INSIDE DISH: Cafe bolsters base of Turkish food fans

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Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”

Our subject this week is The Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe, the Middle Eastern eatery just south of downtown that has served as a de facto American home for owner Orhan Demirtas. The native of Turkey started working for the restaurant as a server on his third day in America (Oct. 9, 2002), and since then has taken over the restaurant and broadened its footprint and audience with a sister café.

Demirtas, 39, purchased the restaurant from its original owner, Tayfun Isik, in 2006 after serving what amounted to an apprenticeship over four years. “I learned everything; I was here more than the owner,” he said. “Other people were thinking I was the owner.”

With the reins in hand, Demirtas was able to trigger several improvements. He applied for a beer-and-wine permit (which runs about $1,200 a year), expanded both the kitchen and the front patio (about $13,000 total), and brought in even more Turkish art objects to decorate the interior.

Improvements to the top line included establishing a catering relationship with Eli Lilly and Co., whose headquarters is located just across East Street. Currently, Bosphorus makes lunches for between 60 and more than 100 people per day, for sale in Lilly campus cafeterias four days a week. The relationship brings in roughly $48,000 in sales annually—about a quarter of Bosphorus’ $196,000 in gross sales for 2010.

Early this year, Demirtas realized a long-held dream to open a hookah bar and breakfast café in the building directly south of Bosphorus. Wary of taking on the management responsibilities and spreading himself too thin, he found a silent partner who would contribute financially and take charge of running the business.

Demirtas and his partner spent $80,000 to purchase the building, and another $100,000 to renovate and decorate its four separate levels. The first level is devoted to a café-style restaurant, and the three higher levels (arranged in ascending zig-zag fashion like mezzanine levels from a central staircase) are decorated and outfitted as plush lounge areas with a deep red color scheme. Patrons can partake in smoking hookahs—water pipes with sweetened tobacco.

“At the beginning, it was slow of course,” Demirtas said. “We never expected that everybody will jump immediately. … We still are spending money from our pocket for expenses. It’s not breaking even yet, but it’s still just two months.”

Bosphorus Istanbul Café, which operates independently from the new Bosphorus Hookah Bar & Turkish Breakfast, is a break-even enterprise at the moment, Demirtas said. He draws a salary from the restaurant, considered part of its overall expenses.

“I think we are going something good, that we are still standing and I am supporting my family,” he said.

In the video at top, Demirtas discusses his work over the years to diversify the restaurant's offerings and revenue stream, as well as the development of the new breakfast cafe and hookah bar. 

The Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe
935 S. East St.
(317) 974-1770
Concept: Authentic Turkish cuisine that also borrows from Greek and other Middle Eastern traditions. The Bosphorus Hookah Bar & Turkish Breakfast, 937 S. East St., a sister eatery and lounge, opened next door with common ownership on Jan. 21.
Founded: August 2002
Owner: Orhan Demirtas, a former server at Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe who purchased the restaurant business from its founder in 2006 for $60,000. Demirtas has since purchased the restaurant property for $155,000.
Sister restaurant: Demirtas and a silent partner purchased the building directly south of Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe in summer 2010 for $80,000, and then spent $100,000 renovating and decorating the space for what would become The Bosphorus Hookah Bar & Turkish Breakfast.
Gross sales for 2010: $196,000 (Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe)
Employees: 8 (Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe); 6 (Bosphorus Hookah Bar & Turkish Breakfast).
Seating: 70 (Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe); 50 (Bosphorus Hookah Bar & Turkish Breakfast, including hookah lounge).
Goals: To grow sales at Bosphorus Hookah Bar & Turkish Breakfast.
Good to know: Catering to Eli Lilly and Co. cafeterias accounts for about one-quarter of Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe's annual gross sales.

  • Fantastic place!
    I love the food here and the service is always top-notch!

    I do wish that Orhan would get his website up and running again. It's been down for weeks, if not longer. I have referred multiple people to the restaurant, but they are sometimes reluctant to go without seeing a menu first.
  • I know why the Imam fainted!
    Orhan is the consummate host. The food is delectable. The appetizer platter for two is a great way to introduce your friends to many small meze. Iskender is my favorite dish. Tonight I tried their Imam Bayildi (translated as "The Imam Fainted" and it was indeed, faint-worthy. The raisins were a sweet surprise! All these reasons make this the top restaurant for bringing out-of-town guests. Best wishes to the Bosphorus!
  • Dangers of Hookah
    Some seem to think that hookah is safer than regular cigar/cigarette smoking, but it's actually more dangerous. Know before you go. Read this piece from Mayo Clinic - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hookah/AN01265
  • Bosphorus Cafe
    Congratulations to Orhan from the book lady! Everything is tasty at the Bosphorus.
  • Lezzetli!
    Means "Delicious" and it is! Best lamb and hummus, and of course, Orhan, is the definition of Fine Host!
  • Delicious!
    They have an eggplant casserole that is so delicious it nearly brought tears to my eyes. Definitely recommend going there!
  • Awesome Place
    Love this place! Food and people are awesome!
  • excellent
    I love this restaurant. The staff are so friendly and efficient. I would recommend that anyone visit at least once.

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