Ali Khan Lalani has had a phenomenal year. Within a matter of months, he went from laying off staff and worrying about having to close his neighbourhood pizza restaurant to running a wildly successful province-wide food business. The quality of the food was never the issue (pre-pandemic, General Assembly Pizza was dishing out an average of 400 pizzas a day), but gaining access to customers during COVID lockdowns. Here’s how a late-night trip to the grocery store gave him an idea that helped him scale up business 50-fold.
The elevator pitch: “General Assembly Pizza is taking pizza to new heights via our omni-channel presence. We have our hot pizzas, our grocery pizzas and our e-commerce pizzas, all guided by the principles of ‘better, easy and delicious.’”
How COVID-19 changed business: “At the start of 2020, we were coming off our busiest year ever and feeling good. We’d landed a few leases at AAA locations all over the city, excited to expand our business by February. By early March, I started to get scared. Fast-forward two weeks, and we actually closed the restaurant. Roughly 30 employees became five. I knew we had to do something. I’ve been eating at least one frozen pizza a week for the better part of my teen-to-adult life, and I went to the grocery store to buy some one night and there were none left on the shelves. I walked into the restaurant, looked around and said, ‘We’re going to make frozen pizza. Let’s get to work.’ We were fortunate because takeout and delivery were open, and pizza is predisposed to takeout and delivery. But 80 percent of our restaurants had dining rooms that we paid rent for and there was nobody there. So, we started building a frozen pizza line in early April. And we’ll probably be on track to sell about half a million frozen pizzas this year.”
Expanding the business beyond local delivery: “There seems to be a real appetite for a higher quality, better-for-you frozen pizza. And that was the impetus for the e-commerce platform and subscription business that launched in September 2020. By the time we got to the second round of orders in October, we had requests for delivery all across the province. It wasn’t sustainable to do it ourselves anymore. We decided to focus on the brand and the product, and found partners to work with on the fulfillment and delivery side. We also moved out of our commissary (which we were able to open as a restaurant again) and moved into a master production facility that’s about 40,000 square feet — around 12 times the size of our restaurant — where we can produce frozen pizzas at the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) level. We’ve delivered about 60,000 boxes of pizzas to people all across southern Ontario from Windsor to Ottawa, and we have plans to open on the west coast before the end of the year. We’re in about 110 retailers in Ontario and are now being sold in grocery stores. We’re focusing on expanding nationally. Pizza just makes people happy! We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but coming out of those mistakes a little leaner, sharper and more focused is helping our business continue to reach new heights.”
Biggest hurdle in expanding: “The first challenge was scaling a business during a time where product, procurement and lead times are really long. We needed a vacuum sealer and it took 12 weeks to arrive instead of two. Trying to find solutions to meet the business demand in a focused amount of time was also hard. We went from making 100 pizzas a day to 500 to 5,000, and maintaining the integrity of the product is number one. Making sure that we had the processes and systems along the way to support that type of scale was challenging.”
Securing the funding to meet new challenges: “As you continue to scale your business, it obviously costs more — you need more people, more equipment. When we launched the direct-to-consumer business, it was company-funded; every dollar that was coming in was getting recycled back into the company for growth until about February 2021. Once we started to see people accepting the product and the price, and they were coming back, I thought, ‘We have something here.’ But we needed a little chunk of change to be able to meet the demand before us. We started to meet with investors, investment bankers and venture capitalists, and decided to do a private placement. We raised a series A in a combination of two rounds of funding from January to early February 2021. We were able to raise enough capital to give us the runway we needed to scale our business.”
Growth since the pivot: “We had 30 employees in April of 2020, and today we’re at about 70. We used to be a restaurant business and now, we are a hospitality restaurant business, a direct-to-consumer e-commerce business and a CPG wholesale business for grocery. From a revenue perspective, 2019 was our best year. This year we’re looking at more than 200 percent growth. And we expect to add another few hundred percent next year as well. With the master production facility, we actually have the capacity to produce high volumes of artisanal product and distribute throughout Canada by the end of this year. And we’re putting the framework together for a potential U.S. expansion by the end of next year for our frozen pizza. We won’t stop until we’ve reached our full potential, which isn’t limited to North America — it can be international, eventually. But it’s step-by-step, day by day, quarter by quarter.
Favourite thing about starting a business in Toronto: “People in this city are amazing adopters of new things. They give you a chance. This city is innovative. It’s a young city, full of all different types of people. I don’t know many other cities in Canada or North America where local support is as strong as it is in Toronto. I feel like people root for you here. It’s a real community.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who suddenly have to pivot their business strategy to survive? “If you have an idea that’s been burning in your mind, it’s probably a good one. Call a few people who are close to your business and a few people who aren’t, and run it by them. And if they all say, ‘I would try that. I think that’s worth a shot,’ you’re probably onto something. And there’s no harm in trying. We got really scared when we were a day away from actually selling frozen pizzas — I tested them all in the morning and I had feedback about a few, but it was too late. You have to let it go, because if you don’t, you’re never going to know whether it works. If it doesn’t, you keep moving. If it does, you can still continue to make it better.
What are your favorite pizza toppings? “It’s 100 percent pepperoni. If I could do a pepperoni mushroom with some chili flakes, I’m good.”
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