Food for thought

Opening in the grips of the pandemic, ChickPz quickly figured out how to give customers what they want. Those lessons will outlast the socially distant times

Photo: ChickPz owner, Rami Sefian

IT IS OFTEN the choices that seem routine at the time that can influence most, the significance becoming apparent over time — or all at once, when conditions get turned on their head.

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So it was for Rami Sefian, who was in the process of ­opening a new restaurant in early March of 2020 when he called his lawyer to inquire about moving into his new space a little early.

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Sefian was scheduled to take possession of the 125 King Street storefront, where he would launch the fast-casual Mediterranean fusion ChickPz concept, on April 1, 2020.

“Something clicked in my head, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve got some time, so why don’t we get the lease pushed up so that we can get started sooner,’” he recalls. “And so, we took possession on March 15, 2020.”

The world came to a halt the very next day.

Food for thought chickpz Food & Beverage

The obvious question: If he hadn’t moved up the lease, would he have changed his mind?

“I have no idea,” he says. “I always ask myself that question, but I do not know. I don’t know if it’s a blessing in disguise, or what it was. ChickPz being where it’s at today, I’m so happy that we didn’t [halt our plans], but I always ask myself this question. Would I have continued with the project, knowing what I know? Maybe going in when I did gave me the vision to go in full force rather than say, ‘Oh, there’s a pandemic.’”

As it turned out, ChickPz had little time for the what-ifs, staring down the prototypical sink-or-swim moment. As a new business, government income replacement programs were largely off the table (a fact that still grates on Sefian: “New businesses are still businesses. You can’t pick and choose who you’re going to help,” he says), so the restaurant turned to delivery. Sefian shifted “all of our focus” there and banked on positive word of mouth to spread on social media.

It was all they could do, says Sefian, since his planned-for audience — downtown foot traffic — had completely disappeared.

Food for thought chickpz Food & Beverage

“Twenty-four hours prior to the pandemic, you’d have 50,000 to 60,000 people through that one little area between 11 a.m. and one o’clock for lunch, and no parking anywhere downtown,” he says. “Now, foot traffic is almost non-existent.”

They made it work by trying to “stay fresh,” in Sefian’s words, with new menu items constantly being tested, and new spins on Mediterranean favourites — like a bacon and halloumi sandwich, or a steak and halloumi rice bowl.

“I still think we’re different than your average restaurant; I truly believe that,” Sefian says. “You can’t really compare our sandwiches or many of our meals to anyone — it’s in a world of its own, and that’s what’s exciting about it.”

ChickPz is doing well on platforms like UberEats and SkiptheDishes, even if Sefian isn’t always happy with the way those businesses work. And with that genie out of the bottle, he is now looking ahead to what the future looks like as pandemic restrictions lift and downtown traffic begins to come back.

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“You don’t want to negate one side now,” he reasons. “Make sure you’re 100 per cent geared for both. Don’t just push one to the side.”

For better or worse, the pandemic had an enormous impact on how ChickPz grew and developed in its first year of business. But through equal parts hard work and creative thinking, it has worked out.

“We’ve never had the traditional customers — the typical noon-hour business rush where we give them a sandwich and they’re on their way,” says Sefian. “We’ve had to develop more of a relationship with our clients for that reason. They’re at home, they like to message us on Instagram and we like to message back.”

Food for thought chickpz Food & Beverage

Through this kind of customer interaction, ChickPz has managed to cultivate a much wider audience than the original business plan banked on — something Sefian is acutely mindful of retaining, whatever the next year may bring.

“We have customers from all walks of life. We have the university students, we have young professionals, we have young families, retirees — we have them all.” Food for thought chickpz Food & Beverage Kieran Delamont

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