Purpose-Driven: Paramount Fine Foods CEO Mohamad Fakih looks past the balance sheet

By Gregory Furgala

Mohamad Fakih just wanted a kilo of baklava. His wife had asked him to pick it up from Paramount, an out-of-the-way restaurant hidden behind a police station in a Mississauga industrial park. It wasn’t easy to find, and Fakih drove in circles past identical looking buildings with no recognizable landmarks until, finally, he stumbled across it. Already put off by the search, he walked in to find a wholly underwhelming space: it was run down, the washrooms looked awful, and besides, its ambitious name had nothing to do with its location. It was disjointed, but Fakih’s wife vouched for the baklava.

As he waited for his order to be filled, Fakih chatted with the owner, who recognized him from a recent magazine article about the house he was building. Fakih admitted that, yes, that was him in the magazine. The owner’s next question was a bit more pointed: “Would you lend me money? Would you lend me $250,000?”

Despite good baklava, Paramount was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the owner’s request was a Hail Mary. “I said, ‘I’m only here for baklava, I don’t know you,'” recalls Fakih with a laugh. “But I handed him my card. It was one of those things that happened in your face and you have to deal with it. I was hoping he would lose it.”

“The owner called him back: the money was gone.”

But the exchange nagged at Fakih. He has twice been an immigrant, first to Italy when he was 16, where he studied gemology, and then to Canada, where he arrived in 1999. Born in Lebanon, Fakih grew up amidst the civil war that raged there from 1975 to 1990. As a child, he ran to and from school out of necessity, and his safety was less than certain. It stifled opportunity, and the country faced — and is still reckoning with — a long recovery. Fakih left to find a better life, and he found it running his own small jewellery business in Mississauga, far from the armed conflict he grew up in the middle of. Now Paramount’s owner and his 16 employees, who came to Canada for a better life, faced ruin. Fakih couldn’t help but see himself in them. “Wasn’t that me when people helped me? And gave me an opportunity? The people that picked me up from the airport, and helped me all my life, whichever way I turned.”

Fakih called the owner and told him he’d lend him the money. Then, about four days later, the owner called him back: the money was gone.

Fakih was flabbergasted. The owner, defeated, homesick and with no head for business, wanted out of Canada and transferred ownership to Fakih, who figured he could at least try to recoup his investment. That left Fakih out a quarter million dollars, with a business he had zero experience in, and more than a dozen employees whose visas depended on him. “I didn’t know how to fry an egg,” says Fakih, but with his new employees’ livelihood on the line, he’d at least try to make it work.

An order of baklava ended up becoming his life’s work

He started with the basics, expanding the menu and renovating the restaurant. Despite its poor performance as a business, the restaurant still had decent sales, so he brought in the Fifteen Group, a restaurant consultancy, to make the place profitable. The approach worked. Under the previous owner, Paramount was doing about $50-$60,000 in sales per month. In less than a year, Paramount was doing that weekly. Then it was making $90,000 per week. Fakih took over Paramount hoping to recover his money and help a group of distraught chefs, but he ended up with a viable business as well. “Even during the initial three to four months, you could see it,” says Fakih. “You’re not only selling the product, like in other industries. It’s being part of a family. People get to know each other the best around food.” An order of baklava ended up becoming his life’s work.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Paramount has been wildly successful ever since. There are now more than 70 Paramount Fine Foods restaurants, a packaged food brand, and two related restaurant concepts, Paramount Lebanese Kitchen, a quick-service concept that shares some menu items with Paramount Fine Foods, and Paramount Butcher Shop, which specializes in premium halal meat. Paramount has expanded across the GTA and Ontario, out west into Alberta and B.C., and into the United States, the United Kingdom, Pakistan and back home to his native Lebanon. Last year, Fakih bought the naming rights to Mississauga’s Hershey Centre, renaming it the Paramount Centre.

Changing the decor, Fakih believe, was vital. “I always had the problem of going into mom-and-pop shawarma places, not decorated, nothing, and the cleanliness standards were very low. I really wanted to put the standards I had in the jewellery and diamond business into the restaurant.” Fakih says the shift created an environment where Middle Eastern Canadians felt at home, and where non-Middle Eastern Canadians were willing to try. Fakih has also committed to using quality ingredients, relying on free range chicken and Canadian beef and lamb.

More important than looks, though, is the sense of purpose Paramount has had since Fakih took over. He initially became involved as a benefactor, not strictly as an investor, and he has continued to imbue the company with a sense of mission. Last year, Fakih partnered with the UN Refugee Agency in Canada, building on his successful initiative in 2017 to hire five refugees at each of his restaurants (he had hired 150 by the end of the year). It’s the right thing to do, Fakih says, but it’s also just good business. When he arrived in Canada, Fakih says he was “hungry.” He had left warzone behind and was driven to be safe and successful in his new home, and he sees the same characteristic in migrants and refugees today. “That’s why I keep talking about newcomers and refugees,” says Fakih. “You don’t only help them change their life. It’s actually beneficial to the company, beneficial to the country entirely. They want to overperform.”

“I grew up in a community that believed the more you give, the more you get back”

“I always said, it wasn’t right business-wise what I did,” says Fakih, referring to his first investment in Paramount. “But I see a lot of cash in the bank I never imagined I’d have, and they need help. I’m going to give it to them. I grew up in a community that believed the more you give, the more you get back, and that you’ll never lose by giving back to the community. It’s always a profitable equation.”

As proof, Fakih talks about when he decided to start selling Paramount franchises, which accounted for the company’s explosive growth recently. “We had a lineup of 50, 60 people lining up because people didn’t buy in only to good food. They didn’t buy in just for the good service. They bought in for having a company that helps the community.” Seriously — and convincingly — Fakih calls Paramount a movement, and its rapid growth from one nearly-bankrupt restaurant to the fastest-growing Middle Eastern chain in North America lends credence to Fakih’s operating principle: people want to support a brand that helps people.

Fakih has confronted the ugly side of Canadians, though. In 2017, while hosting a Liberal Party fundraiser at his first Mississauga restaurant, two men, Kevin Johnston and Ron Banerjee, protested outside, falsely accusing Fakih of running a “nefarious” business that only served “jihadists.” The pair engaged in an irregular campaign that targeted Fakih for his Muslim faith, repeating false, hateful claims on Johnston’s website, and even doctoring a photo Fakih, depicting him with his mouth and hands covered blood. Fakih sued them in response. Banerjee publicly apologized and settled for an unspecified amount, and the judge awarded Fakih $2.5 million in his case against Johnston, calling Johnston’s comments a “loathsome example of hate speech at its worst.”

“For three years, I was very affected by it,” says Fakih. He knew fighting it would be difficult, but didn’t want to back down. “I just couldn’t budge on letting it go. It wasn’t the Canadian thing to do.”

From Fakih, It was unsurprising, too. His success turning Paramount into a world-spanning restaurant chain is in part due to his commitment to causes outside of the usual purview of a restaurateur, to taking on challenges for a good cause, not a strictly profitable one. It’s in part because of the people who helped him. “The people that helped me in my life didn’t just help me,” says Fakih. “They helped the 2,500 employees I’ve hired around the world. If those people didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be able to be who I am today.”

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