Innovation in Istanbul: Three Lessons from Top Chefs

Mangerie | Bebek, Istanbul

Mangerie | Bebek, Istanbul

Sometimes it takes stepping away into a distant land to realize just how important it is to develop a strong cultural identity and engaging customer experience at your business. Here are some marketing lessons gleaned from top chefs in Istanbul, that are applicable to not just the food industry but business culture in general. 

1. Take Risks

Chef Can Oba decided to bring his Michelin-star training to the streets of Istanbul. Instead of continuing his career at star-studded establishments, he decided to make high-end dining accessible and affordable amongst the kebab and köfte shops on the streets of Sirkeci. First step in taking big risks — assess your situation, do market research. Do not underestimate your business location. Walkability and neighborhood dynamics will influence the type of customer who frequents your establishment. Can Oba was smart to start his business in a neighborhood frequented by tourists between Sultanhamet and the Spice Market, while simultaneously choosing a more clandestine alley — creating a rogue dining experience that feels both white cloth and secretive.

While the location is a huge factor in the success of Can Oba, the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit Chef brings to the table is unmatched. Second step in taking a big risk is defining your unique value. Chef's play on flavor profiles from the Mediterranean, mixing in fresh produce from the markets in Istanbul, and pulling from the bounty of the sea, Chef Can Oba creates dishes like Strawberry Heirloom Tomato Octopus Risotto and Sea Bass in an Orange Glaze. 

Third, and maybe most importantly, Chef Can Oba works both front of house and back of house in his establishment. Greeting guests, taking orders, working with his staff, and leading by example really set his place a part from the rest of the fine dining establishments in Istanbul. 

Location, innovative iteration, and customer experience goes a long way in taking a big risk — like bringing high-end dining to the streets. 

2. Create Community Amongst Your Staff

Chef Pelin, Owner of Lucca & Cantinery | Istanbul

We frequently talk about the business/chef owner, their passion and their commitment. But what about the career waiter or waitress? The host or hostess that knows your name and table as you make eye contact as you walk through the door? As a business/chef owner, it's imperative that you foster community and camaraderie amongst your staff, so that they take as much pride in their work as you do.

Chef Pelin is the head chef and owner of two very well-known establishments in Istanbul. Not only is she extremely talented, but she has fostered this community and familial bond amongst her staff by integrating herself in every aspect of the business and leading by example. Similarly to Chef Can Oba, she runs back of house, front of house, financials and shrink reports, on top of cooking during service and encouraging active participation of staff to come up with new rotating seasonal dishes with the highest quality goods from the market that day. 

Lucca | Bebek, Istanbul

In Istanbul, topnotch service is a huge point of pride at dining establishments. You can frequent a space and see the same waitstaff, the family and heart, of the restaurant year after year. Chef Pelin's restaurant, Lucca, is the go-to hot spot for all of Istanbul's artist, food industry, and creative community. Even though it is one of the most chic, beautiful scenes to be a part of on any given night, it still holds that community, neighborhood vibe. From a marketing perspective, it behooves you to create this cohesive brand and community amongst your staff to have pride in your establishment. Not only do they create a consistent and enjoyable experience, but your staff is also the last touch point of your brand with the customer.

Fez Cafe | Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

3. VIP Performance

I'm a strong believer that some of the world's smartest business people work at street markets like the Grand Bazaar. With jovial banter, attempts at speaking foreign languages, and generous discounts thrown your way, your interaction with purchasing is more of a dance than a straight transaction. 

With every sale, that local shop owner creates a feeling that you, and only you, are going to make or break their shop and it would be to your utmost advantage to buy from them — look at this quality! Have you seen anything like this? No one will offer you a better price! I'll throw in this for the lovely lady. This courtship creates a VIP experience at every turnstile. Even though you're not foolish to believe every compliment thrown your way, you can't help but buy from the owner who really reads your personality, mentioning that he'll throw in a discount on this dish ware for your mother as you buy a tea set for yourself. 

As a business person in your own establishment, reading your customers and understanding their personalities can win you a great amount of trust. Taking an interest in someone, beyond just the straight transaction, forms this VIP experience which will undoubtedly give you the advantage of the up-sell in the moment but it will also create repeat customers and great word-of-mouth. This is why, out of all of the coffee shops in Grand Bazaar, I never go anywhere but Fez Cafe. Seriously, get the Turkish coffee there as the coffee platter also comes with lemon water, liquor, and a turkish delight. 

House Cafe | Ortaköy, Istabul

The next time you're sitting along the sea, enjoying your çay (tea), remember why that experience means so much to you. Of course you're on an exciting trip and that's always a bonus, but how can you bring that magical feeling back home? Hospitality standards and genuine, authentic experiences are not bound to vacations.