The restaurant industry will never die, not even in a global pandemic. I know this because I, along with my two sisters, Fusun and Arzu, have been in it for 13 years. The three of us have navigated tough economic times and challenges working on the front lines, the back of the house, and the trenches as owner-operators. We have experienced a fair share of adversity while operating multiple stores as first-generation immigrants.
We have also encountered significant setbacks and dealt with substantial disadvantages many owner-operators will face over their restaurant careers. Each step has taught me a lesson about overcoming perilous obstacles to survive even in the worst of times. Here is my family’s story of how we made it through to the other side and how we will continue to thrive, even in the worst of circumstances.
In 2007, at the height of an imminent economic recession, my sisters and I decided to open a fast-casual restaurant concept called Flatbread Grill. The three of us teamed up after our father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Our father needed affordable health insurance to have the surgery and afford the lifetime care that came with it. He was forced into early retirement as a result of his health problems.
I was a 24-year-old college student, struggling to earn my filmmaking arts degree when my restaurant journey began. At the same time, Arzu, my younger sister, who 23, had just graduated at the top of her college class with a double degree in business management and finance. Fusun, our older sister, had taken on the responsibilities of financially supporting both our parents. That is, until her corporate job laid her off. She decided to use her passion for food to open up a restaurant. Fusun asked Arzu for help, who then asked me if I wanted to join them. There was no fancy business plan, no meticulous strategy sessions, and no hiring of outside consultants. It was just the three of us with one goal: make enough money to save our father’s life and support ourselves.
The restaurant world was nothing new to us. We grew up inside our father’s two Turkish restaurants. Fusun helped run those restaurants when she was just 13. I spent my childhood playing with Barbie dolls while watching my mother perform prep work, wash dishes, and cook alongside my father and big sister. Both Arzu and I also worked multiple service jobs, including bartending and waitressing, at various foodservice establishments, to put ourselves through college.
Despite watching our father lose his restaurants growing up, we somehow believed this was a path we could navigate successfully. Our father mortgaged his home to finance Flatbread Grill, and my sisters used whatever savings they had. If we didn’t make this restaurant work, it meant homelessness for our family. Failure was not an option.
Armed with very little cash on hand, the three of us put aside our differences and began building our first store in North Jersey. Arzu had a clear vision that the food would be fresh and made to order. It would be served in a welcoming, warm, and casual environment. Her idea was a little ahead of the time because the concept of “fresh food” was still very much reserved for full-service restaurants. She also threw in how we would make specialty flatbreads and develop a menu that offered something for everyone. My job was to help build the menu, design customer touchpoints, develop signage, create a website, and maintain the brand identity. I did not have a background in marketing. I just loved food and wanted my father to live. Arzu designed the logo, came up with taglines, and developed the bread recipes while Fusun managed the finances.
While the construction project itself on a rundown building like the one we had rented would have been enough to make anyone throw their hands up and walk away, my sisters and I didn’t give up. We paid attention to every detail of every corner, keeping in mind that we were building a concept for people from all walks of life. With the recession, vendors predicted our restaurant wouldn’t even make it to the grand opening.
We eventually got our first store open on March 13, 2008. We had no money left for any marketing or advertising, so word of mouth was all we had to keep the business alive. Social media wasn’t quite a thing yet. Our most significant marketing effort was taking our logoed “COMING SOON” sign and placing a sticker with the grand opening date on the bottom. It worked because we had lines out the door from day one.
The odds were very much stacked against us even though we were busy from the outset, and the buzz was building quickly about our brand. We didn’t have staff other than two cashiers who helped work the front of the house. Fusun and Arzu were responsible for serving over 100 tickets in an hour, every day. Within two weeks, an editor from a prestigious newspaper ate at Flatbread Grill and gave us an outstanding review. From there, it became busier, which meant more work, day in and day out, and more local media inquiries. I would rush to open the restaurant, go to my college classes after the lunch rush, come back to prepare for the dinner rush, and then spend hours after closing cleaning up and washing dishes with my sisters. Life went on like this for more time than I’d like to remember. The payoff was bringing nearly $1 million in less than a year based on word of mouth only, as well as finally being able to afford health insurance for ourselves and our parents.
