You see them in every restaurant kitchen.

Recent immigrants, or temporary foreign workers, mostly from South Asia or the Philippines.

Chances are they were well-educated in cooking schools in their home countries, worked in five-star restaurants abroad, or on cruise ships.

But they didn't belong to the lucky gene club, weren't born in an affluent country like Canada, had to start from scratch in a very foreign, cold country ... with opportunity.

We are so lucky.

The cream of that crop, once Canadianized, are spreading their entrepreneurial wings, creating new business, employment and wealth creation in Edmonton.

Fourteen years ago, chef Ramesh Devangodi arrived in Canada from South India, penniless but ambitious.

This past week, Devangodi, with partner Parmeet Narula, completed the purchase of the Cheesecake Cafe franchise at 100 Avenue east of 170 Street. It will be added to the four restaurants Ramesh and his wife Sonia already own under the New Asian Village and Haweli brands. The Cheesecake Café is his first franchise and his first non-Indian restaurant.

Ramesh and Sonia have three children, including a new-born daughter, a lovely home in an upscale neighbourhood. He drives his dream car.

In just 14 years, 12 of them in Edmonton!

Yes, it helped that Ramesh married the boss's daughter. It was love at first sight when Ramesh arrived at the original New Asian Village on Saskatchewan Drive as a chef.

But Ramesh and Sonia’s success has been on their own coin. Each New Asian Village restaurant in town is independently owned by members of the Kapur family.

Today, New Asian Village Saskatchewan Drive owner and patriarch Harmeet Kapur is his son-in-law's biggest fan.

"When they announced their engagement, I was dead against it," chuckles Harmeet. " 'What!' I said to Sonia, 'you want to marry a cook!' But Ramesh has tremendous skills as a chef and manager, an excellent business mind, he gets along well with everybody and, first and foremost, he’s a family man."

"Even as a kid in school, I was ambitious," says Ramesh. "If somebody told me something couldn't be done, I'd set out to do it. I took criticism as a challenge."

As for people skills, he says, "I can measure things from all angles. I can see both sides of an argument."

From wedding gifts and savings, Ramesh and Sonia scraped together the down payment and renovated a former bakery on 100th Avenue west of 170 Street. New Asian Village West opened in August of 2004. It has since tripled in size.

Two years later, Ramesh helped sister-in-law Veronica Kapur open a New Asian Village on 34th Avenue. "We introduced a lunch buffet there. It was so busy, it soon became a dinner buffet as well.

" I looked at the numbers and I was jealous! Sonia and I went looking for a location in the north end. We opened New Asian Village Manning Crossing in 2008. It’s a combination buffet/sit-down operation."

Three years later, the two Haweli Indian restaurants - downtown and in St. Albert - came up for sale. "They were well run, our main competition for catering. We didn’t have to make many changes.”

For marketing purposes, the St. Albert Haweli is now re-branded as New Asian Village St. Albert.

Ever restless, Ramesh wanted to learn about restaurant franchising. When the Edmonton franchise of the four-franchise strong Cheesecake Café came up for sale, he made an offer. “The price was right. It’s similar in size to the Asian Villages, a family restaurant with lots of adult customers. We have sweets, the café has its pastry/baked goods counter. It’s been here for 25 years. Asian Village is 30 years.”

The price was right, a lease was in place. Ramesh and Cheesecake Café franchisor owner Bob Beeson respected and liked each other.

Franchise fees, for a major brand name like a Tim Hortons or a Wendy’s, run from $500,000 to $1 million, once all costs are considered. The franchise holder usually pays the franchisor an on-going 3% to 11% of gross sales per year, which includes marketing and promotion costs.

“The return on investment for a good independent restaurant should be about 25%,” says Ramesh, “for a franchise, 10% to 15%. But a well-run franchise will gross $2.5 million to $4 million a year, an independent restaurant $1 million to $2 million.”

As a franchisee, Ramesh cannot change pricing or menus at the Cheesecake Café, but you’d have to think franchise owner Beeson will appreciate input from Ramesh, given his restaurant expertise. Ramesh sees operational efficiencies at the Cheesecake Café, without sacrificing quality. Part of his franchise agreement is the right to open more Cheesecake Cafés in Edmonton.

But mostly he wants to learn about the franchise business and world.

Because his ultimate dream is to have a chain of New Asian Village franchise restaurants across North America, featuring all-Asia fusion cooking, not just Indian food.

You know what? He’ll do it!


FACTOIDS: Some gross generalizations about the franchise restaurant business.


Cost to purchase a Tim Hortons, $500,000- to $600,000 franchise fee, 8% of gross sales in annual franchise fee. Includes chain advertising and marketing costs. Term of franchise, 10 years.

Cost to purchase IHOP (International House of Pancakes) franchise, $40,000 franchise fee, 9% of gross sales annually, term of franchise, 20years.

Cost to purchase McDonald’s: No upfront franchise fee, but must have 25% of purchase price (from existing owner) in cash usually minimum of $350,000. Annual franchise fee 8% of gross sales.

Reasonable annual return on investment for a well-run independent restaurant: 25%.

Reasonable annual return on investment for a well-run franchise: 10% to 15%.

Gross yearly sales for a well-run, well-known independent restaurant: $1 million to $2 million.

Gross yearly sales for a well-known, well-located franchise: $2.5 million to $4 million.

Graham Hicks