Naan and Kabob Interview

Fahim Ahmadi and Khoja Tamim

Fahim Ahmadi and Khoja Tamim

Scarborough is quite a trek for us but the times we do decide to go, we insist on having mantus and kebabs from Naan and Kebab. Out of sheer coincidence, Naan and Kebab was testing out their Iftaar menu for the month of Ramadan and invited a couple of food bloggers out to their Mississauga location. Andrew along with his friend, Alex Chen (credited with all the photos here), traveled out to the Mississauga location. They were treated to a delicious meal and the story of a family passion project.

Andrew Do: So just generally speaking, how is business going for you guys?

Khoja Tamim Sediqui: Actually when we opened our first location in Scarborough...umm...for the first few months we were kind of breaking even until we found regular customers and then it became very busy. Since then, we decided to open another location in Mississauga because we did very well there. So when we opened this one a couple of years ago, we were doing really well from the beginning because we advertised in our Scarborough location and people knew about it...and it better and improved more. At this moment, I think we are doing very well.

AD: I am glad to hear that. So how long have you guys been here? Like when did you start the business?

KT: In Scarborough? Or sorry...Mississauga?

AD: Just in general...when?

KT: It's been 8 years.

AD: So that would have been in 2008.

KT: Yes 2008.

AD: And the first location was in Scarborough...and the Mississauga Location?

...the beauty of it is when we sit around the table as a family - we argue, we debate, we go back and forth but at the end of the day, what makes us and what builds us is our unity.
— Fahim Ahmadi

Fahim Ahmadi: In 2009. So 7 years.

AD: So why don't we actually get to the origin story of the restaurant. So you two are both chefs and what not and the restaurant industry is tough so why did you guys open a restaurant and not just that but open a restaurant that serves...I mean you could have served pizza, pasta but you decided to serve Afghan food.

FA: So I think the most important thing is to clarify the positions that we have. So myself Fahim, I am more responsible in terms of operations and...uhh dealing with managers and cooking food and keeping the quality assurance. While Khoja is very much involved in terms of marketing, in terms of basically community reach. So he is not very much involved in cooking or operations of the restaurant. He is more the director of marketing and based on that...from my experiences...umm the reason we wanted to do the kebab and Afghan food in the mainstream market is because there is a significant need for it. We see that in Toronto in a multicultural society, there is a significant lack of proper, healthy food. There has been a lot of different types of restaurants which they open and they close. However, Afghan food has been on the rise since the last decade. So there is a lot of Afghan stores opening on every single corner. And one of the best restaurants that exists right now is us. And we are proudly serving quality food and we are opening more locations, it is great excitement to gather more audience.

AD: Cool. Let's go back to you guys for a bit. So you know, when you know that in high school or elementary school, people ask you ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ It could have been an astronaut...I know for me it was farmer. But what about you guys? Did you guys think you were going to open a restaurant when you were kids? Like what's the story behind you, like why did you decide to want to get in the restaurant business?

FA: So the story behind it is very simple. We all have our own professions. We each come from different backgrounds. We were never raised in a Mom and Pop restaurant-style shop. So we all have education. Khoja has been teaching in the past 15 years and I am working on my Masters at Osgoode. So Fiaz, who has basically been doing the majority of financing...he worked for CIBC as a quality assurance analyst. So the reason that we got into the business and the reason we are getting more involved in it is because the main thing is that it holds our family together and it brings our family together. So if I did not apply for a different position, different roles for ourselves...and the beauty of it is when we sit around the table as a family - we argue, we debate, we go back and forth but at the end of the day, what makes us and what builds us is our unity. And that is what I love about it. Khoja would basically teach up to 3 o'clock and then he would come to meetings like this. Or come early in the morning to help us in the breakfast. Or myself. I would go to school and then come back to work here. So the beauty is us working together. And the story behind it is not that we initially wanted to open a restaurant and serve customers with good food. It is because later on in our life, we realized that we have potential and we need to explore it. And that is why we are here.

AD: And just curious, what is it that you [Khoja] teach sir? And what are you [Fahim] studying? If you don't mind just telling us.

KT: Well I teach math. And after that, I come and help with the marketing and I do help with the breakfast sometimes. Uhh...I believe our restaurant is more working help customers. Customer satisfaction is our first priority. Delivering quality food. Fresh, not frozen food that is leftover. So that is one thing that made us very successful. When customers come, they realize that quality and then they come again and again and we are becoming more successful.

