Five years ago this summer, Peter Nahas was ready to make a move from his hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia to a new one in Ottawa, Ontario. Master’s degree in public administration in hand, he was ready for a new adventure. But then, after a conversation with his dad, Elias, and brother, Tony, he changed his mind. “It was the best decision of my life,” says the now 29-year-old. And not just because it meant he got to stay close to family, but because it led to he and his brother launching Mezza Lebanese Kitchen, one of the fastest-growing Lebanese restaurant chains in Canada right now.
But let’s back up for a minute, back to when Peter and Tony weren’t even teens yet. That’s when they, along with sisters Laura and Raquel, started working in the family business, Tony’s Donair — later called Venus. It was a pizza restaurant in the food court of the Halifax Shopping Centre that their parents had started in 1990 after emigrating from Lebanon. (It was also the first restaurant to introduce shawarmas to Atlantic Canada in 1997.) Dishwashing, mopping, prepping, cooking — the kids helped with it all into their teens and 20s. So by 2012, when their parents were getting closer to retirement and two other restaurants had joined the fold, it made sense that the business would stay in the family.
What didn’t quite make sense, though, was the direction of the business. The three restaurants had three different identities before Peter and Tony took over — one used a food court model, another a street front model, and the third was a full service restaurant. So when Peter made that choice to stay in Halifax, he and his brother also decided to try to bring those three identities together under one roof in a new restaurant in the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia neighbourhood of Burnside. “We really took the high-quality food of the full service, sit-down restaurant and matched it with the made-to-order, per-customer experience of our food court and street front models,” says Peter.
A fresh, amalgamated brand identity
They called it Mezza Lebanese Kitchen, and it was a bright, 30-seat, fast casual restaurant where the food was also a natural evolution of what was being served at the three other restaurants. That is, away from pizza, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks, and towards authentic Lebanese cuisine featuring shawarma, souvlaki, and falafels. Everything was made with fresh, local products, house-made sauces and dressings, and spices from Lebanon. Their motto: “Eat Like You’re Family.”
It was a “smashing success,” says Peter. “From the first few days, we had lineups out the door, so that’s when we had that lightbulb moment and said, ‘Okay, we have something here with our new concept, our new brand.’ And we just took it from there.”
In 2013, they rebranded what was once a Venus in downtown Halifax to Mezza Lebanese Kitchen, and the next year they opened a new Mezza in the downtown underground mall known as Scotia Square. In 2015, they opened a location in the Halifax suburb of Sackville and another in — wait for it — Dubai. The Nahas sisters had moved there, and wanted to share the family’s take on Lebanese food. They didn’t disappoint, opening a thriving Mezza a stone’s throw from the Dubai Marina. Next, in 2016, Peter and Tony launched a location in Halifax suburb Clayton Park, and rebranded Venus’s first home in the Halifax Shopping Centre.
The shopping centre rebrand wasn’t the closing of any circle, though. By the time you read this, franchises will have opened in Sydney and Tantallon, Nova Scotia, while another is planned for Halifax suburb Cole Harbour in August.
The obvious question is, how did the Nahas’ pull all of this off in just five years? The answer is that it didn’t really happen that quickly. “Tony and I have been in this business since we were five and 10 years old, so we know it, and we’ve been able to build an efficient system that can serve 120 to 150 customers an hour,” says Peter. “More than the speed, however, the quality is there too, he adds. “We really focus on what’s best for us, which means stripping away what you’ll find in a lot of other places, and really focusing on our shawarma, souvlaki, falafels, and donair.”
Engaged and experienced franchisees: A key piece in the growth puzzle
Building a robust franchise system with smart and dedicated franchisees has also helped, of course, he says. “Who we look for is somebody with management experience, somebody who can run a business. But you don’t need to be a restaurateur to open a Mezza. The people who are coming on board now are everyone from engineers to MBAs to bankers to teachers. At the end of the day, we’re looking for somebody who believes in what we’re doing, and who we can work with as a partner.”
Once they find that person and financing is secured — which includes a $25,000 franchise fee and a net worth of at least $350,000 — they meet with the potential franchisees a couple more times before anything is signed. “For a lot of people, it’s their life savings, so we want to make sure that it’s not only the right fit for us, but the right fit for them,” says Peter.
To that end, the process includes tours of Mezza locations so that potential franchisees can see exactly what they’ll be getting into. “Yes, the system is built, it’s easy to run, you can be an investor, you don’t need to work the business every day, but there is a management aspect to it,” says Peter. “There can be long hours. There are those times where you’re going to get that call at 10 o’clock at night, and you’re going to have to get out of bed and go to the restaurant.”
The benefit of being up front about everything in this way is that you attract the people who are truly committed to the franchise and who want to learn more about it. Franchisee training includes two weeks at the new location with Peter and Tony, followed by three weeks with the management team when the store opens. Ongoing, operational, and marketing support is there, and business classes are also offered if franchisees want them. The royalty fee is six per cent of gross sales; the marketing fee is two per cent of gross sales.
It’s a system that’s clearly working. On top of those three new Mezza franchises open or opening this summer in Nova Scotia, four are in development, and one is scheduled for September 2018. They’ll all be in Atlantic Canada, but the brothers do have their eyes on the rest of Canada, and even the world.
For other young entrepreneurs looking to take the franchisor plunge like he and his brother did, Peter says you have to stay innovative and avoid complacency at all costs to be successful. “You have to work tirelessly on your brand and your concept, but really you want to be proactive, because today’s market is constantly changing – there are disruptors everywhere. But as long as you’re keeping up with trends, and changing customer appetites, you’ll really find success in what you do.”
It’s advice Peter hopes to put to use himself for many years to come. Staying in Halifax and launching Mezza was the best decision of his life, remember, so there’s no plan to move on or slow down any time soon. “I’m 29, and I’ve got 50 more years, at least, of giving Mezza franchises 110 per cent of my energy and devotion. It’s going to be non-stop for us.”
By Jordan Whitehouse