Winning With Wok Box

With vast experience in various cultures and industries, today Alnoor Samji is thrilled with his Wok Box franchise and the winning concept the quick service restaurant presents.

Born and raised in Tanzania, East Africa, Samji was exposed to the business world at an early age. His father was a successful exporter of all Southern Region agricultural products including cashews in the late fifties and early sixties. In 1965 his parents and four siblings moved to Pakistan. While his parents continued to build their business, the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 resulted in them losing their assets and moving again, this time to London, England. In London, Samji attended the Harrow College of Technology & Arts where he earned a diploma in Business Studies. Next attending Middlesex Polytechnic, Samji took his Foundation Exams before undergoing CA training and becoming a practicing accountant. In 1980 Samji married Samina, and in 1981 they immigrated to Canada.

Settling in Calgary, Alberta, Samji found work as an accountant in public practice. He was than offered a position as Chief Accountant in a Hotel. His career developed in the hospitality industry and he managed small to medium size hotels as a controller including the Medicine Hat Lodge and the Marlborough Inn. He than joined a Property Management Company, again as a Controller and managed a portfolio ranging from $50 million to $250 Million dollars. This is when Samji got his first taste of the restaurant industry. Over these years, Samina gave birth to two daughters and a son, and after playing the homemaker role for ten years, she became restless and wanted to rejoin the working world. Samji purchased a cappuccino bar “Jungle Java” for her to operate during the day. Samji continued his career as a Corporate Controller during the day and operated the cappuccino bar in the evening and weekends. This made for a 14-hour day, seven days a week. Samji continued this routine for four years before selling the café.  Over the next decade, Samji owned and sold several restaurants, including a franchise family diner and a Tex Mex restaurant –Santa Fe Grill. Samji left his accounting career in 2003 when his father fell ill, as he needed a flexible schedule to care for him.

With a desire to be his own boss, Samji then bought his fourth restaurant, this one a full-service franchise called Humpty’s Family Restaurant. Samina is capable of running this location on her own. Samji set out to find a project for himself. Researching various franchise concepts, Samji’s children, huge fans of Wok Box, suggested he look into this new and upcoming concept.

Investigating Wok Box’s franchise opportunities, Samji was impressed with the concept and fusion menu items. After filling out an application, he met with Lawrence Eade, CEO of Wok Box, and was approved to own a franchise. During his due diligence, Samji visited several franchise owners, asking questions about their experience with the company. Receiving nothing but positive feedback, Samji was sold on the brand. By luck of the draw, Samji met the owner of the Calgary store, a woman in the midst of lifting her ownership from the location. A deal was made between them and in January 2012 Samji bought and took over the Calgary Wok Box restaurant located at 130th Avenue SE.

Samji believes Wok Box is the perfect fit for him. “I love the concept of fresh Asian food in a semi-full service restaurant,” he explains, adding that although his customers have the choice to dine-in or take-out, there are no overheads of employing servers. “I can provide customers with everything they need to enjoy their meal in my restaurant, or please them with a lovely take away box,” he says. Dishing out made-to-order stir-fries, including noodle and rice dishes that combine high quality ingredients and flavors from Asia including China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Korea. The variety of menu items from various Asian countries makes it easy for Samji to please many different taste buds. “The product is geared for all ages. I have customers from six years old to 70, and all of them love the food. It’s great to serve such a diverse market,” he adds. In addition to a unique menu, Wok Box also offers wheat-free and vegan options. All dishes are cooked in front of the customers in an open concept kitchen and the entire process is high energy.

Once approved, Samji and his wife flew to Vancouver to undergo Wok Box’s comprehensive training program. “I wanted my wife to be familiar with the restaurant’s operations, in case I ever needed her to take over for me,” he explains. Wok Box training is typically a two-week process consisting of 10 days at corporate office followed by four days in a corporate store. With the tight deadline of taking over the Calgary location, Samji’s training was a bit out of the norm.

