Volunteer Profile: Salim Bardai

Salim’s career began earlier than most. One day in 1976, when he was 9-years-old, Salim realized he needed to pad his wallet a bit. So, as many children do, he asked his dad for an allowance. What could go wrong?

But the plan backfired. Upon hearing Salim declare he needed money, his father brought him down to the grocery store and told its owner that his son was looking for employment. This landed him a job at the Pickering Flea Market.

The job was a tough one. Every Saturday, his boss would graciously pick him up at 4 AM and bring him to work for a twelve hour shift. At the end of the day, he would give young Salim ten dollars as compensation for all his hard work.

Most people’s career begins by making minimum wage at a restaurant or the local grocery store; Salim’s began by making 83 cents an hour at an age when all his friends were probably still convinced they’d grow up to be astronauts. It’s safe to say he got an early start.

After this, Salim operated paper routes for a few years. And then he got a job that many teenagers would kill for: working at a McDonalds in the baseball stadium formerly known as SkyDome – the home of the Toronto Blue Jays.

And he couldn’t have picked a better time to be there: Salim worked at the SkyDome for several years… including 1992 and ‘93, the only two years that the Blue Jays have ever won the World Series.

“Working at SkyDome was the dream job,” he said. “I got to be there for every game. I met players, media, everyone.” Caught up in nostalgia and love for the game, Salim related a story about sneaking into the players’ post-game meals at the Spaghetti Factory in Toronto.

“We got to meet all the players,” he said, and then added with a chuckle, “They lived the good life and we got a few of the social benefits from it.”

Not only was the job fun, but it also launched his professional career. In 1994, Salim moved to Barrie to manage the McDonald’s at Minet’s Point and Yonge. Not wanting to stop there, he moved to Bradford to take over their McDonalds from ’94-’96, and after that, he managed another location on Mapleview. Yes, you read that right: he managed three McDonalds over the span of three years. If one thing can be said about Salim, it’s that he’s tireless.

After this, Salim left McDonald’s to work various corporate positions in retail. After working as the general manager for both the BestBuy and the Sears in Barrie, Salim had the necessary hands-on and corporate experience to try his hand at a brand new venture: opening a Freshii.

For many readers, Freshii might be unfamiliar, so here’s a quick rundown of the fast-growing franchise. Founded in 2005 by Matthew Corrin, it is a Canadian fast casual restaurant, meaning that, while it does not offer table service, it does offer higher quality food than your average fast food restaurant. Freshii’s unique claim-to-fame is that they make healthy food “convenient and affordable.” They specialize in foods such as burritos, salads, and wraps. Salim said he discovered the restaurant one afternoon in Toronto when he and his wife were looking for lunch.

“We had been making an effort to eat healthy,” he recalled, “and we were used to restaurants where we’d pay $18 for a Caesar salad and then $15 for the fish n’ chips. So we decided to try this new place called ‘Freshii.’”

The next part put a smile on his face.

“We got our meals and then realized that it only cost us $20 in total. That’s unheard of!”

He related that he couldn’t sleep after that until he got in contact with Freshii’s CEO about starting his own Freshii.

For several reasons, opening a Freshii was a much bolder venture than managing McDonalds’ locations like he had done in the past.

For one thing, Freshii does not have the established name and reputation that McDonalds does. As Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, once said “If you build it, they will come” (Field of Dreams, 1989), and he may as well have been speaking about McDonalds. While managing a McDonalds almost guarantees swarms of customers at your door, opening a Freshii challenged Salim with introducing Barrie to a new, unfamiliar restaurant. He grabbed the challenge by the horns.

In 2018, he opened his first Freshii in the North Barrie Crossing Shopping Centre on Cundles Rd. East. At first, business was good. And then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit. To merely say that Salim’s restaurant got hit hard would be an understatement. It almost went bankrupt.

“In March, we were down 44% in revenue. In April, we were running around an 80% decrease.” In other words, the store was on the verge of closure.

