About 15 years ago, I ordered a pizza one night from Milano Pizza (which has been around since 1976). Shortly afterwards I went vegan, which meant I would not order a pizza from a mainstream establishment for another decade.
In April 2015, I met Mazen Kassis, president of Milano Pizza, at the Live the Smart Way Expo. I suggest that he consider vegan cheese at Milano stores. He is polite, but has no idea what I’m talking about (some things are just ahead of their time!) In January 2016, I write a now outdated guide to vegan pizza in Ottawa.
Fast forward to February 2018: Kassis gets ahold of some commercial vegan cheese and makes a pizza. Vegans learn about it, and the Facebook group Ottawa Vegans and Vegetarians goes crazy. Over the next month or two, Kassis would provide frequent updates as to which stores now have the vegan cheese, along with other new vegan options that are being introduced, along with diligently responding to every single social media post being made about Milano’s vegan options. People within the group joke that the group’s name should be changed to reflect the inundation of Milano’s posts. Perhaps most surprisingly, Kassis has emerged as a fierce and forceful advocate for vegan food options at restaurants, and is now foraying into the world of vegan beauty products.
I wanted to find out more from Kassis about his experience over the past few months.
Q: How did the idea enter your mind to begin offering vegan pizza at Milano?
A: Usually I’m approached by suppliers wanting me to carry a product and that’s exactly what happened with the vegan cheese a couple of months ago. I gave the samples to my brother who owns the Baseline Milano location and asked him to offer a pizza to anyone asking for non-dairy cheese. I took a picture of the first vegan pizza and posted it on our FB page and it went viral.
The rest is history.
Q: Did you always intend to have it available chain wide?
A; I hadn’t planned on it at all, let alone company wide. We have 37 locations and all but two are carrying vegan cheese.
Q: Tell me about how it has evolved into what it is now.
A: Speaking on vegan options, if there’s been any sort of evolution, the vegan community and more specifically the Facebook group Ottawa Vegans & Vegetarians, is the cause of it. Through all the comments mostly of gratitude and appreciation, I personally have been driven to bring more options to their tables. We now have five locations that have a vegan menu, which includes Pizza, Poutine, Wraps, Burgers and Platters. I hope to have all the Ottawa locations doing the same. However, I’ll be happy if I can keep at least vegan pizza on the menu for the out of town stores, where there hasn’t been as much demand.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges?
A: Personally speaking, my biggest challenge is making sure to limit the number of mistakes we make. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of confidence in the operators and we haven’t made many mistakes but this is way too important to me to leave it to confidence alone. I track all the vegan online orders and make contact with stores if I feel there’s a need to explain some part of it. I follow FB posts and comments and reply to all of them. And when there’s been the odd mistake, I go into damage control overdrive. I reach out to the store and speak to the owner to let them know what happened, what they need to do immediately and how they need to prevent this from happening again.
For the store owners and their cooks, I’m sure their biggest challenge is keeping up with my requests for more vegan items and ingredients. We’ve added more items in 6-7 weeks, than we have in years.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received?
A: The feedback has been overwhelming! I recently responded to someone who thanked me and added that I’d probably heard that 1,000 times already. The truth is, that we’ve been thanked more in these past two months, than all my 40 plus years in business.
Q: You’ve become a rockstar in Ottawa’s vegan community. What is that like for you? Did you expect it?
A: That’s too funny. I’m no rockstar. I’m Just someone who loves food and to cook. As the frontman for my company, I’ve always received a little attention but nothing like this. I like that people have praise for me because I know it means they’ve enjoyed their food. I would love it if they sent those praises to the owners and their staff. After all, I’m just the frontman, while they do a the work.
Of course I didn’t expect anything like this!
Q: Have there been any particularly meaningful moments for you through this journey?
A: OMGoodness whenever someone post or comments that they hadn’t eaten pizza in so many years and loved what they received. Wow! That’s happened at least 100 times. Last night I received an email from someone who picked up 5 pizza of which one was vegan. The emailer said they took the pizzas to a hospital across town and that I’ll never know how important that vegan pizza was.
I think I know why?
Q: You’ve become an advocate for vegan options in restaurants and are taking the message to others. Can you tell me about that – what is motivating you? What are some of the connections you’re leveraging? What is the reception you’ve received?
A: In fact I have advocated for more vegan options. As a member of Algonquin College Restaurant Hotel & Tourism advisory committee, I took up 1 hr of a 1 1/2 hr meeting, speaking on Milano Pizza’s experiences. The need for more vegan options/education in the school curriculum. I brought vegan pizzas to the hairstylist class and I spoke to 42 students about the need for vegan hair and beauty supplies and how they can benefit from this in their future endeavours.
My motivation is a combination of a sense of responsibility and a desire to lead. With 37 locations, I’m often the gateway for new products to get into the Ottawa market. Having all other pizzerias and restaurants use Vegegourmet cheese, is not more competition but rather a sense of pride for me.
Reception has been very positive. Algonquin College, pizzerias, restaurants and many more suppliers want to bring me their vegan samples. Stay tuned!
Q: How has this experience changed your perception of vegans, vegan food etc?
A; I don’t know what perception I had been about vegans? Maybe any perceptions that I had have been diminished to insignificance by all that I’ve learned in these past weeks. I would argue then and now, that even if I’m not vegan, why wouldn’t I appreciate that some people are? As for vegan food, I’ve always loved all fruits, vegetables and nuts and can honestly say that 90% of my meals have always been vegan. My breakfast is black coffee, a mix of walnuts & almonds with dates and or dry figs, 363 days per year.
Lunch is rare but always only salad and I am infamous for my Big Salad Dinner. No one would believe how big it is!
Q: Do you have a favourite Milano vegan menu option?
A: My vegan cupcakes (not dessert) though not yet on the menu, are my favourite. I can’t wait for you to have them!
Q: Where do you see all of this going for you? Milano?
A: I think both I and Milano Pizza will play a smaller role in the future, as more pizzerias and restaurants get onboard with vegan options.
I’ll be happy if there’s enough demand to keep all these pizzerias and restaurants motivated but I am fearful that it gets spread out too thin.
Even now, as Milano is receiving the biggest piece of the pie, some locations don’t get enough orders to consider a vegan menu. We’ll always have pizza but for most locations I can’t see keeping a vegan designated fryer, just to make several, if any vegan poutine, per day.
However, before that day comes when I’m being sidelined, I’ll have many more vegan options to offer!
Pamela Tourigny is the owner of Ottawa Veg Fest. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from Carleton University, and has worked in marketing, communications and public relations for 14 years, currently as a marketing and business consultant for food and wellness businesses. She is an Ottawa-based expert on the topics of veganism and ethical consumption, has been vegan for nearly 14 years. She likes to run, play ultimate frisbee, hike with her dog, and jump on trampolines. www.pamelatourigny.com