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“It’s Not a Business, it’s a Lifestyle” — Advice from a Restaurateur

by Dakota Kim

“It’s Not a Business, it’s a Lifestyle” — Advice from a Restaurateur

Chef Fisun Ercan is the owner and chef of two Turkish fine dining restaurants in Montreal, Su and Barbounya. We talked with her about taking the plunge and starting a restaurant.

You had a catering business before you opened your restaurants. Would you say the restaurant business is harder?

It’s different. I started catering when I was 32. I wanted to work at restaurants but at that age I didn’t feel comfortable working as an apprentice. I didn’t have any experience working in restaurants, so nobody would give me credit for what I already knew.

Working as a caterer, I learned a lot about how to organize the kitchen, make menus, and check customer satisfaction. When you are catering, if you don’t want to work one weekend, you don’t have to. But if you have a restaurant and don’t have a strong team, you have to be there. You cannot say at 5 pm., “Oh, today it didn’t go well, so we are not ready.” The show must go on. Even if there’s an earthquake, when the doors are open, you should be ready. Of course that is more stressful.

Any advice for those who want to open a restaurant?

Don’t do it! [laughs]. For me, the restaurant business is not a business, it’s not work, it’s a lifestyle — a very, very demanding lifestyle. Food is always important, but a lot of people are doing very similar things, and there is no guarantee that you are going to attract your customer. Today, if I were in my 20s, I would focus on building up my experience instead of opening a restaurant.

For me, the restaurant business is not a business, it’s not work, it’s a lifestyle — a very, very demanding lifestyle. Food is always important, but a lot of people are doing very similar things, and there is no guarantee that you are going to attract your customer.

How do you stay profitable as a business owner while being true to your vision as a chef?

In my case, I was a business woman before I became a chef. I had experience managing teams. I began my career twenty years ago with a marketing and PR job. I studied economics and finance and worked as a computer programmer. So I know how to delegate and manage.

When I opened my restaurant, everyone said it would be more marketable if I called it a “grill restaurant” or “Mediterranean” instead of “Turkish.” I said no. “I am making Turkish cuisine,” I said.  “I am making something special, interesting, different, so I will work harder to bring the concept to customers.”

I believe in adapting, not making harsh maneuvers, and in being open-minded. Originality is important for survival.

How do you excel at customer service, one of the most important elements of a restaurant’s success?

I strongly believe in training – when we hire a waiter, they may be coming with experience, but they don’t know our concept. Some people come and don’t want to follow the concept. Who’s going to convince the customers, me? If the wait staff is not strong enough, doesn’t have enough knowledge about your concept, and if they say to the customers, “I know you are right but Chef says do it this way,” it’s a problem. The staff must have good training and must believe in the concept so that they can sell the concept along with the food and the drinks.

Dakota Kim is a freelance journalist covering the arts, style, business, food and travel. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Huffington Post, Bedford + Bowery, The Wall Street Transcript, and various in-flight magazines. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.