In the extremely competitive world of bistro-style restaurants a key ingredient to sustained success is having excellent leadership and never compromising on nutrition and customer satisfaction. Obtaining that balance of outstanding quality with timely efficiency is what elevates La Prep to the very top of the industry. As an upscale quick-service restaurant, specializing in freshly prepared innovative sandwiches, salads, baked goods and specialty coffees, La Prep has 48 locations in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with La Prep CEO Naveen Seth who has been an integral leader with the company as a master franchisee for more than 18 years but assumed full control of the entire enterprise towards the latter part of 2017. Seth, who heads up Seth Commercial Corp., along with New Taste Partners (NTP), purchased La Prep with numerous innovative plans in mind that promises to propel the restaurant brand to an entirely new level of success.
The story of Naveen Seth is truly an inspiring one that has culminated in his being able to live out the Canadian dream. Arriving in Montreal as an immigrant from India in 1988, he spent the first 12 years in Ottawa. Almost immediately, Seth proceeded to work in his sister’s convenience store and within six months was actively seeking out a method to purchase his own store. With the financial help of his brother-in-law – a realtor – Seth came upon a store that was not meeting its potential. Within eight months of acquiring the store he completely turned its fortunes around, selling it at a profit of three times what he had paid for it.
Four other similar stores were successfully turned around by Seth in the Ottawa market making it abundantly clear that he had a distinct skill for maximizing the potential of underperforming locations. It was around this same time when a business associate had aspirations of launching an IT business training centre and he approached Seth about becoming his partner.
“I saw it as a great opportunity although I had no knowledge of IT,” laughs Seth.
A four-month crash course in technology ensued and the two men became partners, opening an MCSE certification training centre. A wide variety of certification programs were on the curriculum by the time the pair opted to sell the company in 1997 to a Houston-based public enterprise in a multimillion dollar deal.
Two years prior to the sale of the IT company the groundwork was set for Seth’s interest in the food services industry. He and his partner decided they wanted to offer free lunches to the staff every Friday, making a point of bringing in different restaurants and having them do cooking in the training centre office.
“I got to know all the restaurants and the owners in the Ottawa market. I would go back into the kitchen and work with them and cook with them, which was a lot of fun,” recalls Seth.
Following the wind-up of their obligations during the transitional phase of the sale, Seth and his partner decided to go their separate ways, having different visions and dreams as to what they wanted to accomplish in the next chapter of their business lives.
“IT was not my background and I wanted to do something I was more passionate about,” says Seth.
Driven By Passion
Upon completing the sale of the IT company, Seth now had the financial wherewithal to pursue his true passion, so he made the decision to move to Toronto with designs on opening an Indian restaurant. However, prior to leaving Ottawa Seth spoke to a good friend who was a realtor and who also represented what is now La Prep but was then known as Café Supreme.
“He took me around to about seven locations in Ottawa and I met with the franchisees. I really liked the concept,” says Seth. “It had specialty coffees but it also had such a vast variety of food, including freshly-made salads and sandwiches.”
Duly impressed by the company’s line of business, Seth realized nonetheless that he had little interest in running a store. His proven expertise was in taking the reins of underperforming businesses and maximizing their potential. A meeting was set up with the president of the company to discuss how Seth would be able to help generate even greater prosperity for the organization. Thanks to his superb track record of vastly improving the fortunes of lagging companies it was enough to get his foot in the door and convince the president to name him as a master franchisee, with the responsibility of opening what are now La Prep locations, primarily in the Toronto market.
In a candid reflection, Seth admits his first foray into the restaurant business did not yield positive results. The store was located at Front Street and Jarvis Street in downtown Toronto and wound up costing him a tremendous sum of money. However, he learned a valuable lesson from the experience and benefitted from it by adjusting his business decisions moving forward.
“I realized that to be successful I needed to be in places such as office buildings and malls where there is a captive audience and not on the street front location because people were unfamiliar with the brand,” he reveals.
Despite that initial setback Seth was determined to learn from his early mistakes and succeed. Soon thereafter he rapidly proceeded to open his second, third and fourth locations. In total, he has now opened 35 La Prep locations in the Southern Ontario market.
In 2010 Seth was part of an advisory committee for the company and frank discussions were held about why the business was named Café Supreme, which presented a continual challenge for Seth when he went into landlords’ offices in Toronto looking to lease space.
“The first reaction I would get is that they didn’t need another café,” he states.
It was apparent to Seth that the name was in fact a hindrance and was shortchanging the company’s depth of scale. A marketing and research company was commissioned to conduct an extensive study and it was ascertained that the sales for coffee and drink beverage products accounted for just 25% of sales with the other 75% being food. The report confirmed what Seth already knew: that the name needed to be changed to more accurately reflect the entire line of food and beverage products being sold to the public. The name La Prep was agreed upon, with the word ‘prep’ being short for preparation. It’s also a name that is easy to pronounce in both English and French.
“Since we converted I opened up many more locations in the Toronto market and have been very successful. I was able to secure good locations and sales improved even further after the brand name was changed,” says Seth.
New Ownership, New Direction
Over the past few years Seth’s passion and enthusiasm for growing the business had led to continuous talks with head office about how La Prep could implement new business strategies, especially in light of having not really evolved much over the previous 15 years. Seth believes it is essential to constantly tweak business concepts and follow through on innovative ideas as a means of progressing to the next level. Despite a number of discussions, Seth became somewhat frustrated by a lack of follow-through on the implementation of his innovative suggestions and so he decided to make an offer to buy out the owner. With the help of partner investor New Taste Partners, Seth was able to secure a deal to acquire La Prep in October, 2017. His strong technical background has also served the company well. Upon joining the company more than 18 years ago, cash registers were still being used to enter sales.
