Eat Out with... Tony Kitous, founder of Comptoir Libanais

06/06/2016 - 12:26
Tony Kitous is on a mission to bring Lebanese food to the high street. Maria Bracken catches up with him to find out how he is achieving this through his concept Comptoir Libanais.

What's your background?

I have always been fascinated by food and hospitality and even when I was a little kid I was making sandwiches and lemonade at home and then selling them outside the local football stadium to hungry fans. Fast-forward 10 years, I arrived in London with £70 in my pocket supposedly for just a holiday but I fell in love with the city and am still here now! I was 18 and worked every hour under the sun in restaurants and bars. I was keen to learn everything I could so that I could open a Lebanese restaurant – a cuisine that I felt was really unrepresented on the high street. Four years later, in 1993, I opened my first restaurant and now I’m proud to have 16 restaurants in our portfolio thanks to the support, determination and hard work of my team, not to mention the enthusiasm from our guests.

What is the highlight of your career?

Opening my first restaurant was a real highlight – I was only 22 and I had worked so hard to get to that point. That was 22 years ago this month but I still remember it like it was yesterday. More recently though, I’m very proud of my ever growing team and the ability to showcase Lebanese food, culture and hospitality to people across the UK, not just London. My aim is to make Lebanese cuisine as popular as Italian is and I won’t rest until I succeed!

What is your long term business strategy?

To open lots of restaurants and make Lebanese cuisine as represented and as popular as Italian cuisine currently is on the high street.

Location wise, how do you decide where you want to be?

Finding properties is tough – it’s so competitive as there are so many amazing operators out there, all trying to showcase their cuisine of choice.  My business partner and I don’t sign anything without meticulously researching the area and making sure it’s right for us. We’ve just opened our first restaurant outside of Greater London, in Manchester. So far, we’ve had a great response from our guests and this has encouraged us to look at other sites further afield.

Apart from Comptoir, what is your favourite UK restaurant brand?

There are so many great ones! I may be bias but I love another of our own brands, Shawa. It’s a quick service, shawarma wrap concept, offering lean cuts of lamb and marinated, grilled chicken in a Lebanese flatbread. We currently operate in Westfield, London and are opening imminently in Bluewater. Besides our brands, I’ve got to say that I really admire Nandos – there are so many locations yet the food is always on point and the service is great. They have real consistency which is admirable and I love eating chicken and salad, especially when I’m training for marathons.

What would you say are the main characteristics of your restaurants?

The restaurants themselves are casual, friendly and colourful which sits nicely next to our healthy, fresh Lebanese cuisine. We work hard to ensure our dishes are value for money – we want to make sure Comptoir is accessible for everyone, from a high powered exec buying a designer bag in Selfridges, to the Saturday assistant who sold it to her.

The casual dining sector is extremely competitive..how do you stay ahead of the game?

I surround myself with a great team of individuals who are dedicated and passionate to provide genuine, warm Lebanese hospitality. I continually travel to gather inspiration for everything from the design of our next restaurant to the food and drink that is on offer. I think it’s about lots of changes, little and often, so to keep things fresh and alive, especially for our regular guests.

As a business, how important is twitter/facebook/instagram etc?

Very. It’s a great way to hear directly from our guests and learn and evolve from the feedback that they give us. It’s also a useful way to let our guests know what’s happening – be it a candid shot of one of the chefs in the restaurants, to a new menu or a seasonal special. I use it personally to share the food that I’m cooking and eating and hopefully teaching my followers a bit more about what they can expect from Lebanese cuisine.

Who are your competitors and how do you stand out from your rivals?

We compete with everyone from the local, independent restaurant next door, to the high street giants such as Cote and Pizza Express. Cuisine wise, a lot of our guests also enjoy Ottelenghi and Honey & Co – they serve some seriously amazing food so I’m honoured to be competing with them.

You have recently opened a site in Spinningfields, how is that going?

Really amazing! The welcome we’ve had from people in Manchester has been so overwhelming, I couldn’t have asked for more. The sales have been encouraging too, so long may it continue!

What does the future hold for Comptoir?

If things continue to go well, I want to open a few more sites, assuming we can find the right locations. I want to continually evolve the menu, giving our guests different flavours and a continuation of the education of what Lebanese cuisine is all about. I’m in the process of writing my third Comptoir cookbook which I’m really excited about too!

Looking ahead, identify one challenge and one opportunity for the business

One challenge is definitely finding sites – as I mentioned, there is so much competition from fantastic brands and we’re really hesitant to open anywhere less than perfect so it takes time! A main opportunity is definitely continuing to offer fresh and healthy dishes. Everyone is, thankfully, taking their health a lot more seriously and are coming to us for our salads, grilled lean meats and mezze.

What's next for the casual dining market? What do you see trending?

The casual dining market will continue to expand as the public continue to get more experimental and want to see brands grow and evolve. As I mentioned, health is continuing to be a key focus, especially in children’s menus, which is why we include vegetarian and gluten free options. Guests also want to know that the meat they order in a restaurant has been sourced responsibly and locally, where possible. I’ve been reading that ethnic breakfasts are also going to be a big thing for 2016, which is great news for us as we do some really interesting Lebanese breakfasts, using ingredients such as Armenian sausages, sumac, halloumi and pomegranates.

You have won twice in our Lunch Business Awards...you must be doing something right?

We try! We’re really lucky to have amazing guests – a lot of whom have supported us from day 1! We make a huge effort to listen to our gusts which is such an invaluable use of information for us, as well as having regular internal meetings to assess said feedback and use it going forward in our day to day. I have a strong team working for me and we all have the same goal: to provide great tasting, healthy Lebanese cuisine, alongside second-to-none hospitality in a friendly and casual environment. If we stick to that then hopefully we’ll continue to grow.

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