In many ways, life has come full circle for Theodore “Dorrie” Karras. The Greek-born entrepreneur came to Canada intent on pursuing a career in aircraft engineering, only to eventually find himself running a successful chain of quick service restaurants serving none other than Greek food. One could say it’s a classic case of taking the Greek out of Greece, but never really taking Greece out of the Greek.
“Yes, that’s pretty much it,” laughs Karras, President and CEO of OPA! Of Greece. “Greece is always with me in spirit, and it’s not going anywhere!”
While Karras’s ties to the Mediterranean country remain strong – his mother still lives there and he visits regularly – it was never his intent to sideline his engineering aspirations and end up in the restaurant business, Greek or otherwise. But as often happens in life, things evolved differently than planned.
It was at the age of 19 that Karras moved from Patras, Greece, to Calgary to study at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). He had family in Canada so he considered it an advantageous and practical move. He had also spent a few years in Canada as a child when his parents had briefly relocated to the country, so his English was flawless and he spoke it like a native.
But like many successful entrepreneurs, Karras always had a nagging yearning to run his own business and be his own boss. A few years after graduating from SAIT that dream turned to reality when he bought a full-service restaurant-lounge in 1992 called Horizon in an industrial part of town. While a somewhat modest beginning, the decision set him on an entirely new career path. “When the opportunity came up to participate in the ownership of this restaurant, I took it,” says Karras. “I was 23 at the time, and I’ve been in the restaurant business ever since.”
Running a typical ‘90s style restaurant-lounge was a tough slog – particularly the long hours that dragged late into the night. After a few years, Karras decided to sell the business and look for something that didn’t require late nights or liquor. An acquaintance from the city’s Greek community had launched OPA! and was starting to franchise the brand. He encouraged Karras to buy his first location, in the food court of Calgary’s CF Market Mall. “I was looking for a different direction and he was in the process of selling his original location,” says Karras, who accepted the offer in 2001. “Initially I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do, but after spending some time there and seeing the numbers, I was convinced I could continue to build on his success and that together we could take things to a whole different level.”
Karras eventually grew his involvement in OPA! to 10 franchise locations (four of which he still owns). He also became a shareholder in the company, a board member, and then, in 2016, the company’s CEO. Today, OPA! has 96 franchise locations in Canada, with about a 50/50 split between malls and street front locations. Most are spread across Alberta where the brand is a household name; in Calgary alone there are 31 OPA! restaurants. That isn’t surprising given that Calgary was where the brand first launched. Founders Nick Tiginagas and Don Gebauer saw room in the city’s QSR scene for a tasty ethnic food offering that diverged from the fast-food troika of pizza, burgers, and fries. The concept was an instant mall hit, with shoppers gathering round to feast on succulent grilled souvlaki, garlic-laced tzatziki, and feta-topped Greek salad. “It was a great time to launch the concept,” says Karras. “The brand was one of the first to get into the fresh, healthy food scene, which didn’t really exist in food courts back then. OPA! had real proteins, real lamb, real beef; you never had to ask ‘What’s this stuff made of?’ OPA! was somewhat of a pioneer in that respect and that helped spur on the brand’s success.”
Karras plans to open 10 more franchises by the end of this calendar year, focusing on the Prairie provinces where OPA! has pretty much cornered the Greek QSR market. B.C. is another target region, and the brand is slowly moving into more easterly provinces like Ontario, where it currently has three OPA! locations in and around the Greater Toronto Area. Further afield, Karras is launching a location in Las Vegas that will act as a test-project for the brand’s entry into the U.S. market.
Other developments include adding some new healthy items to the OPA! menu, which to its credit has remained relatively unchanged since the brand launched 20 years ago. The company is also looking to strengthen its online ordering business, tapping into the popularity of that burgeoning trend. It’s already available through SkipTheDishes, and customers can expect more customization in this area, says Karras.
OPA! franchisees come from a broad range of backgrounds with very little in common among them other than a passion for the concept and a strong desire to play a hands-on role in the business. As Karras explains, “I want people who are excited and passionate about being involved in this business, people who are going to be there to grow the brand and to grow with us. I don’t want people who are just there to park their money and get a little return.”
OPA! locations that turn the highest profits tend to be those that have just the kind of passionate personal involvement Karras looks for in his franchisees, and he points to the correlation between active involvement and business success. He also praises the franchise model for the support, training, and guidance it provides aspiring business owners, as well as much-needed marketing and location-sourcing, which can be cost prohibitive for independent restauranteurs. That’s much of the reason why the country’s QSR scene is increasingly franchise-based, notes Karras. “The quick service segment is transitioning into a franchise world and the independents are dying out. It’s understandable.”
Yet despite all the helpful underpinnings that come with the franchise model, Karras counsels aspiring franchisees to recognize that running any business – franchise or otherwise – requires a tremendous amount of work and initiative. “Some people come into a franchising business thinking it’s a turnkey operation that will run on its own, and that’s not the case,” he says. “Franchising provides you with instant methodology, systems, knowledge, and the right working tools, but there’s still a lot of involvement that’s required.”
Outside of hard work and passion, Karras says the keys to franchise success are staying on the right path, understanding the system, and most importantly, sticking to it. OPA! provides extensive training to new franchisees to start them on that path: four weeks in Calgary divided between instruction at the company’s head office and at a Calgary franchise location. After that, it’s a partnership that can reap many rewards for everyone involved.
“We work together to make it a successful business, and to help franchisees resolve any problems that come up,” says Karras. “That’s what I enjoy most about the work I do – finding solutions to best benefit profitability for our franchisees.”
By Roma Ihnatowycz