In 1998, Niko Tiginagas opened the first OPA! of Greece in Calgary’s Market Mall. Tiginagas had come to Canada from Greece with mere dollars in his pocket and got his start as a cook, but with passion, hard work, and dedication, was able to fulfill his dream of owning and operating a restaurant and quickly built that restaurant into the number one operator in the busy Market Mall food court.
Now, 20 years later, OPA! has 105 locations across Canada and remains one of the fastest-growing franchises in the country. Theodore “Dorrie” Karras, another Greek immigrant who came from relatively humble beginnings and also built his own success, is now at the helm as OPA!’s CEO. Karras and I had a chance to speak recently about his background, the challenges and future of the foodservice industry, and OPA!’s direction as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Familiar with a little of Tiginagas’ backstory before I got to know Karras, one of the first things that stood out to me was how similar their paths were and how much of their stories they shared. Not only did both Tiginagas’ and Karras’ stories begin in Greece and include a rise from storeowner to the forefront of OPA!, but they saw significant overlap in their personal lives as well. Karras got his start with OPA! when he bought Tiginagas’ first location in Market Mall. And as an eventual owner of multiple locations, Karras also shared a couple with Tiginagas as co-franchisee. I’m sure few share a connection as deep or overlap as significantly as these two, and OPA! benefits from a culture and framework that attracts motivated, like-minded individuals to come on board.
Many of those franchisees, like Tiginagas and Karras, are immigrants. While Karras did point out that OPA! hasn’t “structured [its] business around immigrants alone,” he says that he and Tiginagas agree that immigrants are a bit of a natural fit. From the food itself—which has taste profiles and delivery methods familiar to many of the immigrant populations in Canada—to the franchise model, which offers “instant accessibility to a business [that has its] infrastructure already in place, ” says Karras. OPA! is a logical and comfortable fit for many new Canadians who wish to contribute to a dedicated, motivated team that is ready and willing to meet the challenges of today’s landscape.
That landscape is far different from when Tiginagas founded OPA! and even from when Karras joined the company. Doing business today means navigating tighter margins in an industry that is rapidly changing and chock-full of competition. As far as Karras is concerned, there’s no one secret to the success OPA! has seen, but he did offer me a few nuggets of useful wisdom gleaned from his years with the company. Firstly, OPA! endeavours to build and sustain relationships with its partners, working with suppliers and landlords to come up with systems and methods to better maintain costs. “Doing so is so important,” he adds.
He also sees communication and expectation management as key to reducing tension and building a strong foundation through the franchisor-franchisee relationship. He argues that there’s a genuine benefit to both sides when OPA! remains “very objective and very sincere in what it sells to the franchisee” and keeps the lines open throughout the relationship so the franchisee can express their concerns and have questions answered. Having once been a franchisee who spent many years on the opposite side of that relationship, he would know.
Not only does Karras convincingly demonstrate his ability to help an already promising franchise maintain its success and continue to build its brand, but he also shares some advice he would have liked to have heard in his early days, aimed at those looking to find a foothold in the industry today. It’s simple: put in the work. “Do your homework,” he says, “get advice from the professionals,” referring to accountants, lawyers, and others who understand the business side and ask questions of franchisees and restaurateurs who understand the human side. “At the end of the day, you’re going to be marrying this business. You’re going to be locked into this business. You’re going to make a significant investment into this business,” he explains. The moral of the story: you’ll want to put in the work to make sure you’re successful. And if there is anyone who would know about how to achieve success in this business, it’s Karras.
As for some challenges he sees on the horizon: the continually escalating costs of doing business, the successful integration of third-party online ordering platforms, and the increase of automation which threatens to take opportunities away from deserving workers. But on balance Karras is optimistic.
When I asked Karras about his ambition for OPA!’s future and where he sees the franchise another 20 years down the line, he said he sees OPA! “from coast to coast to coast, […] all the way down to the U.S., from the Atlantic to the Pacific and all the way up to the Arctic.” I have no reason to doubt him. Sure, if current trends persist, it will not be any easier to find success in the foodservice business in the years to come, but if our conversation is any indication, I have the utmost faith that OPA! will continue to overcome its challenges and that Karras is the person to set them on the right path and lead by example.