, the crisis has forced operators to take technology more seriously.
“I think it’s time for us to embrace technology and do it on a different level,” says Bhagwani, advising operators to start taking technology seriously and putting increased focus on CRMs. “We have to analyze to get the right answers,” about customer behaviour. Sometimes, he says, “we’re very passionate people in the restaurant industry so passion takes over practicality. It’s time to become a little more practical.”
In addition to fighting the pandemic, Bhagwani is also waging a legal battle against his insurance company seeking business interruption loss. While he’s not sure what the outcome will be, he’s positive it will raise awareness of how important it is to better understand your agreements moving forward.
Both entrepreneurs are busily trying to envision and shape what the future will look like. While pivoting to takeout, Bhagwani sketches out new possible concepts daily, while making lists of what needs to be done as a way for him to control the chaos.
Fakih, as always, is looking for new ideas; he’s currently planning a new concept called Boxed, his take on a ghost kitchen, located at Toronto’s Yonge and King streets, which will offer meals ordered online and picked up at a cubby with no human interaction. He knows it’s not typical to open a new unit during a pandemic, but he’s doing it in an existing space, which will allow him to save certain costs and operate two different brands under one roof.
He’s also trying to come up with a new model for delivery that all restaurateurs can take advantage of so as not to deal with high commission rates of third-party aggregators. He’s a passionate believer that part of the problem currently being faced by operators on the delivery front are self-made. “It’s easy to shift the burden on someone else. It’s on us. It’s all our fault. We had our consumer through our website, and today the delivery platform controls our life and a big percentage of our sales go through them. We need to take it back. Yes, the government could help. They could put a cap on it. But even that cap put by the government, is it temporary? This should be a service done by the restaurant or run by a restaurateur,” he states emphatically.
At the end of the day, both operators offer words of advice to those dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic. “You have to bank for disaster,” says Fakih, explaining business operators need to save enough money for one full year of their business and two years of their personal expenses in order to deal with whatever calamity arises. For Bhagwani, as difficult as it might be, sometimes, it’s important to be able to cut your losses. “Don’t try to hang in to save something you can’t. Sometimes, it’s better to let it go.”
You can listen to the full Table Talk episode “Moving Forward,” here.