The Wok Box Head Office made a condensed program of four intense days of training for the Samji’s at their headquarters in Surrey BC. Samji quickly learnt the company’s operations. Studying the menu and familiarizing himself with Wok Box’s specialty sauces and ingredients for various allergies and dietary requirements, Samji tested him memory, cooking skills, and plating ability by creating every menu item in head office’s test kitchen. Heading back to Calgary, Samji then worked alongside the current manager of his Wok Box location for four days before taking over. During this time Samji practiced all store operations from taking orders, expediting and cooking.

Key to his success is the location of his Wok Box restaurant. It is located at 130th Avenue SE, which is the power center of SE Calgary. Equipped with big box stores and national brands, “All the major retail tenants are located within three blocks of my Wok Box, so I am in a great market,” he explains.

Samji describes Wok Box’s ongoing training and support as exceptional. “Once you own the restaurant and understand its concept, the only other training that is required is when the menu changes. Any time a new item or special is added to the menu, franchisees receive all the memos and prints outs on how it is to be done. Online videos are also available, showing franchisees every step of the cooking process, procedures, presentation, and garnish for both in the box and on a plate. When a new item is added to the menu, franchisees receive in advance, the ingredients from head office so that there is time to practice before launching. It’s important that all items taste good and look right,” he says. “If franchisees are confused about anything, they can contact their Regional Director. Wok Box Head office is very hands on and can answer your questions either over the phone, or will visit your restaurant to assist, where needed,” he explains. The accessibility and openness of all corporate personnel is another asset of the Wok Box Franchise, “The whole team is very forward thinking,” he adds.

For Samji, the most rewarding aspect of owning a Wok Box franchise is satisfied customers. “I have owned several other businesses and working with the Wok Box concept and team has been the best experience so far,” he says. “The most satisfying compliment an owner can receive is when you ask your customers ‘how everything was,’ and the answer is ‘it’s always a good here.’” Samji says the consistent positive feedback is his biggest achievement.

While Alberta is a booming province, the general lack of staff in the food industry has been an issue for Samji. “I work hands on and a lot of long hours, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I enjoy it,” he says. “My kids are grown up and I don’t have many hobbies, so if I didn’t work, I would probably vegetate in front of the television,” he laughs, adding that the long hours keep him healthy and active. “If an opportunity arises, I would own more than one Wok Box,” Samji says, convinced that although a fairly young franchise, it is a forward thinking and successful franchise.

To those interested in purchasing a Wok Box location, Samji’s advice is to do your homework, fill out an application, and if you’re approved, look at the costs involved. “If you’re going to move forward, ask yourself if it fits into your budget, and what types of financing or programs are available to you. Talk to other owners; find out how they feel about the franchise. Look into locations available to see if they will work for you, if you live close enough, and if there is competition nearby. A free standing location in the boonies is not going to make it, there needs to be a reason for your customers to come to your location in order for you to survive,” he explains. “Look at leases and make a realistic and pessimistic budget. If you can make it in the worst-case scenario, you’ll do very well in the best-case scenario.”

When Samji isn’t at his Wok Box, he enjoys relaxing with a Bollywood movie or some soft Indian music. “Being an accountant I don’t pass along my work to anyone else. Instead, I put on some music and get the paperwork done,” he says. Timely financials is an important measure of success. Taking care of everything from deposits and financials to royalty statements and corporate tax returns, Samji is proud of his self-reliance.

Samji highly recommends Wok Box because of its winning concept. “There is nothing like it out there, and it’s growing as a franchise,” he says. In addition to the visionary corporate team and expansion plans for the U.S., the notion of a menu not limited to one particular country excites Samji. “The Asian theme is so wide open, we’ll never run out of delicious ideas to sell to our customers,” he says. “The concept is brilliant, and if it’s run properly, it can be very profitable and satisfying.” Identifying the biggest problem in North America today is job satisfaction. Samji says surveys show that 40 percent of people are unhappy with their jobs. “I’m not a part of this 40 percent. Wok Box makes me very happy and gives me a reason to wake up in the morning,” he says. “I have many regulars now, from different backgrounds and of varying ages. Being acknowledged by them, serving and seeing them satisfied makes my day, everyday.”

-Jessica Spoto

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