Several different people have walked into my café and exclaimed that they too wanted to open a café Many of these people have never even worked in a café So, for them especially I want to write about some of the realities of running a café
First of all, since this is my own business, I work a LOT. Seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day. Sometimes 15 or 16 hours a day if there is an event. Mostly I enjoy it, but I get very tired after the really long days.
What do I do in the café? Everything. I was raised having to be in charge of my younger siblings while our mother worked. I remember her instructing me over the phone how to make rice pudding– when I was 12. My father baked bread and made the best lemon meringue pie. They both made pancakes. My mother baked cookies and cakes but always said she could not do pies. Later I was a young hippie mother and made everything, even tofu once (it was not as good as the boughten tofu). I baked 12 loaves of bread at a time for sale and for trade. My kids grew up eating homemade wholewheat bread with homemade jam on it. They started life with a vegetarian mother, but that changed after their father slipped them meat. I decided anyway that I did not have a good reason to be vegetarian other than that my friends were. At any rate, we ate what I cooked and baked– no opening of boxes or ordering in. Little did I know that I was preparing to open a café with home-cooked food. So, yes, I make the soups, salads, bread, cakes, pies, cookies, hot chocolate mix, pancake mix, Mrs. Mollyworth’s fake maple syrup, all of it.
Plus, I wash dishes. I load and unload the dishwasher (yes, folks, the dishes are very clean in this café). I take orders, I make the food, I deliver orders. I chat up the customers, answer tourist questions, deal with the neighbours. I keep track of money out and money in, pay the bills and the rent and the taxes.
I also hire people to help me. I have to guess when the busy days will be to know whether the helper will be actually helping or sitting around. Of course when we have a program I expect we will be busy. Usually weekends are steady, but sometimes they are slow. If a helper does not work out, I have to find a new one. I have to train each new helper. This is how you make coffee or tea, this is how you prepare a plate, this is where you put away the dishes. I have had helpers from several nationalities and ages. I have had male helpers, but I prefer girls or women, as this is a woman’s café and women tend to work better in this environment. When good helpers leave, I am very sad and when they don’t work out I feel no compunction at letting them go.
Sometimes I have to deal with dodgy people. I fend off the odorous almost street people, I stand up to the guys who I don’t trust. I send off the men who ask for nescafe who would put off my real customers. I scold people who try to be mean to the street cats that I feed. I don’t often have unhappy customers (that I know of), but if there should be a complaint I deal with it calmly and politely, venting later.
Someone asked me recently what I did for a social life. Well, folks, this is it. By the end of the day I am not usually ready to go out. Lying on the couch and watching television sounds better to me, as I know there will be another long day coming.
Some customers ask if I speak Turkish. Yes, I do. It is not perfect, but it is enough for dealing with customers and bureaucrats. I could not do this if I did not speak the language. Plus it allows me to enter the culture more. In addition, it means I am not constantly asking a Turkish person to go with me to the various bureaucracies. However, I am still not very good on the phone, so sometimes I ask someone to help me then.
As I was in the process of reopening my café this time, some people asked what my ‘concept’ was. I found it an irritating question. To me, the idea of a concept is that you are creating something artificial. Here, with the open brick walls, the exposed electric cables, and the cement floors, I joke that my concept is industrial home. However, I would say that this café, like my other locations, is organic. People give me things, I get things second or third or fifth hand, and I fit them all in together to make a comfortable environment where I hope people feel at home. If anything, that is my concept. On the other hand, a customer was recently telling me about his friend who had spent $350,000 on decorating a café, including $400 door handles on the bathrooms. To me, this is excessive. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend and I have found over the years that I can do a lot with a little.
One American woman came in saying she wanted to open a café on the Aegean. She had visited Turkey often, but she had never lived here. I advised her to live for at least a year where she wanted to open a café. That way she would have time to learn the language and know the people. Someone had told her that there were lots of expats in the town she was thinking of, but what did that mean? 20? 1000? And would they want to go to a café she might open? I could make my café go because I had been here for ten years already and I knew a lot of people from work and from the house parties I used to give. And since I have been in Galata since 2002, I know the local people and they know me. On this new street I am getting to know the ‘esnaf’, the other businesspeople, and that also is an important component.
I have seen many places open that the owner renovates and then staffs with cooks and waiters, expecting to sit around and get rich. However, often the customers do not come and the doors close permanently in a short time. If the owner does not deign to get in and get his or her hands involved, failure is much more of an option.
Risk is the name of this game anyway. ‘Build it and they will come’ may work for some, but it is highly unlikely. I am lucky in that I have a particular niche (homemade non Turkish food) and that I have a lot of friends and a wide customer base, built up over a few years. But still there is a risk. Customers are capricious and the economy or the political situation could go south at any time. My feeling, based on my days as a poor university student, is that people can always afford a cup of coffee, though that will not necessarily keep my doors open! Ultimately, life is a risk and we jump in or not. I have jumped many times, not always successfully.
I wrote in another blog about the process of setting up a limited şirket. However, there are other hoops to jump through, one of the biggest being getting a permit from the municipality. Truthfully, of the five years I have had my café, I have had a hard-won permit for only six months. I am in the process of trying to get one again. Ach! The manager of the permit department pointed to a large white spot on his map of Beyoğlu and informed me that it was under the aegis of the government and the people in his department had been instructed not to issue permits. Around the time I was visiting that department, several hotels in the neighbourhood were being closed down. Why? No one seems to know for sure, aside from the fact that they did not have permits. Since I rent my space from one of those hotels, I am hoping that they bring their influence to bear and that it has a positive effect on my café In the meantime, the hotels on my street have taken down their signs, but mine is still up. The last time I went to the belediye (the municipality) I asked the manager yet again what to do and he gave me his phone number, though I had to ask someone else his name. So I am playing the waiting game again and hoping they do not get mean and close me down.
There is a very romantic concept of having a café, that you as the owner will graciously welcome customers and please them with little effort on your part. This is absolutely not true. You have to work hard and sometimes that includes being nice to people you don’t like (luckily that does not happen often). One thing I really like is introducing people to each other so they can meet new, usually interesting people. Many years ago I wanted to have a place where interesting people would come and interact and I am fortunate that my café has become that reality.