Kian Kazemi, The Prince of Persia (Grill)
Persia Grill proprietor Kian Kazemi’s crazy, turbulent, wonderful youth taught him everything he needed to know to survive a pandemic, and bring his food empire to the next level
I remember first hearing about Kian Kazemi when I was searching for a subject to write about for Lifestyle Asia. I consulted Gel Rivera-Chin, my usual office confidant and a former food editor at Appetite Magazine, who spoke very highly of him. “He’s a really fun guy, and he loves food! You’ll have a blast at the interview,” she said with a smile. As any journalist would, my first instinct was to do my research. A simple Google search encouraged me to reach out to Kian. At 31-years-old (at the time), he had already accomplished so many things to be proud of. He had founded the popular Persia Grill chain of restaurants (in his early 20s no less!), dabbled into show business as a contestant on Pinoy Big Brother, and was voted by a lifestyle website as one of the Top 15 motivational speakers in Manila. I asked Gel for his contact details and sent him a message. Our interview and photoshoot were scheduled on a Tuesday at LOBO Filipino Tavern, his then-newly opened eatery in Poblacion, which paid homage to both his Filipino and Persian heritage.
Interviewing the young entrepreneur for the first time did not feel like work. We became immediate friends as soon as we met. It was a pleasure devouring a meal together, sharing war stories, and comparing notes about all the new restaurants in the area. Kian’s laidback personality also made friendship easy. He exudes a certain type of confidence that makes one instantly feel very comfortable around him—as if you’ve known him for a long time. Each dish that came out of his kitchen that day echoed the vibe of its creator. They were confident gastronomic creations that defined “comfort food”. It was like eating at home with a good friend.
When the interview ended, we said our goodbyes. “Come by for a drink anytime,” he said as I stepped out the door. As most interviewer-subject relationships go post-article, Kian and I’s friendship was limited to casual Facebook communications. We would greet each other during birthdays, comment on each other’s photos, congratulate one another during milestones, and on occasion, a casual chat about food on Messenger. Although we never really hung out, I consider Kian a friend. He was a kind guy who showed kindness to me in my early days as a journalist. I admired his businesses from afar, watching his restaurants transform into a food empire.
Innovating During Hard Times
When the current pandemic struck, many restaurateurs and their employees faced their worst nightmares. Business owners were unprepared by “the new normal”. How do you deliver food when you don’t have the logistics or manpower? How do you pay your restaurant staff when funds are low? How do you survive when seats are empty? Times were uncertain, and slowly, many well-regarded establishments began to fold. “We’re sad to announce that we’ll be closing our doors permanently” were usual statements posted on Facebook or Instagram on a daily basis. This wasn’t true for Kian Kazemi and his Persia Grill Group of restaurants. Even in the early days of the pandemic, I noticed Kian announcing promos and new menu items on his social media pages. Persia Grill seemed prepared for the current situation as if they had predicted it.
During the height of Manila’s “lockdown” period, they continuously edited their menus with brand new dishes, released a frozen food line, and even launched a website for online transactions. This quick-thinking piqued my interest, so I decided to message Kian and ask him about it. Unsurprisingly, the friendly businessman was more than happy to tell me how they transitioned from restaurant to flourishing online business. We then began our lengthy Zoom call and overdue catch-up session:
“We’ve been planning way before COVD [to expand and go online],” said Kian. “We had the machinery in place, and we always wanted to get into food manufacturing. So when the crisis hit, we instantly started work. We just needed the push to bust out the big guns.” The company first focused on creating a frozen food line of Persia Grill’s best sellers (like kebabs, tikka, and even vegan options like falafels and samosas), and packing them up for easy home consumption. They also bottled their famous garlic sauce (which Kian dubbed their “miracle sauce”). A lot of work also into their new e-commerce website, <www.persiagrill.ph>, a brainchild of Kian’s cousin, Patrick, who handles the tech side of the company.
A Family of Outsiders
Persia Grill also tapped into different communities, looking for online resellers for their new line of products. “One of the concrete things we did during ECQ was providing business opportunities for resellers of our products,” he proudly said. “We gave them wholesale prices, and all they needed to do was make space in their freezers, and then sell to their communities through their mobile phones!” So far, inviting resellers to the Persia Grill family has been beneficial to all parties involved. Kian is able to keep the business alive, his staff is able to work, and people in the community are able to make extra income.
