According to Greek mythology, ambrosia was considered the food (or drink) of the Greek Gods. The story goes that those who consumed the ambrosia became immortal.
Today, Greek cuisine gives no promise of immortality, but does offer a tasty solution for anyone’s hunger. And one of the favourite places where Canadians flock for authentic Greek and Mediterranean cuisine is OPA! Souvlaki (of Greece).
Manik Chakravarti and his wife, Deesh, are owners of the company's franchise in the food court at Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket, Ontario.
Originally from India, Chakravarti came to Canada in 2004 to attend university in British Columbia. During his years as a student he worked 20 hours a week at an OPA! Souvlaki restaurant. After graduating, with an MBA, marketing major, "I decided I wanted to do something of my own," he says, which meant owning his own business. Having worked at OPA!, he was impressed with the franchise and enjoyed the work. So he was delighted to learn that a new location would be opening in Newmarket, Ontario, in the Upper Canada Mall food court. Never mind that he had never been to Newmarket, or Ontario even. That didn't matter. He was going to have his own business with a company he knew about and believed in.
In August 2008, Chakravarti and his wife (the couple met at OPA! and married in 2006) moved from Nanaimo, B.C. to Ontario and rented a basement apartment near the mall because they wanted to live close to the store location. And so the hard work and dedication began.
"Because OPA! was new in Ontario, many people were not aware of us. Like any new product that comes to market, a lot of effort needs to be put in to make it a success and to make it stand out from the competition," says Chakravarti.
The brand was originally launched in 1998 by Niko Tiginagas, who opened the first OPA! in Market Mall, Calgary. “Within the first year, OPA! became the number one operator in the food court,” says Jeff Young, Vice President, Development. “ Since then, OPA! has become Canada’s largest and fastest growing Greek food franchise with 75 locations across Canada, from BC to Ontario, and we’re now moving into Quebec.” OPA! uses Tiginagas’ unique Greek recipes, including the company’s popular tzatziki sauce.
To understand what happens between the time you place order and receive your meal at an OPA! Souvlaki restaurant, you need to know all the ingredients that make up the restaurant. Chakravarti lists them as: quick service, authentic Greek food and providing quality food, customer experience and an exciting environment. That's not all food ingredients, but every item is important because, as Chakravarti notes, it's a combination of good food and the brand that that makes this company unique.
From his first-hand experience working for the company, Chakravarti knew this would be a worthwhile investment. "The restaurant is set up in such a way that the customers can see how and what we cook. Apart from prepping vegetables, sauces, meats, and such, everything is done in the front. The whole idea behind this is so the staff can really interact with the customers and showcase their energy and enthusiasm – popping bags and yelling 'OPA!', shouting out customer orders to co-workers, flames on the grill."
With all this liveliness, it’s no wonder the restaurant is a fun place to be. “The energy inside the store is very high. Everybody is excited to work," says Chakravarti, commenting that even if your day hasn't been going too well, you quickly get involved with the high energy and start to feel great.
From a personal standpoint, the couple "had a strong belief in the product." Chakravarti also credits the "strong relationship between franchisees and head office,” including support and communication, as important factors in their decision to purchase the franchise.
OPA! provides a three-week training program to all new franchisees. In fact, the company's founder was at the store helping them get started.
"Inside the store, Niko was with us and helping us. It was our first location. We were a bit nervous. He was there the first day, explaining the whole thing, walking us through, guiding us through the whole process," Chakravarti recalls. “He was even helping make up orders with us." That hands-on support is ingrained in every level of the company. "Our regional manager will come by often to see if we have any concerns. They walk into the store, they will throw on an apron and they work with us while we're talking. They will make orders, take orders, work on the grill."
The franchise owner also says that he loves the food. "Working in the food court, I don't eat in any other store. My lunch is an OPA! wrap and salad every single day and honestly it's very, very good. Every single day we are still enjoying every bite."
The couple have since moved out of their basement apartment into a house they purchased and are already talking about opening a second franchise. "We would like to open multiple locations in the near future." And their life and work relationship remains strong. "My wife and I have been great partners throughout all this. We work together every single day! People always ask us how we get along so great and why we aren’t sick of each other yet. We both know that we would not be here today without the support we give each other. If one of us falls, the other is there."
Like all entrepreneurial ventures, hard work is the key to success. For the Chakravartis, it’s all been a labour of love, making any long hours a delight instead of a chore.
"We are able to do what we love - interacting and working with people all day, working with food," says Chakravarti, adding that new franchisees “should be ready to work seven days a week, from the moment you open your doors in the morning until you close them at night." Patience is also a virtue: “It takes time. Results do not come overnight.”
But the payoff is that it's your business. "No one is going to take care of it as much as you do. It's like a river. Once you get it flowing there is no stopping it, but you have to get the river to flow first. You have to work. You have to make sure customer concerns are taken care of. It's all about the customers. Making them happy and exceeding their expectations is the most important thing."