How a Toronto pizzeria sells global pies and a diverse identity
Levant’s queer, Middle Eastern owners want to showcase who they are and delicious food at the same time
Many businesses today prioritize diversity in some way.
At Levant, though, it’s baked right into the pie. That would be the restaurant’s Sicilian-Levantine pizza pie, which comes topped with such choices as lamb and beef brisket, za’atar, kofta meatballs and tahini – along with the likes of cheese, mushrooms and pepperoni – served alongside homemade hummus and tabouleh Caesar salad.
“We live and breathe diversity every day of our lives,” says co-owner Nader Qawasmi. “Because we come from these intersectional backgrounds and we have a team that is a mosaic, we really value people coming from all backgrounds to help support us.”
Qawasmi is Palestinian while business partner Tamer Agha is Lebanese. Both are members of the queer community and lead with their identities, and the identities of their staff, when they talk about their company – and when they plan strategy and menus.
In fact, visitors to Levant know about what drives the business before they even walk in the door: a sign on the front window of the restaurant’s Bloor Street West location reads: “We are proud to make this a place that enshrines diversity and inclusion as a core value.”
These same values align closely with those of TELUS, which, this fall, awarded the restaurant $25,000 in prizes as part of the TELUS #StandWithOwners program. The program offers best-in-class technology, funding and advertising to local businesses to help owners and entrepreneurs grow their business, while bringing positive change to the communities in which they operate. Since 2020, the program has invested more than $2.5 million into the small-business community across the country.
“Local businesses are the heart of our communities and economy. Through TELUS Business’ #StandWithOwners, we are dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs who are creating connections and building vibrant communities through their work,” said Navin Arora, Executive Vice-president, TELUS and President, TELUS Business Solutions. “We are proud to support local organizations, like Levant, so they can grow and thrive with new technology, gain exposure, and stay focused on what matters most - their business.”
When Agha met Qawasmi about eight years ago – they both lived in the same building – running a restaurant was far from his mind. His friend’s cooking, however, was not.
“I always used to force-invite myself to his place, the food was so good,” recalls Agha, who is also a personal trainer.
Qawasmi, who still works in real estate, grew up around his family’s restaurant business, and knew he wanted to launch his own eventually. During the pandemic, he realized he needed to start moving on the project, so he began making plans.
Around that time, Agha approached him, saying he too wanted to open a restaurant – it was now or never, the two felt – and had strong ideas about what kind of food he’d like to serve.
“Every time I go back home to Lebanon, I feel like there’s something missing in Toronto,” he says, thinking that a restaurant with a real street food approach could do well.
In August 2021, the two joined forces and opened Levant, both juggling the restaurant with their other jobs.
Qawasmi admits the first few months were “rocky.”
“We had a lot to figure out, but we adapted quickly,” he says. “This definitely isn’t the same restaurant that we were at the beginning.”
Levant was selected for TELUS’ #StandWithOwners program for its inclusive nature, efforts in building community and for how they have incorporated technology into their operations. As a pandemic-built restaurant business, technology has, not surprisingly, played a big part in the company’s growth.
Over the last year, the pair learned a lot about the importance of having an effective website with proper search engine optimization and taking orders via technology.
“We’re on all the third-party apps and most of our orders come through online channels,” says Qawasmi.
Levant has also recently begun providing delivery to customers who order right off its website. It’s all organized electronically and the restaurant pays a flat fee for the delivery, which allows them to keep more of what the customer pays than they get through third-party delivery apps.
The duo heard about #StandWithOwners in mid-2022 and Qawasmi applied.
“I never thought that we would actually win,” he says. “It’s really interesting to us to see how corporations are supporting small businesses.”
TELUS Business also recently launched a new online platform, ShopWithOwners.ca as another way to help communities and local businesses stay connected.
This new-found support will help Levant stay the course and keep building what the founders started. It also ensures they can afford to keep their ideals front and centre – the restaurant has sponsored events run by the queer Muslim community and a Palestinian film festival.
Says Qawasmi: “For us, it’s making sure that we’re very loud about who we are.”
To learn more about the #StandWithOwners program, visit telus.com/StandWithOwners.
Article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
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