Real People: Esendemir Sisters from Flatbread Grill
Glitter recently sat down with the Esendemir Sisters, owners of Flabread Grill, to talk about how they got into the business, what it’s like to work with each other, how social media helped grow their stores, and their advice for teens wanting to open up their own business. Read on to find out more about this extremely talented sisters and entrepreneurs!
GLITTER: Why did you decide to open up Flatbread Grill together?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: We opened Flatbread Grill because we wanted to take our destiny into our own hands and take care of our sick parents who could no longer work. Our older sister, Fusun, was laid off from her job for taking too much time off to care for our parents and she decided to go into business for herself. Fusun told Arzu, our younger sister who had just graduated from college, her dream was to open up a restaurant, and Arzu decided to help her, then they asked Gonca, the middle sister, who was still in college. We grew up and worked in the restaurant industry, so we had prior knowledge of how things work. Also, starting a restaurant combined two of our favorite things: food and family.
GLITTER: What’s it like working with your sisters? Do you think you could do it on your own or do each of you have strengths that make Flatbread Grill such a success?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: Working together as sisters can be tough some days because we disagree a great deal. We are all very independent and strong willed, but we compromise and make decisions based on what’s best for the family and for the business. It can be fun and exciting as well, even on the tough days, because we can cheer each other up, crack jokes, talk about whatever we want, etc. We can lighten each other’s load and share each other’s pain, joy, and help each other problem solve. We always agree on one thing: if we were not building Flatbread Grill together, we probably would not be doing it at all. When you own and operate a restaurant, you have to be ten different people at once because there are so many moving parts. Each of us brings individual, powerful skills to the table and if one sister lacks a certain skill, then another sister makes up for it. Our combined skills and strengths really does contribute to the success of the business. You basically have three different personalities with different strengths, but we all share the same family values, as well as the same work ethic, and in the end- that is what has contributed to us moving the business forward. Even if we disagree on a menu item or a ceiling color- we always agree about getting up every day and getting things done no matter what the task at hand may be.
GLITTER: Describe a daily day for you and your sisters.
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: Our days tend to run anywhere from 14-18 hours. We have two types of days. We have the days of working in the restaurant and then we have the days of building the restaurant. The days we work in the restaurant, we wake up, get dressed, and focus on doing morning prep work, which involves a whole lot of baking, chopping, sautéing, grilling, and cooking. The first few hours of our morning is spent preparing for the lunch rush. Sometimes, if we have a catering order, we have to come in a couple of hours earlier to do extra preparation for that specific order. After all the prep work is finished, then, the fun begins! The mayhem starts. A lunch rush can last two to three hours, but sometimes, it feels like an eternity. It’s non-stop filling orders, cooking, plating, and if we run out of anything in between- we have to replenish, including baking more bread. You don’t get a second to breathe or take a bathroom break, you just keep going until every single ticket has been fulfilled. After the madness of a lunch rush is over, we take a short break, but it’s not really a break because we have to prepare for the dinner rush. Some days, we are lucky if we get to eat sitting down. Generally, we eat really quickly standing up and then get back to serving customers. Some days, especially on the weekends during the warmer months, we don’t really get a break because it’s just non-stop all day with customers. In between cooking, serving, cleaning up, doing dishes, taking orders, etc.- we are also fielding emails and taking care of the ‘business’ side. There is a great deal of multi-tasking. With building out the new store, our days are spent meeting with vendors, making construction site visits, picking out equipment, planning the layout, designing the new menu, planning the grand opening, and finalizing all the design details, like picking out floor tiles, paint colors, furniture, fixtures, etc. We are involved in every single aspect of our business. We have some days where we get invited to do speaking gigs or have a media interview, but those we usually fit in around our work schedule. It’s always family, work, and then everything else, in that order.
GLITTER: What type of food do you serve?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: At Flatbread Grill, we serve fresh and healthy Mediterranean inspired gourmet salads, soups, platters, sandwiches, and sides all paired with our specialty flatbreads, which we bake on premise. Our menu items and our original bread recipes are inspired by traditional Turkish cuisine we ate growing up. We have something for everyone on the menu, including a full coffee and espresso bar, plus dessert options. We don’t serve anything we wouldn’t eat. For our new location in Hoboken, we are also working on a seasonal pop-up menu, which will give us more freedom to be creative with our menu options.
