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Thai Express: Ottawa franchisee believes brand’s innovative meals are the recipe for success

Ahmad Sinno worked at his cousin’s Thai Express location before becoming confident enough to run a franchise himself.
Ahmad Sinno worked at his cousin’s Thai Express location before becoming confident enough to run a franchise himself.

As one of the largest brands in the MTY Franchising Inc., portfolio, Thai Express continues to expand across the Canadian restaurant landscape with more than 290 locations across all 10 provinces, plus 28 locations around the globe in Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the U.K., and U.S. The company also recently captured Canadian Business Franchise’s Top Asian food franchise for 2020.

Ahmad Sinno, a franchisee in Ottawa, joined the company in October 2014. He shared his interesting story of coming to Canada, how he came across this opportunity, and the ins and outs of owning a franchise business.

 Canadian Business Franchise (CBF): Did you always envision yourself as an entrepreneur?

Ahmad Sinno (AS): Honestly, it happened naturally. I had not necessarily envisioned it at a young age, and it did not happen overnight. Things began when I was driven to go through my university years while managing two jobs simultaneously, which allowed me to understand my potential. I later flourished while working for multinational organizations in different countries and gaining experience and exposure to different levels and aspects of running a project or a business. Everything finally occurred organically when the opportunity came.

CBF: Why did you choose franchising?

AS: I came to Canada as an immigrant with zero knowledge about the market or about running a food business, specifically. Being a franchisee means you get the know-how and continuous support in menu development, operations, marketing, technology, purchasing, and training from a dedicated team and well-established brand like Thai Express, while you focus on running and growing your business.

CBF: How did you discover a franchising opportunity at Thai Express?

AS: I started as a cashier at my cousin’s Thai Express location in Montreal. She and her husband were successful multi-location operators. For about six months, they taught me a lot about how they ran their businesses and, two months into the job, I felt confident enough to apply for my own restaurant.

CBF: When did you buy your franchise?

AS: At that time, head office had just secured a new location. I visited the area and was satisfied when I learned about its clientele and growth potential. Financing was a smooth process through the small business loan program and agreements between the franchisor and selected banks. I worked with a lawyer knowledgeable in franchising to go through the lease and franchise contract. While you can rarely change anything, a lawyer will explain your rights and responsibilities under those agreements.

CBF: What was involved in opening your franchise?

AS: Another advantage to buying a franchise is the franchisor usually has a process and a dedicated team that co-ordinates and assists you throughout the journey—from floor plans to buying equipment, training staff, and marketing, Thai Express was there for us. A schedule was prepared for my location with expected start and completion dates for each task, and we were also trained for two weeks at a fully operational training location.

CBF: Describe your opening day.

AS: I remember it as if it was yesterday. We had everything ready to go for a couple of days prior; however, it was all pending the final city inspection. As soon as the inspector signed off on the project, we immediately opened our doors and celebrated with our anxious guests. Everything is special that first day—first guest interaction, first time to using equipment, or cooking a meal for your guests.

CBF: Describe a typical day of running your franchise business.

AS: We usually walk into the store at 10 a.m. and start turning on equipment and preparing food for lunch time. Most of the preparation is about portioning ingredients like chopped vegetables, meat, noodles, and sauces. During lunch and dinner service, I usually rotate positions with the team, either taking orders, portioning, or cooking on the wok station. Between lunch and dinner, I go through my emails and the company financials. I also place purchasing orders for the coming days while the staff is busy preparing for the dinner time.

CBF: Do you feel your educational background helps in your day-to-day responsibilities and overall business decisions?

AS: My education and previous work experience definitely helped me understand and run my business. However, another advantage of buying a franchise is access to daily task lists covering different aspects of the operation, plus having a business development consultant whose job is to discuss the overall performance with you and give advice on areas that need improvement.

CBF: What have been the highlights and challenges of running your franchise?

AS: Seeing the satisfaction on the face of my guests and my team every day is my motivation to keep me going. I tend to spend long hours at work because I enjoy it; however, it can be challenging sometimes if it comes at the cost of time with family and social life in general.

CBF: How has COVID impacted your franchise?

AS: We took a big hit from COVID-19, especially during the first lockdown. We had to reduce our hours of operation, staff times, and close in-restaurant dining. My location had third-party delivery apps running for years prior to the pandemic, so our guests gradually started to shift to those apps, which kept us in business; however, the cost was, and still is, very high. Our head office helped us reduce additional costs and, so far, it is keeping us afloat.

CBF: How do you make your franchise stand out among others in the market?

AS: We serve fresh, healthy, and tasty authentic hot Thai meals in a quick manner. In addition, our menu is customizable and has vegan and gluten-free options. We are constantly creating innovative meals, which separate us from others in the market.

CBF: How has the business evolved since you first started?

AS: The largest evolution started a few years back when third-party apps became available to Canadians. Thanks to MTY’s ability to offer economies of scale, franchisees can benefit from more advantageous commission rates. Even with these charges, these apps still take a significant portion of sales, so we hope local government can help restaurateurs by capping these rates. Things intensified more with the pandemic when in-store revenue dropped sharply and was replaced partially by delivery revenue. Critical adjustments had to be made to make this new normal viable.

CBF: What are your future plans?

AS: I want to keep finding growth opportunities for my business and potentially start new ventures with the company.

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