Despite their current recipe for success, Kian admits they still suffered a hit like most of his peers in his industry. Currently, only three out of his ten Persia Grill restaurants remain operational. This includes the branch located at Valero Street in Makati, the flagship location that started it all. Still, Kian is keeping his head high and staying optimistic. “I don’t want to leave this world less then where I found it,” he said. “Especially during these times, I want people to say, “Kian did a good job in his community. He did something that generated jobs for others’”.
The search for innovation and expansion continues today for Kian. He’s still dreaming big despite weary times. “We’re thinking of opening PGX (Persia Grill Express), a kiosk that carries our frozen food or Ready to Cook meals. People can get in touch with us if they want to open their own PGX. It’ll be like a franchise, because they will have our name and our products. We’ll help them set it up, and it’s very reasonably priced,” he shares. If people want to get in touch with the company for franchise or reselling purposes, he says a simple message in Persia Grill’s official Facebook page is how to do it. “Somebody will always reply,” he promises.
Persia Grill has always played an important role in my culinary journey, even before I knew Kian Kazemi. As a fellow who studied in Taft for college, the restaurant was always a staple place to eat at between classes. My family and I also frequented the flagship restaurant in Makati, because for us, Persia Grill and its flavors were pretty much unbeatable. My friends and I also loved going to the branch in the Fort. It was open 24/7, making it the ideal place to get a hearty (drunken) meal after a night out drinking. I’m a big fan of their food, and I got very excited when researching this story because it meant I had an excuse to eat Persia Grill again.
The journey started by ordering the food. Their new website is simple and very user friendly, making transactions quick and hassle-free. You first select the food items you want, and then proceed by checking out your cart. After specifying your delivery date, you are led to three pages that asks for more details. The first asks for personal details such as name and delivery address. It is then followed by a section that asks you to select your preferred way of delivery. Each delivery rate is fixed (the closer to Makati, the cheaper). Customers may also opt to pick-up their food items in three of the following branches: BGC, Valero or The Commissary (which is valid for official resellers only). The final page are your paying options. You may pay for your food either through credit card or by bank deposit.
My food arrived the following day (ready to devour) via Persia Grill’s personal delivery man. I ordered two of their Family Meal sets: the 8-Hour Slow Roasted USDA Beef Belly with a Chipotle Herb Rub (served with side of vegetables and mash potatoes) and the Kebab Family Sampler (which includes four of their famous kebabs—two varieties of chicken, and two beef). Kian caught wind of my order, and generously sent me a few of their vegan food options to try as well (the samosas, falafels and hummus).
It was a glorious lunch. We’re a family of seven at home, and we were able to wipe out the entire spread, while getting full and content. The Persia Grill best-sellers were delicious, as expected. They never fail to hit the spot. It brought us back to pre-COVID times, as if we were once again eating at the Valero Street restaurant. However, the star of the table was the Roast Beef dish, a new offering that was born out of Kian’s quarantine boredom. “We were locked up in the house, and I was thinking of what to do with a piece of beef belly I ordered from my supplier. I knew I also wanted to maximize our oven,” said Kian of the origins of the miraculously tender dish. “My life partner Nicole is into farming, so we have a lot of extra herbs that go to waste. We marinated the beef belly with all the extra herbs she had. I believe in the Magic of 8, that’s why I kept the beef in the oven for 8 hours. And damn, that magic worked! We fed it to our picky 3-year-old, and he finished his plate! So far, no one has asked for their money back.”
Learning What He Needed to Know
Kian’s resourcefulness and will to survive during a global pandemic does not come as a surprise to me. His upbringing plays a large role in the strength he has today. He is a smart, driven young man who has worked for everything he has now. Kian’s story really begins with his parents: Dr. Ali-Reza, an immigrant from Iran, and his Filipina wife Charito. Dr. Ali-Reza, a dentistry student at the time, moved to Manila as a way to avoid the Persian revolution. When he met and fell in love with Kian’s mother, the two became entrepreneurs, selling toys outside of Baclaran Church. Eventually, the couple was able to raise enough funds to open up a small tapa restaurant in the area called Moby Dick.
As they accumulated wealth, Kian’s parents became more ambitious. They began opening up multiple other businesses such as a sizzling plate concept, a Persian rug store, and a direct selling company. “My parents believed that fortune favored the bold, but they were too bold,” Kian said with a laugh. “We had the Arian brand, which carried things like a cosmetic line, cologne and deodorant. My parents tried to fight with the giants! They were so gutsy. It was doing well at the beginning, but it eventually collapsed because they were new to it.” The family had no choice but to file for bankruptcy when their slate of businesses tanked.