FA: So he has been teaching at Pineridge Secondary School for the past 15 years...uhh...and I have been in school for the past 10 years. (laughter) Scary as hell but whatever. This is true. But our...the I said we are involved in restaurant because we are interested in it. We are not forced to it. We are not here because of significant financial need. We are just here because it is a good reason for us to work on something better and make something better.

KT: It's the passion!

AD: So how did you guys learn to cook? But this is something you guys do because it is a passion project and a way to keep your family together but that does not answer, how did you learn to cook?

KT: Well actually, Fahim had extensive experience cooking before opening the restaurant. He was a manager and before opening the restaurant...he spent months...if I don't say, making sure that he gets the right ingredients, the right marinated kebabs. It's not all of a sudden we decided to open. We did our homework. Otherwise it would not be successful. We relied on Fahim's skills because he was the first chef who trained others. That is why from the first day, we were prepared. We ready for it.

AD: So to the food, what is the most popular dish in this restaurant? The thing every customer comes for, like you guys are known for it?

FA: One of the main reasons we are selling Afghan food is because Afghan food is very simple food. It is not very complicated. It is very simple because as Khoja says it is always fresh. And when you serve fresh food, it is always good. It never goes bad. We mix it with the right spices, and what I did is that I discovered that our neighboring countries like India or Pakistan - is they go heavy on spices. Whereas in Persia, they are very mild in spices and seasonings. So very bland. With ours, in Afghanistan, it is very centrally located. So it borrows from both sides. And that is what makes it very beautiful because the spices are from both sides. You can find a bit of spicy food but you are not going to find bland food. So you find...brown basmati rice which we call kabuli pulao but you are not going to find like a plain white rice with no flavor. Or you are not going to find a rice with a lot of spices. So that is what makes the beauty of it and the reason we, as I said we are successful, because we sell fresh. Every single order, we have to get it over in 5 to 7 minutes. The main dish we actually do sell are the kebab selections. That is why we call it Naan and Kebab. So the majority of kebabs are our top sellers. At the same time, we have mantu, which are Afghan dumplings. And that is a very popular seller. That is something that is a very traditional Afghan dumpling. And this is steamed and you put some yogurt sauce on top with chickpea gravy and some dried mint. And it gives a mouthful of taste.

AD: Nice. Even though these dishes are popular it might not necessarily be the favorite to make. What is your favorite dish to make?

FA: Ya. So the thing is...if there is an item on our menu that we did not want to sell or if it was not our favorite, then it would not make it there on the menu. So that is why our menu is very small. It is only 7 types of kebabs and we keep it very limited. We do not have an extensive menu of seafoods or this and that because we sell what we are best at. We do not want to sell something we are not good at. Khoja has been pushing us to introduce some fish items because he is always the one who wants…wants to push us to promote new items. And I have not been inclined to promote it because I am not really good at fish. And why should we sell fish? People can go somewhere else to get fish but for us if they really want kebabs then this is where they should come for kebabs.

AD: But you know, you guys are in the restaurant industry but you also have other day time jobs. But, if you are not eating Afghan food or at your restaurant, is there a restaurant you guys go to that you enjoy eating at that is not your own?

KT: We go to different restaurants. We go to Hakka, we go to Tandoori chicken. Like, you name it and we go there because we like variety. So like other people come from other restaurants and they like kebab because they want to taste. We do go to different restaurants but we love our own food.

AD: Is there a favorite restaurant or like a favorite cuisine you guys particularly like from all the things you have tried?

FA: I think with Khoja, his favorite would be more Western.

KT: (laughter) I like steak.

FA: He is very into good customer service and whenever he comes into a restaurant, he checks out the servers or how they are doing. And he tells them "This is what you guys should have done with that customer." So like he brings a new angle to it. Me, I like more a corner or hidden jewels. Like street food. But Khoja is more fine dining and he needs to sit down.

AD: That is great.

FA: But I don't know why he's not mentioning it. Otherwise if you ask him, let's go, he will go to the Keg or Moxies right now? (laughter)

KT: My favorite one [steak] is Moxies.

FA: My favorite cuisine would be Turkish. I love Turkish cuisine. One important reason is because they know how to give you proper food. And they know how to put your food together and make it a presentable plate. I am not a very big fan of their tastes but they are very professional in what they do. They are very professional, they are very dedicated, very committed, very extra clean. Good customers there. I think Turkish would be number one.

AD: So you know I have heard a theme that you guys are talking about. Its customers. You are in this and you clearly believe in good customer service. So I have a question. Do you guys have any stories of like, I don't know...regulars or your best customers? Or anything like that?

KT: We have many regular customers. And we love to serve them all. For us, customer service comes first. We want every customer to come here and be happy. So we treat each one individually, each one with respect and we want each one to be happy from the food and from our service.

