How Tony Kitous went from kitchen hand to top of the food chain
In our series of inspiring life stories across continents, we hear about the journey of an Algerian 'street boy' to become founder of the global Comptoir Libanais restaurant empire
As an eight-year-old, Tony Kitous would wake early every Friday, sneak out of the cramped Algerian apartment he shared with his parents, six siblings and grandmother, and set up shop across the road.
Outside the 1 November 1954 stadium, home of the celebrated local football team JS Kabylie, he would sell tickets he had bought earlier to visiting fans at inflated prices, then ply them with fresh lemonade and merguez sandwiches. Only his mother, Zohra Cheikh, knew about his clandestine business - and the tidy profit it turned.
It was a precocious display of the entrepreneurial spirit that has since helped propel Mr Kitous, now 50, to the helm of a multimillion dollar restaurant empire.
He was soon raking in 4,000 dinars ($30) a month from just four days’ work, earning nearly double his father’s meagre 2,500-dinar-a-month salary as a civil servant in the transport department. It gave him a determination to leave behind the poverty that marked his earliest years.
“Everything started from then and shaped me into the person I am today,” says Mr Kitous. “When you are deprived, it pushes you to do more. I was blessed to be in that position.”
Born Ahmed Kitous – Tony was a playground nickname that has persisted – he was the eldest of seven children and grew up in the Kabyle region of Tizi Ouzou in Algeria, nestled in a valley between the Tell Atlas mountain range and the Mediterranean.
As a boy, he had little interest in studying. He spent summers and weekends earning money however he could, all without his strict father, Chabane Kitous, ever finding out. “For him, it would have been a matter of family honour,” says Mr Kitous. “He would not have wanted people to think I was a street boy.”
But the young Ahmed's enterprises gave him a taste for hospitality; the selling of wares on the street, the chatting with customers, the negotiations with people he would not otherwise have encountered. “It made it more than just a job,” he says, “because I also got a kick out of it.”
While money was scant, the Kitous family was never short on love and wholesome, home-cooked fare. Relatives visiting from the mountains would bring fresh figs, vegetables and olive oil.
Four decades on, Mr Kitous remembers vividly the fisherman who sold his catches of the day outside the family’s apartment building and the subsequent aroma of grilled sardines stuffed with cumin, garlic and spices filling the stairwell of their block.
London calling for young Tony
With his savings, he went on summer trips to Tunisia, Spain and France from the age of 15. When he and a friend decided to visit London in 1988, it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair.
Then aged 18 and with just £70 in his pocket, he spent his first night sleeping rough in Victoria train station and then moved to a squat in north London. Ever-resourceful, he paid 40 pence at the public swimming baths nearby to shower once a week and lived on £1.80 Turkish kebabs.
He worked odd jobs to make ends meet but, even so, when it was time to return to Algeria three months later, he realised he did not want to go back. “My life, my head and my soul were in London,” says Mr Kitous.
He appeased his parents by trying to settle back into life in Algeria, and embarked on a degree in engineering at Oued Aissi University. He lasted half an hour, describing the experience as akin to “having my head held underwater”.
“I didn’t want to let down my family and I needed to survive
It took another three weeks to persuade his parents to let him leave again, his father weeping on the night he did so.
Though his freedom was hard fought, Mr Kitous had a moment of realisation after landing at Heathrow airport. As he was pushing his luggage trolley through immigration, it occurred to him that he had left all that he knew behind him and was completely alone. It was to become a strong source of motivation.
“I didn’t want to let down my family and I needed to survive,” he says. “I told myself that by the time all my friends came out of university four or five years later as doctors, engineers and lawyers, I had to have started my own business. I did not want to be washing up in a restaurant kitchen when they graduated.”
With that in mind, he worked as a kitchen hand and cleaner, offering to take colleagues’ shifts to earn extra cash. By the age of 22, when the eatery he was working in shut down because the rent had not been paid, he took over the lease.