“I came home one day after being open for 12 hours and we had only sold $20 worth of product throughout the entire day. The entire day, I sat in the lobby and just waited for a customer. Everyone else in my shopping centre had closed their stores, and they were all asking me why I hadn’t done the same. So, I told them, ‘As long as I’m breathing, I’m staying open.’”

But it wasn’t just his strong willpower that motivated him to stay open; it was his wife too.

“One day, I came home and I was all distraught. And then my wife came up and said, ‘Are you gonna lose now? You’ve never lost before.’” He joked that she gave him the equivalent of a Rocky speech.

The next day, he decided to start a charitable initiative: giving free meals to the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre to support the front-line workers. Throughout that timeframe, Freshii donated over 1,000 meals to the hospital.

And that wasn’t all, either. Salim’s Freshii also collaborated with Barrie’s Baptist Heritage Church by matching their $1,500 donation to the hospital. “We were down at the health unit all the time just making sure everyone was fed,” said Salim.

Salim did other goodwill gestures for the community, as well. “There were a lot of families going through tough times,” he said. “So we told them to let us know if they needed anything to eat and we would drop off a grocery bundle right at their front door. No questions asked.”

But what was the best part about all these good acts? It saved Salim’s Freshii without him intending it to.

“Since business had declined so much, we had tons of extra food. We knew that a lot of businesses and friends in the community were having a rough time, so we took care of them. And it paid back, it paid back big time.”

Oh, did it ever. In April, Freshii was featured on CTV for its charity work with the hospital. At twenty seconds or so, it was a relatively short newsflash. But the payoff was huge.

“Once that happened, a lot of customers started coming in and asking how they could donate,” said Salim. “So every time we received a donation, we’d match it with a free meal for the hospital. And then it just started snowballing into this massive tidal wave of business that we could barely handle!”

Salim’s Freshii went from an 80% decrease of revenue in April 2020 to an overall increase of 50% in July of the same year. Business was increasing so much that Salim and his wife were able to buy a Freshii in Bradford during the same summer. In the span of a few months, Salim went from near bankruptcy to being the owner of two Freshiis. Talk about the importance of community.

And community is a big reason why he joined the Barrie Chamber of Commerce. Right after he purchased the Freshii in 2018, Salim became a chamber member. “It was an easy decision,” he said, “I understand the power of the Barrie Chamber and I’m able to use it to its full extent.”

Salim told a story about when he was trying to get his business license before opening his first Freshii. “It was going to take two weeks just to process the license, which would’ve cost me two weeks-worth of income. But then I called the Barrie Chamber one morning, and they made a few calls on my behalf, and by 3 pm that day, I had the business license in my hand.” Salim said that this single experience was enough for him to know that being a member of the Chamber was well worth it. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer on the Board of Directors, he didn’t give it a second thought.

“I moved to Barrie in 1994,” he began, trying to give some background as to why volunteering at the Chamber was so important to him. “And I found an apartment in some guy’s basement. I did everything I could to pay the first and last month’s rent. I was broke, literally living paycheck to paycheck. But here we are, 25 years later, and I’ve got two restaurants.

So I owe a lot to the Barrie community. I owe a lot to the mentors that I’ve had in the Barrie community with all the businesses I’ve been involved with. And a lot of them came from the Chamber, and it was their affiliation with the Chamber that helped me out along the way. So, for me, volunteering is just my little way of being part of the Chamber to help out the next ‘Salim’ that comes along in 20 years, moves to Barrie, and needs help with getting on his feet.”

So, from waking up at 4 AM every Saturday morning to work at the Pickering Flea Market, to serving hot dogs and Big Macs at the SkyDome during the Blue Jays heyday, to surviving a pandemic by generously giving back to the community, Salim has had an eventful career. And he plans to continue. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, or go to Freshii and seek out Salim for yourself!

Written by: Peter Wilson

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