In just under a decade, Mohamad Fakih has put Middle-Eastern cuisine on the mainstream map in Canada.
Under Fakih’s deft leadership, Paramount Fine Foods has grown from a single location in Mississauga, Ont. to 36 restaurants in Canada and seven international locations, including Florida and the Middle East, with plans to expand to 51 locations worldwide by the end of 2016. The Paramount umbrella also includes FreshEast, a halal sandwich-shop concept launched in 2015, and a quick-service concept for non-traditional settings. In 2014, Paramount opened the first of two quick-service spots at Toronto Pearson International Airport with another four locations — including one at McGill University in Montreal. In addition, the company owns Paramount Butcher Shop, an upscale halal-butcher concept. It’s a rapidly growing empire, which started with a leap of faith. Fakih, who was born in Lebanon and is a trained gemologist, says he never expected to be in the restaurant business. He moved to Canada in 2000, worked for a watch company and eventually ran his own jewelry business. But on a Saturday morning in 2007, a chance encounter changed everything.
Fakih and his wife, Hanan, were going on a boat trip with friends and wanted to get some baklava as a way to share a part of their culture. She sent him to a rundown Middle-Eastern bakery called Paramount, located in an industrial area of Mississauga, Ont. The owner recognized Fakih from a magazine article and bluntly asked him for a $250,000 loan, as the place was going to be shut down in a matter of days. Fakih gave the man his business card, hoping he would lose it. That didn’t happen — he called first thing Monday morning and after careful consideration, Fakih agreed to loan him the money. Days later, the owner told Fakih there was additional debt and he was closing the business. He wanted Fakih to sell as much equipment as he could to recoup his money but after looking at the whole operation and consulting with a friend in the food-and-beverage industry, Fakih’s vision began to take shape.
“When I came to Canada, I didn’t have a place to take my friends, where I would be proud to show them our culture and our dining experience through the food,” says Fakih, who serves as president and CEO of Paramount. “I decided to try to alter the way the whole world looks at Middle-Eastern culture through the food and introduce Canadians to a new experience.”
Fakih hired consultants who developed systems and reengineered the menu to turn the struggling operation around. With an interior renovation and a new menu focused on fresh and healthy Middle-Eastern cuisine, Paramount Fine Foods flourished. A second location followed in Thornhill, Ont., then a third at Yonge and Dundas streets in downtown Toronto. “The whole idea took a crazy man to do it and you know what? I always believed good, crazy people change the world,” quips Fakih.
He’s certainly changing things up in the culinary world by bringing an elevated Middle-Eastern dining experience to the masses. Paramount Fine Foods serves up baked pita straight from wood-burning ovens, charcoal barbecue halal meats, manakeesh (various flatbread-style dishes) and fresh baklava handmade daily.
This past summer, the chain introduced six new menu items, including three varieties of Saj Wraps served on a wooden board with chicken shawarma, beef shawarma or Sujuk sausage ($11.99 to $12.99); a BBQ Shrimp Plate served with basmati rice and tomato garlic sauce ($16.49); a Mezza Plate with hummus, moutabbal (eggplant dip) and tabbouleh ($9.99); and BBQ Chicken Wings ($7.49), which Fakih thought would be a good item for Paramount’s new home-delivery service in Ontario, in partnership with Just Eat.
Fakih worked closely with his two long-time chefs, Ibrahim Jobran (senior executive chef) and William El Dbaissy (executive chef) on the new menu items. The chefs regularly travel to Lebanon to see what’s new on the food scene and the team also receives ideas from Paramount’s chef in Beirut, where the company opened a restaurant and butcher shop this past summer. “Their job is to see what’s new and understand if it will work for us,” says Fakih.
On the decor side, Paramount restaurants have a high-end look, with features such as waterfalls, high ceilings and chandeliers. The majority of locations also have an indoor children’s playground, which Fakih admits contradicts the high-end setting, but it’s all about being welcoming. “If you like to dress up, we’re worth the dress-up, but if you want to come in jeans and a T-shirt and bring in your children to scream — this is the place for you.”
The clientele at Paramount Fine Foods is “everybody,” says Fakih. “When we started, we were supported the most by the Middle-Eastern community and the halal community at large,” he says. “Then they started bringing their friends and colleagues…and then their colleagues brought their families and it snowballed.”
Paramount’s welcoming culture extends beyond the clientele. This past March, after visiting a refugee camp in Lebanon, Fakih committed to hiring 100 Syrian refugees across the company. “Sponsoring a family or cutting a cheque would be an easy way for me to feel like I did my social responsibility,” he says. But visiting the refugee camp was life-changing. “Seeing the children, fathers my age or younger and mothers from all ages who can’t save their children from the cold, the hunger, the fear…I felt that cheque-cutting was just a hand wash from me. That woke me up.”
When Fakih returned home, Paramount Fine Foods launched a partnership with Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge (RULSC) and Magnet, a job-matching service, to help settle some of the refugees. Paramount Fine Foods committed to hiring three to five newly arrived Syrian-Canadians at each location and is also helping to fund an employment-support counsellor to assist refugees in job searches in other fields.
Paramount has given back to charitable organizations and causes such as The Make a Wish Foundation and Cops for Cancer. This past June, Paramount’s Ramadan fundraiser for SickKids Foundation raised $10,000.
“I grew up in a house where giving back to the community was very important,” says Fakih. “Then I came here and I saw how generous Canadians are and how accepting and inclusive they are. That made me feel I still can do what I was brought up to do.” A hands-on business leader, Fakih visits franchisees at every location once or twice a month. “I ask them, ‘what can we do better together?’” says Fakih. Regional managers visit the stores every two weeks and the franchisees receive continuous support from the corporate office, on everything from operations to HR to marketing.
So far, the company hasn’t had to actively find franchisees — “they find us,” says Fakih. “We have not advertised [for franchisees]…We made our food known to others by word-of-mouth.”
Fakih decided to franchise the business in 2013, after seeing the success of a location in London, Ont. “We said ‘let’s test and see if we can service something far,’” he says. “There was only one way to go: either size the dream down to six or seven locations because of the management and operation, or take it all the way to the world with the franchise system.”
The dream has definitely been sized-up and Fakih is now setting his sights on further expansion. While the majority of Canadian locations are in Ontario, Paramount is planning to open 15 locations in Alberta (there’s already a location in Edmonton) and 20 in B.C. Fakih is also planning an ambitious international expansion, citing high demand from prospective franchisees. The company recently signed a franchise agreement in the U.K., with plans to launch 20 locations in London. Locations are also opening in Lebanon, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to Paramount’s secret to success, Fakih gives all the credit to his team. “It’s good to know what you don’t know in life, because when you establish what you don’t know, you can find the right people that will supply you and your company with that knowledge,” he says. “My team is my biggest asset and is better than I am…that’s why Paramount is where it is today and hopefully will go where we want it to go in the future.”
Volume 49, Number 9
Written By Rebecca Harris