Unico e Fresco: Behind the Business with Levetto President & CEO Kam Zahedi
Levetto is an exciting new concept in GTA dining. Featuring classic Italian fare in portions big enough to really dive into, Levetto’s four area locations are a showcase for Executive Chef Shahir Massoud to explore the food he loves. Chef Massoud recently answered the FSL 20 Questions, but for our Behind the Business feature, we wanted to speak with President and CEO Kam Zahedi.
We asked Kam about the bravery involved in starting a new business from scratch and what it takes it not only get it off the ground but make it successful and sustainable.
Be warned: the interview is inspiring, but it’s not recommended reading on an empty stomach!
So, tell about your restaurants. What is Levetto all about?
Levetto is a fast casual restaurant that offers scratch-made pastas, fresh Romano pizzas, salads and desserts. We also serve a unique selection of Italian and Canadian wines and beers, plus illy coffee alongside other beverages. Our executive chef Shahir Massoud is the creator of the menu and has played an integral role in shaping the brand from a visual and process standpoint.
This is really a chef-driven company that prides itself in creating unique and fresh dishes for sit-down, pick up, delivery, and catering.
My role as Partner / CEO is to develop the franchise model for store development, and create a secure and attractive investment for prospective franchisees looking to get into the ‘fast casual pizza and pasta’ market. Since Levetto offers such fresh Italian food and at such a great price-point, we end up attracting a wide range of patrons. We have 4 locations currently – Dufferin, Waterloo, Baden and Liberty Village in Toronto (with a new Toronto location opening soon) so each individual location caters to a unique array of customers – young single professionals, families, students, etc. We do about 65% of our business through pick-up orders, which suggests that a lot of our patrons are busy and on the go, and are looking for the fresh and fast casual experience that we provide.
What’s the special? Why do people keep coming back?
Our menu is a compact selection of Romano pizzas that are made to order, pastas made fresh each day, salads, desserts, Italian and Canadian wines and beers, illy coffee and other beverages. Each of our locations features an open-style kitchen where you can watch your meal being made to order. We extrude fresh pasta each day and offer fresh dough, which is integral to the quality and flavour of our food. Produce and food items are brought in fresh each day as well to fulfill our priority of using high quality ingredients.
How did you get into the restaurant business? Is it a family legacy or are you a pioneer?
I worked for RBC Royal Bank in the commercial lending side for over 17 years, where I primarily administered the Canadian business loan program for small business in the retail space. After financing many pizza and pasta restaurants, I felt there was a huge need for fresh products as opposed to frozen dough and dry pasta. I was never a restaurateur and had no culinary background! I just focused on building a business with Shahir my partner; he is the brains behind the cooking, and I am the finance guy who keeps the taps flowing when it comes to funding. The partnership oddly works! I love eating the food and spreading the message, and Shahir loves creating and cooking for people. This allows us to focus on our respective roles and come up with a lean and effective business model to franchise.
What it is that drives you every day? To be successful you have to be passionate – so, why do you love what you do?
I honestly love the food Shahir has created, so it makes it really easy for me to love doing what I do. The food and the Levetto brand are an extension of our efforts since day one. I want people who are vested in running a pizza and pasta shop to experience what we have done in the last 2 years. Our food is fresh and delicious; we have repeat customers coming in every week at every location. To hear from them on a daily basis that the food is special and affordable is a blessing in itself. This drives me to expand our business to the franchise world, and allow others to share in the experience and ultimately reap the rewards of running their own business.
Was it all smooth sailing or have you had to overcome adversity to get where you are?
In any venture you approach, the risks are very great. I left a high paying and secure job with RBC. I just had my first child who now is 11 months old. My wife is not working, therefore I have huge responsibilities to provide for my family. In order to be successful you need to have the right people at your side. Shahir has been with me since day one. I owe huge gratitude to him for sacrificing time and effort to keep this brand going.
Without Shahir’s loyalty and commitment, I don’t think we would have got to where we are now.
We all know that crazy happens. What’s the wildest thing that’s happened on the job?
Watching Shahir work 25 pasta orders on one small 4-stove burner. I have never seen so many pasta pans stacked on top of each other. It was actually quite amazing to witness.
Are you involved in your local community at all?
We are the proud league sponsors for the Waterloo United indoor soccer league. We will be presenting awards on their year end final tournaments. We have also supported the City of Vaughan business galas, and participated in some cancer fundraising food drive events. Shahir has participated in the charitable event Love Food Give Food last October, in support of Action Against Hunger. We will continue to support our local communities and participate in more food drive to help the less fortunate during the holiday season.
Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?
Keep focused, and have a business plan at all times. You have to budget properly in both funds required and timelines for deliverables to be met. Time is the biggest enemy for any new start up. Have the right people working for you. Hold them accountable for the duties you have given them. People are the backbone of your business. Staff should be an extension of good customer service and have the willingness to go that extra mile.