THE BIG INTERVIEW: Tony Kitous, Comptoir Libanais

Comptoir Libanais has more than held its own in the market since bringing authentic Lebanese cuisine to the UK casual dining scene a decade ago. As the chain edges close to 30 stores nationwide, FEJ editor Andrew Seymour met with founder Tony Kitous to discuss the key kitchen and culinary forces that have shaped his life’s work.

For the second time in my interview with Tony Kitous, he makes a point of correcting the terminology being used to discuss the companies that his business works with. “I hate the term suppliers,” he says, “they are partners. As we grow, they grow with us. We are a small team, we are very passionate, we are very ambitious, we want to learn, but we also want to align ourselves with great partners. When you look at the iPhone, Apple hasn’t created every single part. They work with different people to put the components together and they create an experience.”

This notion that you can’t build a business single-handedly is central to Kitous’ ethos of what it takes to keep a multi-site foodservice business firing on all cylinders. Whether it is the food wholesalers that his restaurants source their ingredients from or contractors such as Caterware, which design and install its kitchens, Kitous values what these companies bring to the table and the strength of the relationships in place.

The same is true for his staff. Whether it is the hundreds of frontline-facing employees or senior figures such as his business partner and CEO, Chaker Hanna, executive chef Mohamed Ourad or COO Conrad Patterson, he values them all.

“Of course, people talk about me, but it is all about the team. Each of us brings something to the operation. It is like a chain — the most important thing in a chain is every link.”

Kitous’ story is a fascinating one. Growing up in Lebanon, as the eldest in a family of seven children, he recalls his mother spending up to six hours a day in the kitchen cooking for everyone. His clearest memories are of the fisherman who used to visit in a little truck and sell fresh sardines, which his mother would either stuff or marinate.

Tony Kitous’ goal was to open an affordable Lebanese canteen where people could experience the warmth and culture of Middle East cuisine.

When he turned 18 the urge to travel got the better of him and, along with a friend, he headed to London. The date is etched on his mind. “6th August 1988 — almost 30 years ago, scary,” he says. Having arrived with no money, no contacts and the expectation that he would only stay for a few weeks, he could never have envisaged how things would turn out. The early years saw him take whatever work he could in the trade before seizing the opportunity to open his debut Lebanese restaurant, Levant, where we are sat today.

But at the same time there was always another much bigger idea brewing in the back of his mind. He would walk the high streets and see so much Italian food, Thai food and French food, but no Lebanese food. His goal was to open an affordable Lebanese canteen where people could experience the warmth and culture of Middle East cuisine. In 2008, Comptoir Libanais — translated as ‘Lebanese counter’ — was born.

People think that restaurant expansion is easy and glamorous, but it is not. It is hard work, very expensive and very stressful”

While the launch of that store, on London’s Wigmore Street, was a seminal moment in his life, he rejects the idea of it being a big break, instead preferring to view it as one milestone along a path that reflects his entire life’s work.

“There is no such thing as a big break,” he argues. “It is a bit like when a chef gets a Michelin star. People see that as a big break, but he would have worked thousands of hours before that to get there. It is a long and steady road. The only big break is something that can change your life overnight, like buying a £1 ticket and winning the lottery. Everything else takes time.”

Kitous’ passion for Middle Eastern food, and the culture and hospitality that surrounds it, knows no bounds. His mission is to spread the message as widely as possible — “how many restaurants do you see that put spaghetti on their menu even though they have nothing to do with Italian restaurants? I want people to start putting our dishes on their menu” — and the expansion of Comptoir has undoubtedly gone a long way to helping that.

Much of Comptoir’s growth has come from targeting the London market, where it has seen strong returns.

Much of Comptoir’s growth has come from targeting the London market, where it has seen strong returns.The chain ended its last financial year with 26 restaurants, and a further three franchise units, with two more (in Birmingham and London Bridge) in the pipeline. Its Shawa brand, meanwhile, serves traditional shawarmas through a service counter.

Group revenue for the year to 31 December 2016 increased 21% to £21.5m while EBITDA rose 7% to £2.7m. 2017 results are expected to deliver further growth, with the company recently announcing in a pre-close update that trading was “above market expectations” last year. That will certainly be music to the ears of investors now that Comptoir Group is listed on the AIM — a flotation that took place just two days before Great Britain went to the polls in the EU referendum.

Much of the company’s growth has come from targeting the London market, where it has seen strong returns. It took Comptoir seven years to open a branch outside the capital and, even now, Kitous is clearly cautious when discussing its nationwide prospects.

“People think that restaurant expansion is easy and glamorous, but it is not,” he warns. “It is hard work, very expensive and very stressful. I think it is much more challenging when you go outside London. We were very nervous and very careful about it — how would people see us? We wanted to make sure the whole Comptoir experience was fine-tuned. It took us a while but now we are going to new locations with confidence.”

