Five Atlantic Canada entrepreneurs share their lessons in empire building
LESSONS IN: BRAND BUILDING
Hungry for more
How New Brunswick’s Mike Timani manufactured an insatiable appetite for pita bread
By Alec Bruce
IT MIGHT AMUSE Mike Timani, the founder of Atlantic Canada’s biggest private-label pita bread enterprise, to ruminate on the proposition that it has taken him a mere quarter-century to become an overnight success. Then again, he might not appreciate the humour in that statement at all, especially when he recalls just how hard he worked to get to where he is today.
“In the early days, it was crazy,” says the Moncton-based dynamo behind Fancy Pokket. “I was running around all over the province trying to sell my products to major retailers. At the same time, I was managing the little bakery that made these goods. And there was the tiny restaurant we had going on Moncton’s Main Street. Sometimes, it was like 20 hours a day. I think I almost lost my life six times driving on the roads and highways of New Brunswick.”
Fortunately for the 60 people he employs at his 45,000 square-foot facility in the north end of the city, the businessman survived in both body and soul. Now, if all goes well next month, his first major foray into the United States — a gleaming, new 58,000 square-foot production plant — is set to swing open its doors in Lancaster, South Carolina.
It’s not at all bad for a former busboy — born in Venezuela of Lebanese parents and raised in Lebanon before emigrating to Canada in 1976 — who decided to become his own man of means on little more than a wink and a prayer in the late 1980s.
Timani recounts working his way up the Hilton Hotel organization’s ranks in Toronto and then in Saint John, where he eventually became the food and beverage director at the convention center there. “That was a very good job,” he says. “But something in me was looking for a change. I was ready for a fresh challenge.”
He decided that his adopted province was ripe for a new food product: Lebanese-style pita bread. He further reckoned that the best place to launch such a venture was Moncton. “This was, and remains, the hub city of New Brunswick, even the Maritimes,” he says. “People are always coming and going to and from all kinds of places. Also, this is a bilingual community — so that cultural diversity was attractive.”
In 1988, he established a 74-seat Lebanese style restaurant in the heart of the downtown. To supply it with pita, he opened a 1,000 sq. ft. bakery several blocks away on Albert Street. It was, in many ways, a grueling introduction to self-employment. “We had three employees each baking one pita loaf at a time,” he says. “We would take 12 hours to make 2,000 loaves.”
Still, he had bigger things in mind. As he tells it, he was determined to get his products onto the shelves of major retailers such as Sobeys, the Co-Op, and the Loblaws-owned franchise across the province. If his restaurant was, in effect, his customer-contact center, it was also his brand booster in the corporate sector. The strategy worked. Retailers recognized the popularity of his products almost immediately. The only question for them was whether Timani could deliver the volumes they required and could he deliver on time.
In 1990, he opened a 4,000 square-foot facility. Five years later, he moved the operation to its current location (then 24,000 sq. ft., now 45,000).Over the ensuing decade, expansion followed expansion, in both manufacturing capacity and product lines — pizza crust, flatbreads, bagels, and tortillas. Throughout, he made sure to invest in state-of-theart production, freezing and storage technology. All of which positioned his company for continued product innovation and growth.
As he looks forward to the new plant opening in the U.S., perseverance and hard work may be two of the greatest lessons he imparts to entrepreneurs in any field of endeavor. There is, in effect, no such thing as overnight success; just every night success, measured in increments, over and over again.
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