29th June, 1993 – The day that changed the world for Tony.
Tony Kitous, the food entrepreneur leased his first restaurant on this day. From Tony , the teenager who visited UK to Tony Kitous, the person who built a food empire – the story spread across last four decades is an inspirational one.
The story of Tony is well known to the people who have been following the presence of Lebanese food in UK. He was 18 years old while visiting the United Kingdom in 1988. It was a short vacation trip from his home in Algeria with just 70 Pounds in his pocket. Tony who had travelled with his friend , slept at the Victoria train station to ensure that they save enough money. During this trip, Tony realised and understood that the UK is the place for him.
In this edition of PAC Talks, Tony shared his story and the amazing journey spread across four decades. You can listen to the podcast where Tony spoke about his life, experiences, food, cuisines, how I came to know about this brand, Tony’s response, etc. A fun conversation with Tony Kitous. You can find it in all podcast channels: PAC Talks with VJCV. Click here for Apple Podcast, Spotify. Watch the interview on YouTube.
The highlights of the talk is captured in this article:
The eldest in the family of seven siblings, Tony stayed in a 3 bedroom apartment in Algeria during his childhood days along with his parents and grand mother. Tony still remembers the way in which the big family was staying in the house and as the eldest brother everyone was looking up to him. During late 1970s , his local club was one of the best clubs in Algeria and all the matches were sold out. The stadium was across the road from his house and Tony, after his school, used to sell food, beverages and tickets during the match day.
“I grew up in the small streets of Algeria, selling sandwiches, tickets, lemonades and it was an amazing experience. The best and biggest experience is what we learn on the streets.”Tony Kitous talked about the beautiful memories and experiences
For someone who had ‘tasted’ entrepreneurship at a very early age of 8 in the streets of Algeria, the urge to work hard and make profit was not new.
Once he decided that UK is going to be part of his long term goal plans, he needed the blessings of his parents. So while Tony was busy picking up almost all possible work in UK , he had the tough task of convincing his parents to let him stay in UK and try to make a living.
Tony spend four years before starting his own restaurant. He said that at that time all his friends were attending college to become doctors, engineers, etc. There was pressure on him to make sure by the time they pass out from colleges, he had a good job.
To the question: what were you doing for four years before opening the first restaurant ? , Tony replied that I was always planning and working hard.
Mr. Kitous worked for almost 90 hours every week for 4-4.5 years.
“Looking back, working 90 hours every week, was it difficult ? No. I enjoyed it”added Tony
June, 1993 : The last week of the month. The restaurant Tony was working did not open for 3-4 days. By now, Tony’s parents had agreed to him staying back in UK. Tony went and met the landlord, requested to give him an opportunity to run that restaurant in Wigmore Street, London. The landlord believed in caliber of that 22 year old boy, Tony and rest is history.
This was the first restaurant by Tony and is called Levant. It took 15 years for him to open the flagship restaurant , Comptoir Libanais. The name meant Canteen of Lebanon and was opened in 2008. The restaurant is now spread across the UK and also has a presence in Netherlands. Comptoir Libanais is a colourful restaurant with beautiful ambience and great spread of mediterranean cuisine. Tony shared the thought behind opening this brand. He wanted people from all parts of society to walk into the restaurant and experience the Middle East culture and cuisine.
The amazing taste of all these recipes comes from someone who has not gone through any formal education in cooking. A self taught chef Tony likes to play around and experiment with the flavours of food
“For me the dish is the table. I love to mix food, mix flavours from fresh salads, small pastries to dips like aubergine dips, chick pea dips. It is not one or two dish,I fill the table. “
Tony went ahead and opened three more separate brands. One of them is Kenza, a fine dine restaurant.
Yalla Yalla (Lebanese Kitchen) is another one which is inspired by the generosity of grandmothers.
“In our culture, we dress the table with food. That is how we show generosity. ” added Tony about the way in which he wanted people to understand the Middle East food culture.
Another brand was opened to give the experience of Lebanese Village Food called Shawa.
“I wanted to do to Shawarma what Americans did to burgers. “
He wants people to realise that Shawarma is one of the very few healthy fast food options available. Tony himself goes on a strict diet when he prepares for his marathons / ultra marathons and gets his share of protein from Shawarma.
Comptoir Libanais is now a listed brand in the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange. The restaurant has fans from across the walks of life. Tony credited his current and past team members for all the achievements of his restaurants.
The plethora of dishes churned out by Tony did finally push himself to write. He took help from his friend, Dan Lepard, who is in himself a celebrity chef to publish his first book. So far, Tony has published three cook books. I managed to glance through few recipes while having my food at the Canteen of Lebanon at their Dubai airport franchise. Some interesting set of recipes for all types of cooks.
“This is my goal. I want to enter people’s home with our cook book. I am promoting our food and culture.
Covid hit his business as well. But they did everything that was possible in his hands to stay afloat. Personally he ensured to stay fit and keep him mind fresh to focus on the task in his hands. With the help and much compulsion from his team, they decided to launch a mobile app. This helped to get good business during these tough times. Tony acknowledges that Covid is still not over and the next couple of years needs cautious planning. The restaurant that was opened in Dubai airport terminal 3 in the A wing just before Covid was closed due to Covid . It finally reopened couple of months ago to the customers.
The future plans are already in place. The flagship restaurant will be soon seen in Abu Dhabi and Doha airport by the mid of 2022. Football World Cup travellers to Doha can definitely have their share of experience with this brand. Talking about the influence of technology, Tony added “Technology comes with a price and it is difficult for small restaurants to embrace technology. But going forward, restaurants might witness more of robots, augmented reality, etc.”
This story of the boy moving from Algeria to UK made me to compare Tony’s journey with the famous footballer Riyad Mahrez. “Riyad Mahrez is a very humble and great person” added Tony. But he mentioned that the comparison does not stand good. It was well explained by Tony as to the shelf life of a football player is small while someone in a business especially into restaurants do not have an expiry date. But is it that easy to establish a restaurant brand as well ?
“It is about Passion. Whatever you do in life there are two ways of looking at it – Very Hard and Very Easy, with a fine balance. If we choose the easy path it is not because its easy but you are determined and obsessed to achieve. It is very hard because you think it is hard.”
“I am dreaming much more than when I was a kid and don’t want to stop dreaming. I do not feel like I have achieved.” Tony gave a great message to all the readers and listeners while adding that it took ‘60 years of work’ for him to reach to this point:
“Keep Dreaming, Be Obsessed”
The Story of Tony Kitous is a prime example of following the Passion and making it count despite all odds. From working 90 hours a week, leasing a restaurant to now owning around 30 restaurants spread across the UK, UAE and Netherlands – the journey is full of flavours.
You can read more about Tony Kitous here: http://tonykitous.com/