By Daniel Branston
Big Brothers Gourmet Pizza is nestled between an MPP office and a spa in a strip plaza that looks like any other across Cliffcrest, Scarborough. But the story behind the name is like no other. The foundations underpinning the family-oriented business – where tragedy has transformed to a touching tribute – is a breath of fresh air in a Toronto thronged with flavourless franchised fast food.
Residing in Scarborough with his wife and three children, spinning dough hasn’t always been Marshal Omar’s daily routine. “I was never into cooking. I used to work in the army,” the 28-year-old owner of Big Brothers says. He was an investigator in the Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, working with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Hailing from Kabul, he had the “language and culture ability” the American and Canadian forces were lacking. During the height of the Taliban tension in the war-torn country, Omar would travel to affected villages and communities to inspect what was missing after conflict – often mosques, schools and libraries. “In Taliban regions, kids were not going to school,” Omar says. His unit was turning people’s lives around, creating opportunities in a climate where it seemed impossible.
And it was in Afghanistan where Omar and Omaid, his younger brother by six years, shared their first memories. “He was a little chubby boy and he used to eat a lot,” chuckles Omar. As he sits on one of the stalls at the front of his restaurant on a quiet afternoon, the only sound is a gentle hum from the beverage refrigerator. He wears a green cap and red polo –both sporting the company logo – and a gleeful smirk. “His favourite was fries with ketchup, I used to feed them to him all the time.” In 2013 Omar moved to Scarborough to join his family who’d already migrated, including his brothers, whom he describes as all having “big bones” – sharing broad shoulders and a brawny build. Working at the same pizza place, Omar and Omaid bonded over a boisterous sibling rivalry, racing to finish pizzas first while critiquing each other at every step. Omar, a stocky man, doesn’t hold back when he impersonates his younger brother. “Oh, you’re too slow” and “I don’t like how you’re doing it!” He’s gesticulating wildly and exposing a warm grin through his bristly goatee.
It didn’t take long before it was decided: “When you get settled down, when you get a family, I promise you and me will open a store,” Omar had told Omaid. The two often spent their evenings chatting about their aspirations over a game of cards and trying out any new items on menus at local pizza places. Omaid had always dreamt of owning a pizza joint and by the time 2017 rolled around, everything seemed to be coming together. Omaid celebrated his engagement and Omar had started hunting for vacant stores to start their business.
“When you get settled down, when you get a family, I promise you and me will open a store”
Every time Omar reminisces about that fateful evening – the night his younger brother died – everything seems to fall silent, regardless of the clanging of pizza peels in the kitchen or the continual flow of customers like a steady stream. Seventeen days after Omaid’s engagement party he passed away in his sleep, aged 21. “When you work with the army and you’ve been in a war zone like Afghanistan… I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve seen people dying.” Omar is a natural orator, the kind that makes you drop whatever you’re doing and listen. “But you know, somebody closer to you; somebody that you see every day; somebody that you see growing up with your eyes and suddenly just fall down like nothing. Not like a car crash, not like a bomb blast; something that can you say ‘okay, that happened.’” It had been an evening like any other, lounging around playing cards, when Omar and Omaid called it a night around 1:30 a.m. By 5 a.m. Omar rushed to his brother’s side, listening to Omaid struggle for his final breaths. Holding him in his arms. Giving him CPR. Doing everything 911 was telling him. The paramedics arrived in exactly eight minutes and 30 seconds, “but they couldn’t do anything.” The entire family waited seven months for a set of autopsy results that were inconclusive. “It bothers me because he had no health conditions. He wasn’t even complaining of a headache. He was full of love and full of energy.” Undeterred, four months after the tragedy Omar unveiled his first store. The business has wholly integrated with the community and is now flourishing. Big Brothers Gourmet Pizza will be cutting the ribbon on their second store when it opens in May. But what’s the secret ingredient to success?
Omar and one of his staff members, Sachin, are preparing for the lunchtime rush when the door chimes and a man ambles through wearing a reflective jacket and loose-fitting boots. The loyal customer – known at Big Brothers as Flakes – walks 10 minutes from the construction site daily for a slice. “I have moved from Jamaica to Scarborough last year and this is the only place I truly know.” Flakes takes a hearty bite of his classic meat pizza and I ask him what keeps him coming back. “There’s the right amount of chew and crisp and it’s filling. But there’s so much variety compared to other places.” And Flakes is right… Deciding what to select is the hardest part. There are 31 different options, including a cluster of veggie, vegan and keto diet (chicken or cauliflower crust). When Flakes heads back to work, he bellows, “Thanks chief, perfect every time,” in Omar’s direction.
Taped to the left side of the wall is a poster-sized piece of paper scribbled with sketches of pizzas and the words “Thank you for a wonderful experience.” Students enrolled at a local special education school are invited once or twice a year when Omar conducts a tour of the kitchen, making a pizza with them ingredient by ingredient. Omar also provides seven local schools with lunch offering the best price. “I want the kids to have good pizza, it’s healthier for them,” Omar says. Pointing to an empty countertop, he describes the fortress of pizzas boxes that barricade the kitchen two times a week. “On Thursdays and Fridays, we start at 5 a.m. and make more than 300 pizzas. I’m a part of this community and I’m doing my contribution.”
It’s a Friday evening and business is in full swing. It’s impossible to tell what sounds more frequently: scraping of metal as pizza peels reach deep into the oven, the phone ringing or the entry chime that buzzes every time a customer walks in. The five staff members manoeuvre around the kitchen as a fluid unit. Sachin, whose red collar is peppered with flour, states: “If we dispute, we will hinder the chain. Omar has strict guidelines.” And the synchronised rhythm they work at is mind-blowing. Chopping, frying, slicing. Propelling the dough above their heads and catching as effortlessly as a tennis ball. Performing for the onlookers, whose hungry eyes follow Omar to the oven whenever he checks if their pizza is ready yet. One time, while the dough was descending back into the grasp of one of the team, it wraps around his glasses, unfastening them from his ears, and falling into his bushy moustache. The roar of laughter and jokes that follow is a reminder of the atmosphere Omar and Omaid used to create when they first started. Two men walk in with distinctly broad shoulders as Omar’s and they are quickly introduced as his brothers. Within minutes of them sitting down a bowl of fries is placed in front of them. “Ketchup?” Omar asks.
In between the rush of customers, staff wash the utensils and refill the ingredients on the prep table and I manage to catch a moment of Omar’s time, to ask if Omaid would be proud. “When I stand outside and look at the store, I don’t just think about him, but the entire family. I think about what I’ve built. How my dream was to help everyone in the family.” Omar pauses. “I do wish that he was side by side with me.”