He named it Baboon – a word that, with his then rudimentary English, he had plucked out of a newspaper without knowing its meaning – and served modern European dishes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not a success.
Tony's eatery epiphany
Then came the epiphany that he should seek inspiration from his own culture.
The restaurant was relaunched as Levant in 2000 with a decadent 1,001 Nights feel, with lavish Moroccan drapes, shisha and belly dancing. It was followed up by fellow mid-market restaurants Pasha, Levantine and Kenza.
To Mr Kitous, however, there were still not enough Lebanese offerings for the masses. “I would see pizza and burger places and Italian restaurants on the high street but no Lebanese food that was accessible to everyone,” he says.
“Lebanese is one of the best foods in the world. It is Mediterranean and healthy but not enough people know about it.”
He opened the first Comptoir Libanais, meaning Lebanese counter, in 2008 in west London. The sell-out success came as a surprise, with 3,000 customers on day one – triple the number of weekly visitors to any of his other restaurants.
“We thought we were ready,” says Mr Kitous. “We weren’t. People didn’t know Lebanese food but because I had a huge glass counter where they could see the food, they did not need to understand it to order it.”
The first sit-down branch of the chain opened the following year in Wigmore Street in central London, from where Mr Kitous is speaking to The National.
It was designed carefully, with the help of Lebanese artist Rana Salem, to evoke the Arab world of his youth, with scents to take customers on a wistful trip to the Levant, 1950s-style Arabic film posters and advertisements, quirky tables from Marrakech and kitsch floor tiles that closely matched the hand-painted ones in his grandmother’s house in Algeria.
The menu, too, read like a greatest hits of Arabic cuisine, with dishes from not only Lebanon, but Syria, Tunisia and Morocco. Some evoke a long gone past for Mr Kitous that he seems to yearn for strongly.
“I still miss certain food from home,” says Mr Kitous. “Whenever I eat it, I think I’m that eight-year-old boy, back in my parents’ or my grandparents’ home, so I surround myself in my job with nostalgic ingredients like rosewater, orange blossom and mint.”
In 2010, he partnered with Chaker Hanna, a regular customer and Lebanese businessman who helped make Chili’s and Bella Italia household names in the US and UK respectively.
Mr Hanna became Comptoir Libanais’ chief executive officer and helped float the chain on the stock market in 2016, where it was valued at £50 million ($66m).
Comptoir Libanais now boasts 30 branches across the UK, all of which have now had to shut their doors under coronavirus restrictions, as well as in the Netherlands and Dubai airport.
An outlet in Abu Dhabi was due to follow this year but has been shelved because of the global pandemic.
Despite the setbacks, Mr Kitous, who has published three cookbooks, has a grand ambition to make Lebanese cuisine as popular as its Italian counterpart. Along with his prolific fundraising for charity, he sees it as his way of giving back to the country that welcomed him.
While hummus is now commonplace in household fridges, Mr Kitous wants to see Lebanese marinades and spices like sumac and za’atar stocked in all high-street supermarkets.
The 'heartbreaking' Covid effect
But, for now, Covid-19 has put a painful halt to such ambition. Mr Kitous has had to let go 35 per cent of his 1,000 staff - a lamentable act for someone who considers his employees to be less like a workforce and more part of a big family - and the latest month-long UK lockdown is set to cause even more hardships.
“It’s heartbreaking and has been disastrous for businesses as well as for mental health,” he says.
There are, though, still things to be thankful for, he says. He is able to look after his 79-year-old mother, who was left deaf after a childhood bout of meningitis. She lives with him in London and three of his brothers work for him.
His father did not live to witness the entrepreneurial success of the Comptoir Libanais chain. He died of a stroke in 2000 at the age of 67 while visiting his son in London for the first time.
“Middle Eastern fathers will never tell you they’re proud of you, but I was so grateful to see him before he died, and that he got to see me in one of my restaurants,” says Mr Kitous. “He made me the person I am today. This journey started in Algeria.”
Updated: November 11, 2020 11:11 PM