By Paul Natinsky
Middle Eastern fast casual dining is not a new concept and Brandon Bahoura is not reinventing the wheel, but he certainly is adding horsepower and sparkle to the industry.
After beginning in the restaurant business as a 12-year-old busboy, Bahoura, 34, managed a pizza place in high school, earned a business degree from Oakland University and paid his dues learning to cook Middle Eastern food for four months without pay.
After a stint at his family’s grocery store, Pita Way was born in 2010 with one store in Clarkston. Bahoura was fortunate to have help from family and friends as he perfected his first fast-casual restaurant without drawing a paycheck for the first six months. He just opened his eighth restaurant and is in the process of opening ninth in Warren within a month or so.
Modeled after his idol Steve Ells’ successful Chipotle company, Bahoura’s Pita Way employs a similar concept. Guests select the ingredients of their sandwiches or bowls from a variety of fresh meats, cheeses, vegetables and sauces. Bahoura prides himself on using only fresh ingredients, as with Chipotle, and owns a commissary, which supplies his restaurants directly.
In mid-October, I had an early lunch and ordered a sandwich called the “Brandon Special,” which included beef kafta (mixed with a little bit of lamb), hummus and garlic sauce, white pita, lettuce, tourshi (pickled beets), pickles, onions, tomatoes, topped with feta, ranch dressing and HP steak sauce, which, Brandon related accurately, “really gives a nice little zing to it.” To complete my combo, I had a bowl of curry rice stew, a pleasantly spiced soup that is served with almond slivers and golden raisins and adds a bit of an Indian accent to the meal. Everything was delicious and fresh as advertised.
Bahoura prides himself on having a well-trained staff and promoting from within. The people I met in Livonia proved to be well-informed and enthusiastic.
In addition to the Brandon Special, Pita Way offers a Quesopita, modeled after a quesadilla, but with Middle Eastern ingredients. He said his favorite version features a sprinkle of $60-per-pound ghost pepper powder.
Despite the creatively engineered sandwiches and innovative Quesopitas, Bahoura said the bestselling item he’s got is a rice bowl in which guests choose ingredients to layer over a bed of rice.
With four restaurants and the commissary operating at the beginning of 2018 and the ninth restaurant set to open, Pita Way has grown quickly. Bahoura sees no end in sight. “The sky’s the limit, as long as I’ve got good people behind me and God is watching over me, I’m going to take this as far as I can take it,” he said.
Bahoura has a core of long-time “Pita Wayers,” who help get each new restaurant into ship shape. He spends most of his time managing the people who manage his restaurants, meeting monthly with all of the restaurant general managers.
Bahoura hopes that Pita Way can achieve the level of success that the 1,000-plus location Chipotle has. But Bahoura breaks from his idol Ells in that it’s likely he will franchise the restaurants after he opens his ninth corporate owned location at the end of this year. “I think franchising is a good move for me because I think people who are invested in the store are going to care more about its success,” he said.
Pita Way is huge on catering. Bahoura said his restaurants will cater from around the corner to hours away (with additional charges for travel) and can offer family platters for $25 and feasts for eight to 10 people for around $60.
For now, Bahoura intends to remain faithful to his fast-casual format, but he hasn’t ruled out table services restaurants with bars and lounges. He just won’t sacrifice his growing Pita Way venture to do it. Chipotle has 1,000 stores, but they’ve been at it since 1992. Bahoura and Pita Way are will on their way after opening a second store in 2016 and ramping up to nine restaurants in eight years and five new locations in 2018.