At the height of the recession, we ran a high-volume operation at one point entirely on our own, without staff, serving hundreds of customers a day. It was back-breaking work. Everything from doing prep, inventory shopping, washing dishes by hand, and serving customers to balancing the books was entirely on our shoulders. We worked 14- to 18-hour days, seven days a week, nonstop to keep our business moving forward.
After a few years, we began to think about expanding. We felt we were ready and had learned enough about our operations to scale it. While we searched high and low for a second location, things at our first store didn’t go as planned. A significant conflict unexpectedly arose with our landlords, and we lost our first store due to no mistake of our own. Suddenly, we were right back at square one: starting all over again with minimal resources. We lost our primary source of income when we lost the first store. And when the contractor for the second walked off the job, he took most of the money we had to build the second location with him.
For an entire year, while we struggled to get the second store open, the brand lived on only through social media. When the store did finally open, it was like we never left. The brand equity was still there, as was a new customer base and our old customer base. Former customers found our new location and came out to support it, while new customers discovered Flatbread Grill. We operated in a smaller kitchen, with scaled-down operations, but we remained true to our core values of fresh food served in a casual, warm environment at affordable prices.
We also noticed that the industry was beginning to change. Mobile ordering was taking off. Credit card payments were replacing cash payments. Delivery and takeout accounted for nearly half of our orders. Our self-ordering kiosks were so popular that barely anyone walked up to a “cashier” to order any more. No one even seemed to notice we didn’t have menuboards in our restaurant. Times were changing, and we took notice. We changed with it.
My sisters and I never stopped being involved in day-to-day operations, even when we hired a full staff and shift management. This involvement made it much easier for us to spot the incoming changes, so much so that we knew a pivot was going to be in order nearly two years before the global pandemic hit. When it did arrive, we were as prepared as anyone could have been. We were opening up a third store, knowing this would be our last for a while, while preparing to launch an offshoot brand into the retail space.
The third store is where we finally capitalized on all the industry changes happening over the past few years. There was once again no more menuboards. We emphasized mobile ordering, established a pickup station for prepaid orders, and encouraged customers to use our self-ordering kiosks. We also began utilizing third party delivery aggregators with limited menu items.
My sisters and I also began discussing turning our brand into a more mobile-friendly delivery and takeout concept. We threw around ideas, everything from on-demand delivery to even a sliding pick-up window. Fusun, Arzu, and I understood resources would become limited due to the pandemic and lockdowns. We strategized on a way for our brand to have an impact even as circumstances became challenging to navigate. We decided to move away from opening up more brick-and-mortar stores to evolve into launching virtual stores. We also decided we would venture into retail in 2021.
I can offer no magic formula other than hard work, strategic thinking, and quick decision-making, even when all seems hopeless. My sisters and I didn’t focus on “trends”—we anticipated them before they happened. We focused on continually improving our operations, watching our food costs, focusing on quality and consistency, and paying attention to the customer experience. Smaller owner-operators are almost always cash strapped. They don’t have the luxury of taking risks or a/b testing to see what works. Things have to work when they are executed because mistakes can be costly. I learned this the hard way over the past 13 years. Even a small mistake can cost thousands.
Next year, things will be different. Real estate prices will be competitive, third-party aggregators will be consolidated, new labor laws will be introduced, recent climate change regulations will impact the industry, and the cost of goods will rise. The restaurant industry will continue to evolve, change, and shift. However, it will not die. It can’t. The pandemic won’t take away the one thing this industry needs to survive and most definitely already has in place: people’s love of food and gathering together with loved ones. Customers will always seek out food establishments that can satisfy their palates while providing an exceptional experience.
My sisters and I are betting on that one.