Current Issue September/October 2023

Travelling with Taste

QSR brands serving up global flavours offer a buffet of options for prospective franchisees

By Joelle Kidd

Long gone are the days when QSR (quick-service restaurant) brands were limited to burgers and fries. These days, hungry customers love exploring the globe through their taste buds, and QSR brands offering fast, far-flung flavours are a hit with diners. Check out these brands finding success in the QSR sector.

Chutneys Indian Grill

“You go anywhere in the world, you can run into an Indian restaurant,” says Joe Sangha, CEO and co-founder of Chutneys Indian Grill. But, he notes, there weren’t a lot of Indian options in the QSR space. Sangha and his business partner Ronnie Sandher saw this gap in the market and opened the first Chutneys location in South Surrey, British Columbia in 2018.

Since then, the entrepreneurs have refined and streamlined the concept, and are now expanding it through franchising. The idea was to create something “fast, fresh, a healthier alternative, and affordable,” says Sangha. “There’s stigma attached to Indian food that people won’t necessarily eat it at lunch because it’s very heavy, very oily. We created something that’s the opposite of that. It has more mass appeal and introduces Indian food to a bigger audience.”

Both Sangha and his co-founder have been franchisees with other brands since 2010, so they brought a wealth of experience to building their own concept. “We’ve been franchisees, so we know what it’s like to have a good relationship with a franchisor and a not-so-good relationship. And that relationship is crucial to the success of a franchisee and a franchisor.”

Now with four locations in B.C., they’re working on expanding Chutneys’ reach across Canada and eventually, the world.

With no established players in the Indian QSR space, Sangha notes, the business is a good opportunity for anyone looking to get into a high-growth area. The brand is seeking ambitious franchisees who want to become multi-unit operators. While it isn’t necessary to have experience in the food sector, it is a benefit.

The QSR sector can be a challenging arena, especially today when rising food and labour costs require franchisors to think creatively and adapt. “We’ve got to make adjustments, maybe simplify the operations, simplify the menu,” without compromising on quality, Sangha says. Despite these challenges, launching in an untapped market has meant that Chutneys has immense opportunity for growth.

Chutneys’ menu takes a ”build-your-own” approach that’s infinitely customizable. Customers choose from “burrotis” (an Indian twist on a burrito), bowls, plates, or salads. Extensive vegan, vegetarian, meat-, and gluten-free options make things accessible for everyone, whether a guest craves butter tofu or chicken vindaloo.

“It’s authentic flavours, authentic Indian cuisine, it’s just served in a new and unique way,” says Sangha.

Going forward, the brand’s goals are to build brand awareness and to keep growing. “We are actively looking to grow in Alberta and Ontario, and then from there we’d like to keep growing and take it as far as we can go,” says Sangha, noting that they don’t want to expand too fast. “A steady growth is what we’re looking for, with the right franchise partners. And then simultaneously create that brand awareness and let people know who we are and what we’re about.”

“We’re always evolving, always trying to improve. We have that vision.”

Loaded Pierogi

“Our slogan is, ‘If it’s not loaded, it’s not us,’” says Irina Tirtirau, co-owner and culinary director of Loaded Pierogi. This fast-growing brand is all about satisfying customer cravings. “Too much is never enough. We want everyone to come in hungry and leave satisfied and tell their friends.”

Loaded Pierogi started in 2014, as a full-service restaurant-style concept based around elevating the humble pierogi to new chef-driven heights. As the concept took off, the founders realized the potential of switching to a QSR model. Now the fastest-growing pierogi QSR in Canada, the brand has expanded its offerings to include five different “bases”—pierogis, mac n’ cheese, poutine, greens and grains, or a wrap—each of which can be piled high with exciting topping combinations.

Tirtirau, who came on board in 2022, has brought a 14-year background in hospitality and chef training to the brand, helping to expand the offerings in new, globally inspired directions. Popular new menu additions include the Korean cuisine-inspired “Gangnam Style,” the “East Coast Don,” a play on Atlantic Canada’s donair, and the American-style Chinese “Bang Bang Cauliflower.”

For franchisees looking to join the brand, Tirtirau notes that Loaded Pierogi offers a competitive advantage in the saturated QSR market. “For us, being a first-to-market brand, what we offer is intense curiosity and excitement when we open a location.”

Franchisees also receive extensive training and support, including hands-on training at a corporate location. “Should you ever need anything, as owners, we’ll come onsite and work with you. We don’t like the arm’s-length approach. We really believe in taking care of our franchisees.”

For incoming franchisees, a background in food service or hospitality can be helpful, but isn’t necessary. Ultimately, Tirtirau says, Loaded Pierogi is looking for franchisees whose values align with the brand. “Someone who’s very detail-oriented, customer service-oriented, a people person. Because that’s the most important part of the food service industry, that service element.”

