Mohamad Fakih leads a tour of a Paramount
Mohamad Fakih leads a tour of a Paramount Fine Foods restaurant and stops to sharpen a long knife and slice beef shawarma from a spit.
The founder and CEO of the growing chain of Middle Eastern restaurants with a halal menu is smiling broadly, clearly happy that fate has brought him to this kitchen in the Liberty Village location in Toronto.
In a few hours the kitchen will fill with staff, including Syrian refugees that he hired to give them a start in Canada.
Fakih, 45, oversees more than 40 locations worldwide, mostly with franchise partners. The chain, which employs more than 1,000 people, includes a commissary, gourmet butcher shop and a new Middle Eastern-style sandwich franchise.
But Fakih has also made a mark through his charitable acts.
He covered the funeral costs for the six worshippers who were slain in a mass shooting in January at a Quebec City mosque. And he has set a goal of hiring 100 Syrian refugees; so far 80 are working in his restaurants.
Fakih, who trained as a gemologist, entered the restaurant industry by chance a decade ago. Last year, his businesses saw nearly $70 million in sales. He lists his current net worth at $50 million. In November, he was named business leader of the year by Toronto Region Board of Trade.
He now lives in Mississauga’s tony Gordon Woods community, and likes his toys, including a custom-made motorcycle called “the Money Shot” he keeps parked inside his Etobicoke head office. But he cringes at the label millionaire — “please don’t call me that, I hate it.”
Despite the success, Fakih still can’t escape the sting of bigotry. He grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. In Italy and then Canada, he has faced discrimination as an Arab and Muslim, and he has been racially profiled at airports.
That’s what happens when your name is Mohamad and you were born in Beirut, he says stoically.
As recently as 18 months ago in Poland, on his way to Dubai with his family, Fakih was questioned at length by a border agent. The official wanted to know: did he donate to any mosques?
“People aren’t ashamed of crossing lines with any Muslim, regardless of how respectful you are, how humane you are, regardless of how good you are to your community,” he says.
On Jan. 29 six people were killed and nearly 20 others were wounded in a mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec.
After Fakih heard about the tragedy, he spent tens of thousands of dollars to cover funeral and burial costs of the worshippers killed in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a terrorist attack. He also donated money toward the repair of the mosque, which was damaged by gunfire.
Aside from the funeral costs, Fakih’s “generous donation meant that this money could be used for additional support for the victims’ families and those injured and affected by the attacks,” said Reyhana Patel, a spokesperson for Islamic Relief Canada, an international aid and development charity in the Muslim community that disbursed the money for the funeral and repairs.
Fakih is proud of his faith and is passing down his values to his three young sons, Adam, 2, Karim, 10, and Emad, 12. But the boys were devastated by the attack, and one expressed confusion, saying he thought Canadians liked Muslims. (AlexandreBissonnette, 27, of Quebec is accused in the slayings.)
Fakih says incidents like the racial profiling at airports and the mosque shootings are teachable moments he uses to inform his sons about discrimination.
After the massacre, “I said (to his eldest son) we have less than 1 per cent of the Muslim community we call ISIS.
“They do a great job at making our reputation bad. They (do) a horrible job representing how Muslim they are.”
Similarly, the accused mosque shooter represents the tiny fragment of Canadians that is anti-Muslim — not the majority, Fakih told his son.
Fakih doesn’t harbour racial bitterness. Intolerance and bigotry towards Muslims is fuelled by “bad information” and stereotypes that non-Muslims hold toward the religion, Fakih believes. That type of thinking is behind U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban, he says.
Fakih has taken the opposite approach. He is proud to say he has people from numerous backgrounds in his restaurant operation, whether they are suppliers, employees in his corporate office or kitchen staff.
“All Canadians are welcome to work here. If I can learn how to make pasta, someone can learn how to make shawarma.”
Fakih has become good friends with his lawyer, Yehuda Levinson, a Hasidic Jew who helped Fakih obtain a visa to work in Canada nearly 20 years ago. Fakih says he has a lot of faith in Levinson, and depends on him, recently asking him to be a trustee for a personal family matter.
“I was very touched,” Levinson recalls. “He was looking for somebody he could really rely on, 100 per cent. (Mohamad) said ‘I just don’t know anyone better than you to do this.’
“Mohamad approached me as a friend, not as a lawyer. He didn’t need a lawyer to do this.”
Levinson, 65, a litigator who practises immigration and family law, says the two appreciate each other’s differences.
“We’re really an example for everybody else that there really doesn’t need to be conflict between Jews and Muslims,” Levinson says.
“And we like to think we exemplify what’s possible in Canadian society.”
In young MohamadFakih’s home in Beirut, “it was not OK to say no to anyone who needed help.” His parents — father Abdallah, now 82, and mother Nabiha, 75 — preached tolerance and respect to Fakih and his siblings.
Abdallah and Nabiha raised Mohamad and his two brothers and four sisters in a three-bedroom house — parents in one, sisters in one, brothers in another. (They would later move to a five-bedroom.) His father owned and operated a company that built and sold apartment buildings.
Fakih says the family was “very blessed,” but from his birth in 1971 to 1987, when he left home at 16 to pursue his studies, peace in Lebanon was elusive. During that time the country experienced a 15-year civil war, invasions by Syria and Israel, the instalment of UN peacekeepers, and suicide bombings.
When Fakih was a baby, his father went to the United Arab Emirates to work as violence disrupted his business. Fakih’s mother captained her little crew of children at home while maintaining her husband’s business interests. Though his father was only a three-hour plane ride away, and did fly back and forth to be with his family, he was away from them for about six years.
His parents were loving, but stern. “My dad never gave us the belt because his voice was worse for us. As soon as he walked into the house we were all quiet, we spoke differently, we walked differently.” Only during celebrations would his father kiss and hug him; Fakih says his dad wanted his sons to be “tougher.”
Fakih says his father was an ethical businessman who secured deals with a handshake. “It was always based on getting along, doing the right thing, and maintaining a good reputation,” Fakih recalls.
He smiles remembering the times he and his brother argued at home, pushing each other while Mom tried to nap in the afternoon. With her eyes closed she would take a pillow and throw it at them, always hitting the target. But he also recalls sleeping gently on her lap.
His mother did a lot of community work in Beirut, at one point suffering a leg injury from a bombing that occurred while she volunteered handing out food during civil unrest.
Fakih also remembers brief periods when Lebanon’s tensions forced his father to pack the family up to live in Cyprus or Egypt. Being on the move and having to survive made the family more open-minded to people in other countries and different ways of life, Fakih says.
Growing up, he was also exposed to different languages. Lebanon was a former French colony, so 90 per cent of his schooling was in French — Arabic was only spoken in his history class.