Filling the Legal Pockets

Quick-service dining brand Pita Pit is growing at the pace of a lunch-hour rush, and general counsel Brent Sabean is building a legal function capable of keeping up with it

Brent Sabean, general counsel.

When cofounders John Sotiriadis and Nelson Lang started Pita Pit—the ubiquitous chain specializing in flatbread wraps—in 1995, they envisioned slow and methodical growth. Expansion, however, has been a constant for the Kingston, Ontario-based company, and in the less than 20 years since it served its first pita, it has opened up 395 restaurants across North America, most of them managed by franchise operators with 10-year commitments.

The growth has lately gotten even more aggressive—in 2013, Pita Pit added 33 locations—but when general counsel Brent Sabean arrived in the summer of 2012, the emergent company still relied on one external counsel and one paralegal for all legal needs. Therefore, he has spent the past two years adjusting his department to keep pace.

It was the yearly growth and the company’s reputation as one of Canada’s best that first attracted Sabean, who had previously held positions both in private practice (with one of the larger law firms in Atlantic Canada) and as in-house counsel (with businesses involved in the hotel, oil and gas, and coffee-franchising industries in Canada). He knew immediately that Pita Pit was a different kind of company. “It’s a special place,” he says. “Most at the head office are in their 30s. The atmosphere is informal, and we seldom wear suits. We’re interested instead in the quality of work we can do to support an exciting company and ensure the success of our franchisees.”

WHY LAW?

“Prior to starting university, my sister had started practicing criminal law, and I was always fascinated by her stories. On completing my undergraduate degree, I had considered enrolling in a master’s degree in economics or an MBA program but ultimately chose to pursue a law degree instead. I intended at first to work toward a career in the practice of criminal law, but by the end of law school, my focus had moved to corporate commercial law.”

Although Pita Pit’s legal services were being provided by two external members when Sabean joined, he did not make it his mission to replace them. Instead, he stepped in and revised the procedures and policies already in place, in order to help the company continue its explosive growth.

The first step was to learn the external counsel’s practices and then work with him to identify opportunities to improve and build. “The bottom line is that no one external counsel could be enough, given our extended period of growth,” Sabean says. “I’m not here to re-create anything—but to work within the existing system to make sure we have everything we need to keep moving as fast as we are.” When the external attorney left his role with the company to pursue the opportunity of developing the Pita Pit brand internationally, his paralegal joined Pita Pit full-time. Together, she and Sabean now anchor the company’s legal team and continue to use external legal counsel when necessary.

They key to the successful transition, Sabean found, was working closely with Pita Pit’s CEO and management team. “Legal has to understand exactly what the company’s objectives are so that we can play our role in assisting the business in reaching its desired goals,” he says.

Despite its growth, Pita Pit has retained a corporate culture focused on personal exchange. The 34 head-office employees (and 20 working off-site) can easily contact Sabean to discuss strategy, legal issues, or other matters. He says he always works to help his colleagues reach their goals and encourages them to initiate legal discussions with him early rather than waiting until problems start to develop.

FACTS & FIGURES

395+
Stores in North America

179
Stores in Canada (and Pita Pit anticipates adding 30–40 locations in 2014)

33
New Canadian locations opened in 2013

9
Countries outside of North America that have a Pita Pit location (Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago, Panama, the UK, France, India, and South Korea)

$20,000–$25,000
Range of Pita Pit’s fees for franchises

Even as big as the company is now, the core areas of its legal work have generally remained the same, Sabean says. His office spends most of its time on legal reviews, leasing agreements and issues, franchise agreements, vendor and supplier deals, disclosure reviews, advertising- and promotional-law issues, and other matters related to the corporation-franchise relationship so crucial to Pita Pit’s success. Sabean also tracks the evolution of franchise law and regulation as it continues to develop, though. “As the company grows, the legal needs shift and expand with the business realities, and we must shift with them,” he says.

Taking such precautionary steps has helped Sabean equip himself to serve Pita Pit during this important period in its corporate history, and he’s looking forward to helping the company reach its goal of 500 stores in Canada by the end of the decade.

“We want to dig in as deep as we can,” he says, “to fully understand the business teams’ systems and objectives so that we can play our role from a legal perspective and help take the brand where it wants to go.”