Peters-based My Big Fat Greek Gyro looks for boost from reality TV

The owners of a local chain of Greek restaurants with dreams of going national are hoping a reality TV makeover will help those dreams come true.

Peters-based My Big Fat Greek Gyro will appear in an episode of “The Profit,” a CNBC show in which businessman Marcus Lemonis consults with small businesses to fix their problems and decides whether he’ll buy an ownership stake in exchange for his input. The episode, filmed during the fall, is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. Tuesday.

The chain of six restaurants, which includes franchises in Cranberry, Pine, White Oak, Market Square and Mt. Lebanon, wasn’t living up to its potential, said co-owners Mike Ference and Kathleen Kamouyero-Ference.

“We had franchised stores, but absolutely no sense of identity,” Mike Ference said. “We realized we had a scalable product, that we could take it national if we did it right.”

As fans of “The Profit,” the owners reached out to the producers in May to see whether their restaurant would be considered for the show.

To their surprise, they heard back the next day, starting a monthslong process of interviews, financial reviews and background checks to see whether Lemonis, who rose to prominence as the CEO of Camping World and Good Sam Enterprises, then as an investor in promising small businesses, would be interested.

Lemonis, whose adopted family originally was from Youngstown and took him back there for summer vacations, said he was drawn by his childhood connections to the Pittsburgh area and the appeal of the Kamouyero-Ference family.

“My family was Greek and Lebanese, very opinionated, and I braced myself for more of that as I was going in,” he said. “They were really hospitable people, warm and loving, and I think that will show in the episode.”

But when Lemonis showed up to film in Peters, Mt. Lebanon and Downtown, the owners suddenly felt like they were seeing everything wrong with their business.

“Just when you think everything’s perfect, he finds all kinds of things that need to be fixed,” Ference said.

Lemonis said the franchise model meant he wasn’t just dealing with one family’s business; he had to work with all the franchisees as well. Fixing the owners’ relationship with the franchisees will be a big part of the episode, he said.

“(Lemonis) is all about ‘people, process and product,’ and he said the process is what got messed up,” said Jace Cavanagh, who co-owns the Mt. Lebanon franchise with his parents. “He’s making sure the owners are more involved now. Before, it was like they’d show up once a month to collect their check.”

Ference said he and his wife would take Lemonis’ advice to be more involved with their franchisees.

“It’s like us being the parents and the franchisees being the children. We’re making sure we raise them properly,” he said, noting that they would communicate more, praise what’s working and share what’s successful.

“This is a family built on honesty and transparency. Maybe the business decisions haven’t been the greatest, but the integrity and honesty was there,” Lemonis said. “If you have people with integrity, there’s going to be some uncomfortableness with big changes.”

CNBC officials didn’t want to spoil whether Lemonis buys a stake in the company before the show airs, but the chain’s Mt. Lebanon location got a full makeover according to his recommendations and had a soft reopening in early November.

Now called The Simple Greek, the restaurant’s ordering process starts with a base of pita bread or salad greens and lets customers choose their protein from lamb gyro, pork souvlaki, chicken, steak or lentils, then pick sauces and toppings, along with traditional Greek sides such as stuffed grape leaves, spanikopita or hummus.

Cavanagh said the goal was to have orders done in as little as 40 seconds.

“He wanted us to become like the first Greek Chipotle throughout the country,” Ference said. “If we’re going to be Greek, we want it to be fresh, with everything made on-site using seasonal, locally sourced produce wherever possible.”

Cavanagh said the restaurant cut its food budget by getting rid of frozen, deep-fried foods, though its staffing budget went up to keep a third person behind the counter to run the assembly line-style meal preparation.

Lemonis said he was impressed by the Pittsburgh area’s growth, its hard-working employees and the friendliness of the towns where he was working.

“Pittsburgh has a number of growing suburbs … it’s a hotbed for good business,” he said. “All the towns the (restaurants) are located in are surprisingly business-friendly. Some places we’ve been to have mounds of red tape.”

Once the company perfects the new model and practices at the Mt. Lebanon location, the new name and style will spread to other franchises, Kathleen Kamouyero-Ference said. They will look to expand with more franchises.

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