GLITTER: Have you and your sisters done every job in the restaurant? If so, what would you say is the hardest?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: We are proud to say that we have done every single job, from what may seem like the most menial (i.e. taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, taking orders, mopping the floors, serving the customers, etc.), to the most important- which is preparing the food. Cooking for hundreds of people at a time has been the hardest because most of the time, there are only two of us in the kitchen with no line cooks to help. We make everything to order, so when you have a hundred people walk in together- let’s just say that it takes a great deal of strength to make it through that with your sanity intact. Also, the kitchen gets extremely hot in the summer, and with the humidity, we are pretty much working inside of a sauna. It’s so hot that the fire inspector came in one day and couldn’t take the heat long enough to do a full inspection. He had to go outside and take a break, then come back in again. It gets tough and you don’t really get to take any breaks. Customers want their food and it’s your job to get it to them as quickly as possible.
GLITTER: Who has been your most memorable customer and why?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: This is a really tough one for us to answer because we have had so many memorable experiences with our customers! It has to definitely be the kids and teenagers who were our most memorable. We had the middle schoolers who spread the word about us to their teachers and parents. Then, we had the kids who we watched grow up. The kids and teenagers were the first ones to catch on to us and they became our biggest fans. They were so passionate about our food and they became our biggest fans. We had so many memorable experiences with them and they supported us with fan art, love, and loyalty- it was so unexpected. They made the whole experience so pleasurable and fun. They were the ones who left us with the fondest memories and experiences. They were just so appreciative of what we do and our restaurant that they made us feel loved. It’s hard to forget feeling that kind of love and passion from your customers.
GLITTER: What is the future for Flatbread Grill?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: We are very, very focused on growing and expanding Flatbread Grill worldwide. Food has the power to change lives. We are focused and committed to making sure that anyone, no matter what their socioeconomic background, can enjoy great tasting and healthy food. There are a great deal of healthy and trendy food concepts popping up that are charging prices the working class cannot afford to pay and that makes us even more determined to grow. The more we grow, the more we can make sure that even the marginalized populations can enjoy our food, so expanding is very important to us now. We also feel a great sense of responsibility to positively impact the communities we open up in by giving back in some way. Also, as the brand grows, we want to help other entrepreneurs who come from less than ideal circumstances by offering them mentoring opportunities. Expanding through international franchising is at the top of our to-do list, as well as expanding our brand into retail. We are also working on setting up a foundation that will be a consolidation of charitable efforts on our part that not only focuses on providing learning and funding opportunities to other entrepreneurs, but also helps provide resources to those who are living in adverse circumstances. It’s our dream to use Flatbread Grill as a vessel to empower, motivate, and inspire others.
GLITTER: As female entrepreneurs, do you see any setbacks?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: We deal with quite a bit of sexism and criticism that is directed at us because we are in a male dominated industry. It’s frustrating because many vendors and people we encounter don’t know how to do business with us or react to us strangely because they just are not used to seeing women owning and operating restaurants. On top of being young women business owners, we have so much else working against us, including our socioeconomic background (we grew up really poor). We don’t like to feel inhibited by our gender. It makes other people uncomfortable sometimes to do business with young women, but we still forge ahead, no matter what the challenge. We don’t ever let anything hold us back.
GLITTER: How did you take adversity and turn it into opportunity?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: We made a conscious decision to use our story, including our tough upbringing, as well as all the setbacks, challenges, obstacles, and difficulties to inspire, empower, and motivate others. Growing up poor and watching our parents work so hard helped to really instill a drive and work ethic in us that you cannot buy or acquire. The type of drive an ambition that was instilled in us really helped to push us forward and all the difficulties built a foundation for us to inspire other people. There really is great power in being able to inspire people. When people look to us as an example and decide to fight for their dreams because we fought for ours- well, that in itself is an amazing opportunity to contribute positively to this world.
