The recipe for success for a female Turkish restaurateur

By Jill Martin
Business reporter, Istanbul


To help her to succeed in Turkey's male-dominated business community, female restaurateur Defne Ertan Tuysuzoglu says she followed a simple recipe.

"Business is a man's world [in Turkey], and I found that being a woman you have less room to make a mistake than a man," says the 42-year-old.

"It may be sometimes difficult for male employees to take orders from a woman.

"Therefore you have to be very disciplined, hardworking, and especially - be fair to all your employees."

In a country where fewer than one in 10 business owners are female (according to the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey), Ms Tuysuzoglu is held up as a role model for young women thinking of setting up their own companies.

The business she herself leads is self-service restaurant chain Kirkpinar.

She and her partners opened their first Kirkpinar restaurant seven years ago. They took the name from a region of Turkey which is renowned for the quality of its meat.

Now the company has 33 branches across the country, and plans to open five more later this year.

Ms Tuysuzoglu launched the business in 2007 after she had returned to Turkey following a number of years working in restaurants in the US and UK.

'Hospital clean'

From the outset she says cleanliness has been key to the success of the chain, which has positioned itself as a fresh, modern Turkish restaurant.

The idea, says Ms Tuysuzoglu, was to evoke the feel of a "lokanta", the traditional Turkish restaurant, but just make it a lot cleaner.

Image source, Kirkpinar
Image caption,
The chain has a self-service model, with customers needing to queue up

She explains: "In traditional lokantas you have excellent food, but maybe sometimes - how should I say - they are not as sanitised as you would think.

"[In contrast], it was very important for us that we should be healthy, and clean. Super clean, like hospital clean."

To help ensure that each restaurant is as clean as possible, the company sends out regular inspection crews, which Ms Tuysuzoglu often joins.

To further keep the outlets on their toes, Ms Tuysuzoglu also makes surprise visits on her own. To prevent branch managers from warning each other that she is on her way she makes sure she does not simply go from one restaurant to another that's nearby.

And despite being a founding boss of the business, she also does occasional shifts helping out in the restaurants.

"I have worked as a cashier, I have worked in the grill area... or wherever I'm needed."

For Ms Tuysuzoglu this is part of what it takes to be a good leader.

She explains: "I never had this attitude of 'I'm a top executive, I'm not going to go to the store.'

"I always wanted to be connected, both with the staff, and with the guests."

Customer demand

Ms Tuysuzoglu adds that the business' modernity also extends to its food. While it serves traditional Turkish dishes, such as koftas or meatballs, it aims for the dishes to be healthier than the norm.

"We modernised the Turkish cuisine a little bit, and mostly use ovens, instead of deep frying," says Ms Tuysuzoglu.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Kirkpinar gets its name from a region of Turkey known for the quality of its meat

However, Kirkpinar's commitment to healthy cooking met a challenge from an unexpected source - its customers.

"Some guests came and said, 'You are from Kirkpinar region - why don't you have the liver?'" says Ms Tuysuzoglu, referring to a traditional Turkish dish called edirne yaprak cigeri, which is a deep-fried liver.

Because the business favoured baking, rather than deep frying, Ms Tuysuzoglu said they had decided not to serve the popular dish.

But the will of their customers won out in the end. And for Ms Tuysuzoglu it was a lesson in the need to be open to adapting.

"We said, 'OK - guests want that. So we should be flexible in that sense.'"

The decision to incorporate the fried liver into their menu was a profitable one, as it now accounts for a third of Kirkpinar's sales, which totalled $23m (£14m) last year.

Educational work

With a degree in hospitality management from Istanbul's Bogazici University, and another in business from Michigan State University in the US, Ms Tuysuzoglu has spent her entire working life in the restaurant sector.

She says her time in the US was particularly helpful in honing her managerial skills.

Image caption,
The business now has 33 branches across Turkey

"Since I started working as a restaurant manager when I was just 25 years old in the US, I learned quickly how to work with people and how to be accepted," she says.

"You also need to build your team and coach them."

Now back in her homeland, and firmly established as a leading light in the country's restaurant scene, Ms Tuysuzoglu's story is used by the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey to inspire more females to start their own businesses.

"We find role models, and promote them to society," says Gulseren Onanc, the association's chair person.

Ms Tuysuzoglu is also passing on her own knowledge by teaching restaurant management and cost analysis at Ozyegin University in Istanbul.

She is also a director of the Turkish branch of Le Cordon Bleu, the French culinary institute, which is based at Ozyegin.

By realising her own goals of helping to modernise Turkish cuisine, Ms Tuysuzoglu is well placed to help others - both men and women - achieve success in the country's restaurant industry.

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