FA: The majority of our customers as Khoja said are regulars. is how we started our restaurant. When you first start opening the restaurant. It's not that customers are walking in, coming in and trying our food. Because we are in a corner location in a Scarborough plaza in a more ghetto style plaza. It's Scarborough (laughter) But the fact is that it’s our friends, and families, people whom we knew - they walked in and brought more customers. It was word of mouth marketing. We did not have any specific budget for any specific kind of marketing or like a blog event. A foodie blog event like this. All it is was basically support. And from that support, we built on more customers. And those customers got to know this as "Khoja's store" or "Fahim's restaurant. Let's go there!" They never called us Naan and Kebab. "It was Fahim's restaurant so let's go there." So that's how we started building it. But then now we are at a point that we are on a different level. It's a much bigger store. We try to keep it professional. We do not want it related to Khoja or want it related to Fahim. At Naan and Kebab, we want to promote the brand. And that's what we are trying to do.

...people nowadays are more food critics than food lovers. So that’s one of the biggest things. People don’t want to enjoy food anymore.
— Fahim Ahmadi

AD: Do you guys read reviews of your restaurant and if so, what has been the general reviews of your restaurant online?

FA: Ya so whenever I go to sleep...before I go to sleep, I have to check the reviews. (laughter) I have to see what is out there. I have to be very honest...umm and I tried to stop doing it because it is kind of bothering me. Means that at bed time, I need to sleep and not think about the restaurant.

KT: He cannot go to sleep now without reading...I mean before reading them.

FA: I always follow-up on our reviews and our competitor's review as well. And what the other customer is saying. So then I try to learn from them what they did right and what they did wrong so that we can do it better. With our reviews, we see a lot of good reviews. With our Facebook, or google, or TripAdvisor’s. Over 4.4, 4.5 and even 4.9. With Yelp, it's 4 stars. So we get very good reviews. Dia, who does our marketing said that we rank 204th on trip advisor out of 1000 or so restaurants.

AD: So I have a I am sure you read many reviews as you were just saying. Some reviews are probably really good and others...people leave bad reviews. So I am just curious, how do you react when you see a good review and how do you react when you see a bad review.

FA: I don't think you can react to it. It is because it is already something you have already done. There is nothing you can do to fix it. The one thing you can do, is that you can respond to that and take a stance that customers are always right. If that is something they complain about, then they must be right. The other approach is that we always communicate with all our servers. We have a group chat and we talk with them and we are like OK, here is a customer complaint about something. Then we start having a discussion about it. "Why did this happen? How can we prevent it next time? Then I contact them by "Why don't you come to the restaurant next time, ask for a manager and explain your situation? We'll make it up to you.” But having that said, people nowadays are more food critics than food lovers. So that's one of the biggest things. People don't want to enjoy food anymore. All they want to do, is they want to criticize. "Oh this place. It doesn't look clean. They are empty. There are only 2 people eating right now. Or their food. What's wrong with the food?" It's because they are so pessimistic and into their own world that they don't think positive about the food. So then I change my ideology like around five years ago. I started going to places and I am enjoying food, no matter how bad it is. I have to enjoy it right. So why I am there? For the experience right? I could have the same food at home. The reason I am there, I need to enjoy the food, not criticize it. Not compare the bread, compare the kebabs, compare the salad, compared to Mexican place, compared to Indian food. Just enjoy the food and have a good time.

‘Khoja, there are 50 restaurants that are opening in Toronto and 50 that are closing.’ And that reduced my excitement. That is the first thing I heard. And now this same colleague of mine, he always comes.
— Khoja Tamim

KT: If we get a complaint, we do take it seriously. We want to find out what happened. When it happened. What date? What time? Who was the chef at that particular time? Who was the cashier? And we do talk to them and we want to find out so if it is that the fault is on our side or maybe customer had a bad day.

AD: So we are nearing the end actually. You alluded to it earlier since you were talking about doing this for family but what is the best part about this job? The thing that gets you up in the morning and you find yourself telling yourself "I cannot wait to come into the restaurant and work?"

FA: For me, because Khoja is not very much involved with operations. He is more involved with public speaking and media related matters. For me, when I come to the restaurant and when I...the number one thing is I always ask to be in my clothes and in my uniform. I want to stay in the kitchen and be ready for the orders. The busier it gets, the happier I am. Not because I am counting the cash register that is opening. Tick. Tick. Tick. Right? What I am really focusing on is passing the orders. Every single customer should have it within 5 to 7 minutes. And that is what I push the kitchen for. So my job is basically like a chain. Creating a team, a line. And that's going to be orders, orders, orders, orders. It's not like I go every day and how much we did this day? I don't care about the bottom line. Khoja would be more concerned about it. But with me, I care about passing the food as soon as possible.