It was a huge hit when the Kazemi family home in Alabang was repossessed by the government. They had one business left, Kazemi Persian Carpets in Pasay, which would keep them afloat for the years to come. Despite a dark time in his life, Kian refuses to look back at this experience negatively, and uses it as a form of inspiration to become successful. “That [time] became my motivation. I want my kids to grow up in a garden too, as I did. It is impossible to have success without failure. Failure is just a detour to success, and I refuse I go back to that time. Although, that [experience] did give me my business acumen. It taught me everything I needed to know.”
He adds that it was during these hard times when his parents taught him the most valuable of lessons, that keeping one’s honor is the important thing to do. “When we went bankrupt, my parents wanted to pay all our debts. Some businessmen turn their backs on their debts when they’re broke, but my parents wanted to pay it. We paid it slowly, because they said that the most important thing is protect our name.” Family life was stable at home, despite downsizing from a life they were used to. Kian remained close to his parents and siblings, and continued to look to them for advice and inspiration. Today, they’ve bounced back better than ever.
The Big Break
By the time Kian was in college, the values his parents had instilled in him remained strong. As a kid, Dr. Ali-Reza taught his boys the value of money, even asking them to do part-time work at their store for their allowance. Eager to make extra money, he started cooking homemade kebabs and pita bread, and selling them at school. The recipes all came from his father, who brought with him to the Philippines his wonderful culinary knowledge from his upbringing in Iran. Eventually, Kian’s Persian delicacies gained popularity around campus, and he finally gained the confidence to open a physical store. Using his graduation gift money from his parents, he took the leap of faith. Kian was 21-years-old.
When he opened the doors of the first Persia Grill in Makati, Kian’s mom was nervous. The restaurant in Valero Street was located in an old parking lot, and she was worried that foot traffic would be slow. “At the time, Salcedo wasn’t really booming with restaurants. We were tucked in the corner, and we were so worried. I kept reassuring my mom, “Don’t worry, we will come out on top. One-time big time, it will happen.’” he said with a laugh.
Luckily, a large opportunity came roaring his way—a private audition for ABS-CBN’s Pinoy Big Brother. After participating in the second season of generation-defining reality show, everything changed for the budding entrepreneur. Kian did not win the competition, but the media coverage the show gave him truly helped Persia Grill as a brand. Suddenly, people recognized him, and Kian wanted to use his 15-minutes of fame to its full advantage. He plugged the restaurant as much as he could, eventually making it a success. The rest is history.
Today, Kian’s food business has grown into a small empire. There are ten branches of Persia Grill all over Metro Manila, and it continues to grow. He also found time to develop and launch other food concepts, such as Kite Kebab Bar, Shiraz Gourmet, and LOBO Filipino Tavern. Lately, Kian has ventured into real estate. He is currently building K Residences, a service residence complex at the heart of Makati, set to open in 2021. “We had to sell so many kebabs to put up that building,” he says with a laugh. “It took A LOT of kebabs and garlic sauce to put up that foundation.”
A Burning Hot Legacy
As our conversation began to wind down, I asked Kian whether he considered himself lucky. He says that his life’s successes is a combination of both luck and preparation. “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” he began. “You’ve got to be prepared like a basketball player sitting on the bench. You might be sitting on the bench for the game, but you still have to train. Kobe Bryant sat on the bench at the start of his career, then they called his number because someone got injured, and he blew the lights out.”
Kian also acknowledges his team of pro-players, who keeps the business rolling like a well-oiled machine: his family. “One of our key formulas to success is that the family unit is all involved. Don’t get me wrong, it took time for all of us to come together, because each family member had their own passion. My [middle] brother loves cars, racing, and riding big bikes. My youngest brother is a triathlete, and he was so busy with school, and he wanted to do this own thing first. But little by little, he joined us. I think my mom and dad did a good job to instill in us that we are stronger when we were united. My weaknesses are my brothers’ strengths, and vise-versa.” Kian also says he looks up to his cousin Patrick, who he looks up as a big brother and advisor. Patrick handles the company’s technical side.
The idea of leaving a legacy is very important to Kian. He hopes that he can leave his children something to be proud of, as well as make his parents proud of his achievements. They raised him into the man he is today, gave him his values, and also kick started his business both financially and with the right emotional support. “They funded my idea of opening a Persian restaurant. But even with that, they let me be me,” he shared with a mischievous grin (Kian admits he was a black sheep most of his life). “They let me make my own mistakes. Sometimes you have to let the kids get burnt so they learn.” Suddenly, business came calling on the other line. Kian sent me his best wishes, and I gave them back. “More power brother,” he said. And with that positive statement, the Zoom called ended.