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Burger guru puts salad on the menu

Hiiraan Online
Friday April 27, 2018

Mustafa Yusuf just launched his latest venture

Toronto (HOL) - Is the salad ready to make the jump from appetizer to entrée?

Mustafa Yusuf, the restaurateur who created Big Smoke - a Toronto-based gourmet burger chain with locations that stretches from North America to the Middle East  - definitely thinks so.

Mustafa's latest business venture is FLOCK rotisserie+greens in downtown Toronto. Flock is a health-conscious alternative to the fast-casual restaurants that have dominated the dining scene in recent years. He believes that consumers want healthier food and are willing to pay for it.

"We saw a need in the market for healthy salads and rotisserie chicken. People are looking into what they're putting in their bodies. People are a little bit more health-conscious. They know exactly whats in everything they pick up from the supermarket. SO we really wanted to something that was simple, healthy and quick at the same time," he told Hodan Nayaleh in a recent interview with Integration TV.

"It's tough but we really believed in what we're doing and the product we wanted to serve. We did our research to make sure there was a need for what we were doing and that made it a little bit easier."

He says his restaurants healthy and simple meals is a concept that people are really receptive to.

"We don't have deep fryers here so everything is done just really simple and the lunch crowd and people have really taken on to the concept.

Mustafa is a veteran of the restaurant and hospitality industry with nearly three decades of experience. His meteoric rise from dish-washer to entrepreneur/CEO is a remarkable one.

Born in Somalia, Yusuf, 44, lived in Abu Dhabi until aged 11 when his family moved to Toronto. He began working at the Keg Steakhouse at aged 15 as the dishwasher. For the next several years, Mustafa rose up the ranks until he became the general manager for several locations.

After 17 years of being with The Keg, Mustafa was tapped by Drake Hotel in Downtown Toronto to serve as the Director of Operations.

In 2007, Mustafa got the itch to go solo and start his own restaurant, Big Smoke. For the next 10 years, Mustafa saw his boutique burger chain grow international. As the CEO he steered his company into success in some of the world's most competitive markets.

While Mustafa was a successful manager at both Drake and the Keg, he initially had reservations about jumping into the restaurant business.

"I remember opening my first burger place, we opened at 11:00 in the morning and from 11 to 11:45 not a single person walked in. And here I am, I left my nice cushy paycheque and for 45 minutes, all those thoughts are going through your head.. did I make a mistake? Am I financially overcommitted? Luckily for us, 47 minutes later, it was a packed house and we ran out of food and you have to do it all over again"

Mustafa advised passionate entrepreneurs to take the leap of faith unless they want to spend the rest of their days regretting the road not taken.

"... but yeah there's always a risk and I think if you don't take the risk you'll never going to know. I think if you're passionate about something and you believe in it, I think you just got to go for it because the flip side of it is you're never going to know and you're always going to get that 'oh maybe I should have done it'."

In August 2015, Mustafa sold Big Smoke Burger to MTY Food Group Inc - a publicly traded company whose portfolio consists of many quick-service restaurant brands including Tiki Ming, Thai Express, Jugo Juice, Sukiyaki, Cultures, Vanellis, Manchu Wok, Villa Madina and Country Style.

When the deal closed, Big Smoke Burger operated 17 stores, including 4 corporately-owned stores, including 9 Canadian locations and 8 are located in the US or overseas.

Like Big Smoke, Mustafa's emphasis on all-natural ingredients (FLOCK uses local Ontario free-range halal chickens) and high-quality toppings - including pomegranates and mangoes -  will set him apart from the competitors. He hopes to expand FLOCK to the GTA and beyond.

"My plans for the future are to really to grow flock. We see probably about 30 stores in the GTA and then take it out of province after that. We really want to grow in Canada. We're trying to do them all (stores) as a corporate now and not a franchise, vs the model we did with Big Smoke. We're looking to grow organically and really keep the product consistent and make sure we're meeting all of our goals."

He admits that his new model does pose some challenges, but he is looking forward to navigating this new frontier.

"As an entrepreneur and small business (owner) there always struggle in terms of financing and getting things together.. but you learn from your experiences.


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