With 15 locations and 10 more in development, Tirtirau says the brand is “aggressively growing.” Along with expansion, the brand’s goals for the future include supporting its recent rebrand and diversifying its customer base. “It’s honing in on that rebrand, honing in on who we are as a brand, and making sure our customers understand that as well.”

OPA! of Greece

This year marks the 25th anniversary of OPA! of Greece, a popular QSR concept specializing in fast and fresh Greek cuisine. The Western Canada-based brand originated in Calgary, Alberta, when founder Niko Tiginagas achieved his dream of serving up the flavours of his homeland to Canadians. He wanted to create an environment reminiscent of Greek culture for guests to slow down and enjoy a delicious and nutritious meal made from simple quality ingredients.

“Niko possessed the skill sets that we really look for in our franchisees: a strong entrepreneurial spirit, drive, and, most importantly, a passion for food and people,” says Mike MacDonald, OPA! of Greece’s director of marketing. “Niko would remember your name and what your favourite menu item was. He really created the spirit of OPA and that’s what set us apart 25 years ago and what continues to set us apart today.”

Since 1998, the brand has become one of the largest Greek QSR chains in North America, with 108 locations currently operating and an additional three new locations expected by the end of the year. Though the brand began in a mall food court, today it has a more even split between mall and storefront locations and has shifted focus toward storefront locations since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The brand’s legacy is a major benefit to franchisees, who can capitalize on brand recognition, marketing support, and a robust system of vendors. OPA! of Greece also offers an in-depth, four-week training program that includes hands-on instruction at training stores Calgary as well as ongoing support from a dedicated regional manager.

“We support each new location with a grand opening event and as the director of marketing, my job is to create brand awareness and excitement around each and every new location that we open,” continues MacDonald.

Over the 13 years he’s worked with OPA! of Greece, MacDonald has seen many shifts in the QSR market—especially as of late as the industry has become more crowded with several new concepts directed at those seeking healthy, fresh food options. But OPA! of Greece was ahead of the curve when it introduced a focus on authentic food with no artificial flavours or fillers 25 years ago. The brand is also adopting more technology, with the launch of a dedicated app and loyalty program.

MacDonald says OPA! of Greece plans to expand by six to 15 locations each year going forward. He says they also plan to focus on growing and developing in the Ontario market, especially with storefront locations. No matter the growth, the brand plans to stay true to the values that have kept it going for a quarter-century. “It’s always been about making our customers feel like family and bringing a little Greek happiness into our customers’ day, every day,” concludes MacDonald.

Pita Land

It all started in Toronto in the mid-1990s, when the Fahmi family emigrated to Canada. “They had a vision and the passion to bring the taste of the Middle East to the West,” says Eleanor Reynolds. Reynolds is director of marketing for Pita Land, which has grown into a thriving franchise with more than 50 locations in Ontario, and expanded into Alberta and British Columbia markets.

“Their flavours come from generations of spices that were handed down through the family. So it’s a true, authentic story of newcomers to Canada bringing the flavours of their homeland and introducing everyone here in Canada to them,” says Reynolds.

That ethos continues today, and the brand’s franchise model allows for flexibility that adapts to each location’s community. Along with a menu of certified halal chicken shawarma, falafel, gyros, kebabs, and a signature lentil soup—it’s “just delicious, there’s nothing quite like it,” Reynolds raves—individual locations are able to make requests to expand to other items. For instance, and in response to customer requests, the brand has launched limited-time fusion offerings to keep on trend with culinary experiences.

Franchisees with the brand aren’t required to have a culinary background as they receive extensive training and support every step of the way, from site selection to construction to proper food handling and preparation. Food is delivered fresh from a central commissary.

Reynolds says it’s important to find franchisees who are the right fit for the business and have the passion to make it a success. “We’re going to be working closely together. We want success for you, and you want success—a happy franchisee is a happy franchisor.”

Ultimately, quality, customer service, and the relationships with customers are the most important elements of running a successful QSR franchise, says Reynolds. “At the end of the day, we have a robust support team from operations to marketing nationally and locally and high standards of food quality. Today’s customers are all about food and service, therefore the customer experience is key.

“We work with each franchisee from finding locations, contractors to refer who build out on time, introductions to banks for securing small business loans and we provide full training to ensure the new franchisee is ready on opening day. We also provide customer service training so the customer journey is top class, we train staff how to connect with the customer, ensuring a positive referral because you just can’t beat the value of word of mouth! […] and that means the world to us. That’s what it’s all about, connecting with and supporting your community, the customer, and the franchisee.” Reynolds adds that the brand encourages its franchisees to give back, with charitable programs and sponsoring local sports teams.

As for the brand’s future plans, expansion is going “coast to coast to coast,” says Reynolds. “We’re ready. We’re looking for franchisees, area developers, unit developers.” The Pita Land concept works in any footprint from 800 to 1,400 square feet and has had success not only in street-level locations but also in convenient locations inside food courts, universities, hospitals, and even gas stations.