By Sako Ghazarian and Laury Hollend
We were both successful Baskin-Robbins franchisees in Toronto with distinct approaches to running our businesses before we ever teamed up. It turns out we work together very well, as we both bring different attributes to the table. And just a few months ago, our combined efforts were validated when we received the Franchisees of the Year Award.
I’m from Peterborough, Ont. I can still remember passing by the local Baskin-Robbins plant as a kid and assuming that was where the ice cream for all of their stores came from.
As an athletic child, I loved hockey, kiteboarding, squash and tennis. I also always knew I wanted to go into business one day, particularly because of the examples set for me by mentors in my family. My father owned a clothing store and my uncle was in the real estate industry.
While I was studying political science (poli-sci) at Toronto’s York University, where I learned the importance of getting involved in every aspect of a business, my uncle helped Baskin-Robbins find a location for a new franchise at Bayview Avenue and York Mills Road. He let me know and I jumped at the opportunity to run it. I was only 21 years old and certainly needed the support of a franchise system behind me. I went to the franchisor’s offices for three weeks of training—with my mother, who had also invested in the store—and I would say that was really when I learned how to run a business.
Over the next five years, I got to the point where I was running five stores, including locations at Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue, at Leslie Street and Cummer Avenue and, just north of Toronto, at Clark and Hilda Avenues and in the Promenade Mall. I grew too fast, though, and the business blew up in my face. Not only that, I had no life.
I decided to step back, slow down and run only my two best stores: Bayview/York Mills and Promenade. I ended up making more money with just those two stores than I did with five! And I had a life again.
That experience helped me realize that while I knew how to run a store, running multiple stores by myself was a whole different game.
I was born and raised here in Toronto and have two brothers and one sister. Our dad owned a small grocery store near Wilson Avenue and Bathurst Street and we were always around for the ongoing, day-to-day business of running it. It was a real mom-and-pop shop. We would come in after school, on weekends and in the summer to help with cleaning, managing cash, etc.
At school, I enjoyed social sciences, history and geography. I started working at a Baskin-Robbins store at Yorkdale Shopping Centre when I was 14 years old. My sister was already working there and I often passed through until one day they asked if I wanted a job, as I knew all about their flavours and their brand.
That was my first job outside my dad’s store. I was working there once a week and on weekends. Later on, I was pretty much running it. The franchisee—who owned multiple locations—allowed me to learn a lot about the business, including how to make ice cream cakes, and it was okay if I failed sometimes. By my final year of high school, I knew I wanted to own Baskin-Robbins franchises myself.
In 1996, there was an opportunity to manage a streetfront location at Church and Wellesley Streets. This was while I was studying urban planning nearby at Ryerson University. In retrospect, I could have gone to college specifically to learn business management, but on the other hand, my courses at Ryerson taught me about city politics and decision-making in a way that would help me determine where best to open stores in the future.
The environment at the second Baskin-Robbins was very different from the first. A mall offers a more consistent flow of customers and, since those customers are usually there just to pick up a snack, the product mix is different. At Church and Wellesley, on the other hand, a lot of regulars from the neighbourhood would come in for larger take-home purchases and they got to know the employees behind the counter. We sponsored local teams and events as we further built our relationships with our community. As a walk-in store, it was busier in the summer than in the winter, but no matter the snow or sleet, they’d come in for a treat!
I became a franchisee for the first time when I bought that store in 1999. It was a seamless change of ownership. The previous franchisee was hands-off and our customers knew me well. You might say I had already been running the business like I owned it.