“When I opened my first store I introduced them to a point of sale system. It’s all fully computerized and we can get all kinds of reports as to what is selling and what doesn’t sell,” says Seth.
As La Prep continues to expand Seth plans to devote a significant focus on professionals and Millennials as a primary customer base, which means having a presence in the likes of office buildings, colleges and universities and hospitals.
La Prep is also in the midst of an exciting new rebranding campaign to better reflect the diversity of its locations and menu offerings. The previous tagline – Daily Fresh – no longer carries the same meaning it once did and Seth has decided to embark on a new direction.
“Moving forward the stores will no longer be called La Prep Daily Fresh,” he confirms. “The locations with seating will be called La Prep Social Bistro. I’m also launching a new concept on La Prep which will be only a ‘grab and go’ type of concept and we’re calling that La Prep Fast and Fresh.”
The launch of La Prep Fast and Fresh will allow Seth and his team the potential to penetrate a plethora of food courts – 300 to 400-square foot kiosk-type locations – where there won’t be any seating but all the fresh food offerings that more and more people are clamoring for these days.
Throughout the development of the business plan Seth has surrounded himself with knowledgeable, experienced experts in creating an executive team that he trusts wholeheartedly, which has enabled a smooth progression in advancing the strategic business objectives. He believes in empowering people to make important corporate decisions and always avoids any temptation to micromanage the process.
“I brought in a brand new team with me. Sid Grover joined us from the Compass Group as our director of operations and I have Julie Hamada who came from Paramount Fine Foods and has taken on the role as director of marketing. Our executive R&D chef is Richard Chambers, who previously taught at George Brown Culinary School and also managed a restaurant with 30 cooks working under him,” remarks Seth.
A prime example of how La Prep is moving to the next stage is through the creation of a new commissary kitchen, suggested by Chef Chambers, who believes La Prep must provide its own exclusive products to the public to differentiate the franchise brand from its competitors.
“I’ve already signed up a 7,500-square-foot unit to set up the commissary kitchen. It will be ready this June and Chef Chambers will be managing it and also coming up with new recipes for the La Prep Social Bistro concept,” continues Seth.
In addition to organic growth, Seth and his team are dedicated to ensuring each location has a magnificent physical presentation, which is an essential component to attracting customers where they will find delicious daily food selections, which extend from healthy low-calorie salads to the tastiest soups and sandwiches and incredible desserts to go along with a variety of popular drink beverages. With that in mind that, Seth prides himself on having extremely clean, uncluttered locations that are socially and environmentally friendly with warm bright colours to make all guests feel welcome in a trendy, upscale bistro. As just one example, the coffee is 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified™ and the cups are compostable.
“I believe that people eat with their eyes first. If something looks good – and if we can sell them just by the look – we are confident they will like the taste as well. It’s the eyes first, then the aroma and then the tongue is the third aspect,” opines Seth.
“We beautifully display our sandwiches and salads and even for the new Social Bistro concept you will see that we have changed our design profile. The overall look and feel will be amazing,” he adds.
“We also give back to communities. We donate a portion of the money that we pay for our coffee back to the farmers to educate their children and improve their lifestyle. The bottled water that we buy, a portion goes to a charity. Some initiatives have been implemented and we are still working on others,” continues Seth.
Looking to the Future
The food services sector has always been intensely competitive and that is why outstanding customer service and top-quality healthy food products are essential in order to stay at the pinnacle of the industry. It is crucial to take great care of the employees and ensure they are properly trained and well looked after because the store managers and front-line worker are an extension of the entire business and ultimately reflect upon its character and success.
Each La Prep restaurant prides itself on the quality and freshness of every product on the delicious menu, however, Seth has plans to pare down it down in order to make it less confusing for customers. Having to create fewer menu items will also lessen the workload and stress of each store owner and will help to maximize efficiencies.
“I am redesigning the entire menu offering and streamlining it for the benefit of the consumer but the quality of the product and taste will be completely at a new level,” he explains.
During this calendar year, Seth expects to see significant expansion, especially in the Ontario market, with hopes of having eight to 10 new locations being opened. He and his executive team are always on the lookout for new opportunities and top-quality people to become franchisees.
“What I look for in a potential franchisee is to see if they have a business background, which is definitely a bonus. Other than that, I look for passion – people who love the food industry,” notes Seth.
Despite an extremely busy, hectic schedule, Seth also managed to find the time and energy to open an Indian restaurant in Mississauga called Chaska, which is near and dear to his heart. Chaska just recently celebrated its first anniversary and he has plans to open two more locations in Toronto this year.
Seth came to this country as an immigrant with little more than a dream of achieving success and he has certainly accomplished that, but he’s by no means done. In fact, he’s just getting started. He’s completely committed to helping current franchisees and future additions to the La Prep family as the company strives to reach even greater heights.
“I know how hard our franchisees work. Most of them are immigrants and they work so hard to save money so they can buy a business,” he emphasizes. “My goal is to make sure that I keep these franchisees happy and keep them growing. As I grow my company I want them to own multiple stores. I have many franchisees that have been with me since Day One and they have become multi-unit operators. My team is all as passionate as I am for this industry and our objective is we want to double the size of the company in the next four years and I see no reason why we won’t be able to do that.”