Comptoir prides itself on offering food that is fresh, healthy, honest and affordable. That, in turn, impacts on what its kitchens look like.

“In most of our kitchens there is theatre — we want people to see the team getting involved,” he explains. “There are two parts to the kitchen: the prep kitchen, which is where the food arrives and we make it in one kitchen, and then the part when we are putting together a dish or assembling a dish. We try to make it in a very casual way and we want people to see it as more of a kitchen that they can relate to. We use shelves, jars, pickles, chillies, herbs, grains and spices to dress it so people feel they are in someone’s home.”

The evolution of the business has led to changes in the way Comptoir’s kitchens operate over the years and Kitous himself likes to be kept abreast of product developments. “We work with our suppliers to tell us what new equipment is coming, whether it is the efficiency, the size, the bulkiness or the flexibility.”

He cites Robot Coupe food processors (for producing dips) and charcoal grills as the two most important bits of kit that its kitchens use on a daily basis. “And I would add chopping boards and knives as well,” he says. “We do a lot of chopping.”

Growing up in Lebanon, as the eldest in a family of seven children, Tony Kitous recalls his mother spending up to six hours a day in the kitchen cooking for everyone.

Growing up in Lebanon, as the eldest in a family of seven children, Tony Kitous recalls his mother spending up to six hours a day in the kitchen cooking for everyone.

His philosophy for creating a productive kitchen is simple: “It is all about flow, efficiency and the right equipment, and that has to do with the menu. I could get a kitchen tomorrow and do Chinese food or Thai food or pizza. But you can’t do a pizza restaurant in a Chinese restaurant unless you change the equipment. The equipment works very much with the menu.”

The opening of a central production unit at Staples Corner some years back was an important step in Comptoir’s development, allowing it to benefit from economies of scale, especially in London. Food is prepared early in the morning and delivered to sites, although a significant amount of kitchen work is still carried out in store. Sauces, salads and marinades, as well as the cooking, are all made daily on site.

I could get a kitchen tomorrow and do Chinese food or Thai food or pizza. But you can’t do a pizza restaurant in a Chinese restaurant unless you change the equipment”

With all but two items of its menu freshly prepared in the CPU or its kitchens, the company places a huge emphasis on hiring skilled chefs and sous chefs. As a result, wage costs are always typically higher in the initial months following a new opening compared to other casual dining concepts.

Kitous, whose third book ‘Feasts from the Middle East’ is due out this month, suggests it is just an occupational hazard and notes that recruitment is a challenge for everybody. “Sometimes I look back at pizza concepts and think they had it easy. They buy the dough, they buy the sauces, they assemble. We make everything from scratch. Our concept looks easy from the outside, but the reality is it is very complex, but that is what we do it for. If it was easy, everybody could do it.”

The market place that Comptoir now finds itself an integral part of is certainly different to the one that the business launched in. With the likes of Strada, Byron and Jamie’s Italian restructuring their businesses since the New Year, it is clear that nobody is immune from the economic headwinds.

Shawa serves traditional shawarmas through a service counter.

“I feel very sad when I hear about Byron. It is a brand that I really like. And Jamie Oliver is a guy who I admire so much. He has done so much for the industry. He is so passionate and I genuinely feel sorry for him. It is bad news, and I think people need to know we are in it together and we all give our support and sympathy. The economy is very volatile and certain elements are not within our control.”

Kitous has faced many hurdles and barriers during his industry career and he won’t use the current uncertainty as an excuse for easing back. Food and restaurants are far too important for him. “This is our livelihood, it is just not another business or another deal I am doing,” he concludes. “I hate to call it a ‘business venture’. For me, this is my story, this is my life.”

Comptoir Libanais grows UK store coverage by heading to the West Midlands for the first time

Comptoir Libanais is to open its first restaurant in the West Midlands, at Grand Central in Birmingham. The new 3,047 square foot restaurant will be located next to Indian street food specialist Mowgli and is due to open this month.

Since its launch in 2008, the group has continued to share healthy and affordable Lebanese and Middle Eastern food with customers across England. Although the vast majority of its sites are based in London, it is present in Bath, Exeter, Leeds, Oxford, Manchester and Reading.

The restaurant will have space for approximately 100 covers and will also feature a small souk where customers can buy authentic ingredients, homeware and gifts as well as branded cookbooks.

Since gaining ownership of Grand Central in 2016, developer Hammerson has implemented a proactive asset management strategy to enhance the centre’s existing premium retail and dining offer. Sarah Fox, head of restaurants and leisure at Hammerson, said the company is delighted to have secured Comptoir Libanais as a tenant.

“The brand’s authentic offer is a unique addition that will further diversify the impressive dining line-up at Grand Central and illustrates the strength of Grand Central both as a retail and dining destination, and as a key regional travel hub,” she says.

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