The Bright Side of Business bimonthly column is presented by Star Motors.
On Instagram, restaurant chain Burgers n' Fries Forever (BFF) has racked up almost 30,000 followers from food shots and funny videos of its founder and CEO, Jamil Bhuya.
But Bhuya isn’t just doing it for the ’gram. It’s part of a lifelong passion that started when Bhuya was a child who knew growing up that he wanted to open his own restaurant one day.
He says it was his mother who inspired his love of food from a young age.
“Being of Bangladeshi descent, she was always cooking up a storm – the place would smell wonderful,” he says. “Luckily, I also had a high metabolism, because I just love to eat anyways.”
Bhuya started his career in the federal government, going from one temporary contract to another. He was waiting for a permanent position, until a federal budget freeze stopped his public service career in its tracks.
“That was when I finally had enough and I decided to start Burgers n' Fries Forever,” Bhuya says. “It was a bit of a dream and a passion.”
Turning up the heat
In August 2012, Bhuya pitched BFF to his operating partner at the time, asking: why can’t fries share the spotlight with burgers?
“It was always a bit of a disappointment to have a really nice, juicy fresh burger with frozen fries – it just didn't make sense,” Bhuya explains. His solution? Hand-cut fries made with double-fried, PEI russet potatoes, coupled with a selection of homemade dips such as vegetarian gravy and chipotle mayo.
One year later, Bhuya opened the first BFF location in Centretown, securing the funding through his personal network.
“Going to a bank as a 22-year old kid with no practical business experience, no house – any entrepreneur that hears this will laugh,” Bhuya says. “You have to go private, you have to raise money through family and friends.”
Four years later, BFF opened a second location in the ByWard Market. In 2019, the restaurant expanded to Toronto.
“We're BFFs with everybody, especially in Canada, being the melting pot that it is,” Bhuya says. “(BFF is) a mix of that, and really bringing fries to the forefront.”
Paired with BFF’s fries are its “fusion” burgers, such as its Korean-fried chicken burgers, alongside a wide range of vegan and halal options.
BFF hires 10 to 20 employees in each restaurant, seeing 100 or more customers per day. “You're striving towards being a seven-figure-plus store, revenue-wise,” Bhuya explains.
That target, however, became particularly challenging when COVID-19 hit, shutting down all three locations for two months.
When life gives you lemons
Luckily, BFF already had a takeout delivery business model, complementing its dine-in option. However, the pandemic accelerated a shift in consumer habits towards food delivery apps, making BFF increasingly reliant on companies such as Uber Eats and DoorDash.
“Without them, we would be in serious trouble,” Bhuya says. “But the fees that you pay – (when) a bulk of your business (goes to a) third party, you can't be profitable. It's very hard.”
As well as using government subsidies and scaling back on restaurant hours, Bhuya’s team leveraged delivery app algorithms to get in front of more customers. Amid the pandemic, BFF also switched up its Toronto location, moving the restaurant closer to the downtown core and capitalizing on the larger pool of potential customers.
“In the restaurant industry, we've put on this badass rock star persona: ‘I can work 80 hours straight, on my feet, with just a bottle of water. It's stupid. It really is.”
Despite the challenges sustaining its bottom line, BFF turned its focus inward, supporting the wellbeing of its teams by advocating for mental health awareness, and encouraging staff to let managers know when they need “more than a couple days off,” Bhuya says.
“In the restaurant industry, we've put on this badass rock star persona: ‘I can work 80 hours straight, on my feet, with just a bottle of water.’” he says. “It's stupid. It really is. We're trying to humanize the industry with our staff and our managers.”
As more and more individuals are vaccinated – and eager to dine out safely again – BFF is poised to expand with a new Ottawa location that’s set to open next year as well as a food truck offering.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re giving our BFFs the experience that they've come to know and love, while still growing the business sustainably,” Bhuya says.
The Bright Side of Business is an editorial feature focused on sharing positive stories of business success.
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