KT: You know I am a teacher. When I go to school in the morning, we always think of the students. There has to be a productive day. They have to learn something. And I believe restaurant business is very close. Same thing. I believe when people come here, the owners of the restaurant - they have to think of customer satisfaction. The best day when you get good comments. The customer comes and pays you for your food, your services. That's the best...the best time of...uhh...time of your day. Same thing, if you teach a class and all the students are learning and happy...and then you know you did a good job for that particular day. That's every day’s job for restaurant to see customer satisfaction. They say "the food is good" or "the service was good." And these are the best times.

FA: The restaurant is a job where you can’t be forced to work there. You have to enjoy working the restaurant. And whoever I hire, I ask them to work for a day and I will see how you do. If somebody hates cooking or never cooked in their life and you put them in a restaurant, they will hate it. And they will make the whole team have a bad experience. (laughter)

AD: But I imagine because the restaurant industry is a tough industry. Times were maybe not always good. So tell me a time when you guys were struggling. What challenges did you guys face and what kept you up at night when you were going through the trials and tribulations of the restaurant industry?

FA: I think for me, the worst challenge has never been financial. It has to do with the family and family is the number one priority for us. And whenever we have situations within the family due to the workload of the restaurant that is when arguments start. It is very frank. Thank God we have never lost anything due to the restaurant business. There hasn't been an issue of debate over money - never! And it's in our table because we have a...a board of directors. We meet. We have discussions. We have a head office. So we are pretty serious about it. So the only thing we do have is the arguments. And that makes our team a little bit weaker. But then we have a much bigger team, we have a solid team, we build on it and we forget because we are blood right?

KT: I don't call it argument. I call it debate. And debate is the expansion of knowledge. (laughter)

AD: So when you entered the restaurant industry, there is also a community around that. So what is the best piece of advice you heard when you entered the restaurant industry. Like something someone told you that really helped you.

KT: Actually, there is one thing I heard when we opened this restaurant, I was excited! I went to the school and with my colleagues, I spoke about it and the first thing a colleague of mine said was "Khoja, there are 50 restaurants that are opening in Toronto and 50 that are closing." And that reduced my excitement. That is the first thing I heard. And now this same colleague of mine, he always comes. He brings his family in Scarborough. So that's what I heard.

AD: That's hilarious. I'm not sure if that's advice but...

KT: We took it seriously. Because when we opened and we said failure is not an option. So we were very determined and defiant in running this business.

AD: that must be so satisfying. The guy who said you probably will not make it and now he's a regular.

KT: Well I am happy with what he said because it reduced my level of excitement and I told these guys that we need to be careful.

AD: And the last and final question I have is like you said, "50 restaurants open, and 50 restaurants close." So for those 50 or so people dreaming of opening up a restaurant, what would be the piece of advice that you would tell those 50 people?

KT: I will say patience. Patience is the key to success. I believe lots of people, not just in restaurant business and in any business, they want to gain the money in the first day and the coverage. Nothing comes without putting lots of effort being motivated and working hard. If you don't have these strengths in you, then you might not be successful.

AD: And yourself [Fahim]? Any advice you would give?

FA: Yes cooking food is one thing and running a restaurant is a different thing. So people think they can cook good food and run a restaurant is a very wrong approach. With the restaurant, you need to have the passion, you have to know how to cook yourself. Not per se you are going to hire chefs for you. So you have to be the person that is going to cook. But you have to have support of people with the mindset of dealing with numbers. Number crunching. With me, I overspend. Always. I always overspend. Whether it is at the table and same with the grill, I always want to buy the best item. But then, Khoja and Fiaz, my eldest brother who deal with finance, they always have to stop me. "Why? Why do you have to buy this? Why do you have to buy that?" So if I think I was by myself, this would have never happened. Because I am very much into overspending. I love cooking. I know how to cook. But Khoja and Fiaz, they don't know as much as I do. But what makes us unique is different potentials we bring to the table. We try to help each other to grow and for anyone who wants to build a restaurant, you need someone like that on your team in order to stop them and in order to calculate the expenses. Otherwise, better you close the restaurant.

AD: So yes we are done. Thank you both for being very generous with your time and being very candid. This has been a treat, not only for the food. Thank you so much for the food but thank you so much for your insight. Like I feel I can run a restaurant now!

Naan and Kabob
1801 Lawrence Ave East