GLITTER: Has social media helped you grow your business and quickly?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: We started our business before social media took off the way it has. Facebook was still being used mostly by college students, Twitter was just getting launched, and Instagram was nowhere near being a reality. Smartphones didn’t even exist yet! We relied on word of mouth and in order for word of mouth to work, we had to deliver a exceptional product and customer experience. In a way that made us stronger, because we had no money for marketing and we relied solely on our customers to spread the word about us, so everything we did had to be executed with excellence. We jumped on the social media train really late because we were so entrenched in our work. Our website had ‘COMING SOON’ on the front page for like a year before we even had one designed and developed. Now, we use social media every single day and we are on almost every major social media outlet. It’s helping us move ahead much faster and helping us gain more exposure, so that’s a plus, but more importantly, it is allowing us to share our story. It is truly amazing how many people we can reach now as opposed to when we first opened. It’s kind of exhilarating for us because now we can also stay connected to our customers and potential customers! It is a wonderful feeling.
GLITTER: Where do you plan to open up additional Flatbread Grill locations and when can we see them rolling out across the US?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: We will start our expansion plan in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, since it’s familiar territory for us, then hopefully move out to the west coast, go international, and make our way back to the smaller markets in the US. We are actually behind on our plans because we hit a major delay with our Hoboken location. We hired the wrong contractor and that ended up delaying our construction for about three months. However, once the Flatbread Grill in Hoboken opens- then we can roll out more locations. There was a bit of pressure to go faster with our expansion plans and we even toyed around with the idea of opening up two stores at once, but we would rather move at a comfortable pace than risk growing faster than we can handle. The food industry is a very volatile industry and it’s better to pace yourself. By 2016, you should see our expansion plans coming to light. Our plan is to grow continuously over an extended period of time and to keep growing.
GLITTER: What are your goals for 2015 and 2016?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: Well our biggest goal is getting our Hoboken, NJ store open! It has been a challenging experience, but we are almost there. Once it opens, we will be focused on getting our operations streamlined, working out the kinks, promoting it, etc. while we simultaneously launch our franchise company. Then, it’s on to scouting out the next location, which will be in NYC. 2016 will hopefully (fingers crossed) see our first few franchise sales as well as an NYC location locked down. We will also work on raising capital for our next few stores because up until now, we have been internally funded. We also hope to get our foundation off the ground, do more speaking engagements, and we really want to put out a cookbook, so we will make time for that somehow.
GLITTER: What advice do you have for teens that want to start their own business, but don’t know where to start?
ESENDEMIR SISTERS: First, don’t ever let anyone tell you anything is impossible. Anything is possible just as long as you are committed to working towards it. Second, arm yourself with knowledge. Read books, study the industry you want to open your business up in, and find out everything you can about it. Third, work, work, work! Developing a great work ethic not only allows you to build strength and character, but also helps you acquire skills. Starting and running a business may seem very glamorous, but it is a great deal of work. It’s not impossible, but you need to prepare yourself for the work involved because when you are first starting out, you don’t have the luxury of hiring many people to help you, unless somehow, you have a significant amount of money at your disposal, but even then, you don’t want to overspend on your labor force. Find internships, apply for jobs, and write down your ideas. Write down every single idea you have even if it’s crazy and seems very far-fetched. We go back to our journals from high school and we were sitting around planning all the businesses we would open someday and they involved an upscale night club with fire eaters to a giant restaurant built like a palace to a glow in the dark cafe. You will be amazed at what can grow out of your crazy ideas. Even now, we are always coming up with ideas, even if we never plan on executing them. We actually won a business plan competition when we were in high school and started an e-commerce business when we were teenagers, so if you want to start young, start young. Also, don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Use them as fuel to grow. You will encounter many setbacks, challenges, and obstacles. Find a way to get through them instead of giving up or feeling hopeless because that’s the way true leaders evolve. No matter what you are going through, keep your head up. We were all bullied pretty badly in high school and were made fun of for being smart, but that never stopped us from reading more books or trying to accomplish more. Lastly, do not EVER give up. With hard work, determination, and perseverance- you will be so amazed at what you can accomplish!