There is simply so much to love about the Esendemir Sisters. Instead of staying on a traditional path, Fusun, Arzu, and Gonca decided to take the road less traveled and fuse their respective talents together to build a team strong enough to take the service industry by storm. In just six years, this super trio has managed to go from having an idea for a restaurant to signing a deal with FranSmart to expand their business to 300 different locations around the globe. In the midst of preparing for the opening of their Hoboken, NJ restaurant, these three lovely ladies took time to answer a few of our questions about their experiences so far.
Her Agenda: How did you three come up with the idea to open a restaurant?
Esendemir Sisters: The three of us came together while we were all on very different paths. Our older sister, Fusun Esendemir, was laid off from her electronic engineering job for taking too much time off in order to take care of our parents. Arzu Esendemir had just graduated from Montclair State University with a degree in Business Management and Finance, so she was trying to figure out if she should go to law school or take a job working on Wall Street. Gonca Esendemir was in her last semester of college and was really interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. Fusun wanted to open up a restaurant, so she asked Arzu, who then asked Gonca, and the rest is history!
Her Agenda: Where did the inspiration for the type of food you offer in your restaurants come from?
Esendemir Sisters: Turkish people LOVE food. Food is such a big part of our culture and we grew up in the restaurant industry, so it made sense for us all to start a business that focused on a shared passion. We took traditional Turkish food we grew up with and made it more modern and accessible. Arzu had this idea that we should bake our own breads and since flatbreads are a huge part of our culture, she decided to bake flatbreads. When we first started, many of the traditional Turkish restaurant owners made fun of us in the community, and now fast forward all these years later- most of them have attempted to copy some part of our menu, identity and operations.
Her Agenda: How did you transition into becoming an international chain?
Esendemir Sisters: We knew at some point we wanted to expand since people were coming from all over New Jersey and out of town. We knew we had something that appealed to multiple demographics. Dan Rowe, CEO of FranSmart, the world’s largest franchise development firm, was really one of the first people to encourage us to consider expanding. Dan’s acknowledgment that we had something special gave us the confidence we needed to grow. He gave us a 300-unit development contract to sign and so we signed it after deciding we definitely wanted to grow Flatbread Grill worldwide. This is our legacy and an extension of ourselves that we want to share with the world. This is our contribution. For us, seeing a Flatbread Grill in every major city across the world is about sharing something we created out of love, passion, loyalty and our family bond.
Her Agenda: You three are very active on social media, having almost 50,000 likes on your Facebook page and over 13,000 followers on Twitter. How critical is your ability to interact with your customers and fans to the strength of your business?
Esendemir Sisters: We are currently managing the ‘Esendemir Sisters’ brand and the Flatbread Grill brand via social media and even though the two overlap sometimes, it’s been tricky to keep them separate. We only started social media accounts for ‘Esendemir Sisters’ exactly a year ago around the time we were being filmed for Inc. Magazine’s web series about entrepreneurs. We felt like the timing was right to finally share our story. We had for the longest time been hesitant about aligning ourselves with the brand because we didn’t know if people would understand or even appreciate our story about why we started Flatbread Grill. We also felt a little ashamed to be coming from a background of poverty. Once we started sharing however, it caught on very quickly online and it opened up new opportunities for us and exposed us to a whole new audience. People felt inspired and motivated by our story, which in turn inspired us to keep going.
Social media is now a very important part of our business and it has allowed customers to interact with us in a way they never really interacted with the Flatbread Grill brand. The only downside of having such a large online audience is that we feel a sense of responsibility to keep putting out new, fresh, valuable content, which can be difficult because we are still trying to run a business offline. It’s nice to give people a real face behind the business that they can interact with and engage with and so far, people have appreciated it. There is so much hype and pressure to be active on social media and use it as a marketing tool but we waited until we were ready and that made a difference. Now, it’s important and critical to stay active and involved because so many different people worldwide are paying attention.
Her Agenda: What strengths do each of you have that compliments you three as a trio?
Esendemir Sisters: Fusun has always been great at handling money, balancing the books and staying organized with business affairs. She is also great with electronics, troubleshooting problems, especially when it comes to machinery. She also has great managerial skills and comes from a supervisor position. She is great in handling difficult people and since this is the service industry, we encounter difficult people all the time.
Arzu is a fearless leader who has a very strong grasp of finances, stocks and raising capital. She is great at dealing with what we call the ‘suits.’ She is a very charismatic leader who is also great at marketing and branding. She is a perfectionist, so she pays attention to details that the other two sisters often overlook. She also has strong knowledge about things like supply chain, economies of scale and international markets.
Gonca is the creative artist out of the bunch who is the point person for most of Flatbread Grill’s communication efforts. She has terrific writing skills, computer skills and design skills. She can do everything from designing a flyer, to shooting and editing a video and coming up with out of the box marketing strategies. She is really innovative and definitely a big risk-taker who isn’t afraid to venture into the unknown when it comes to implementing new marketing campaigns and strategies.
Her Agenda: Can you talk about some of the sacrifices you have had to make in order for you to pursue and achieve your dreams?
Esendemir Sisters: When we first started the business, people were always telling us we needed ‘balance.’ We quickly learned that the idea of ‘balance’ is an illusion. Sometimes, you have to go all in and commit yourself with unwavering devotion to whatever path you are on at the time you are on that path. The business, especially in its infancy, required our full commitment. There was no downplaying that it required our undivided attention, especially since it caught on so fast. However, our friends, significant others and even some family members didn’t seem to understand why we were working 18 hour days, with no days off. They kept telling us, “take time off, relax, have fun, go out,” but there was no more time for that and if there was any time, we were too exhausted to truly enjoy it. We lost friends, boyfriends, missed weddings, birthdays and basically watched many people walk out of our lives only to come back once they finally saw how successful we had become.
We have also had to temporarily sacrifice some of our own individual personal dreams for the business as it requires so much of our time and attention. When we look back on it, we have no regrets other than not being able to appreciate all of it as it was happening because we were so entrenched in the work, it was difficult to enjoy the journey. We don’t regret working so hard. The right people will always stay in your life and the ones who leave- well, let them leave. Dreams don’t come true on their own. We believe in working hard to make them a reality.
Her Agenda: When you have down time or days off, what do you enjoy doing?
Esendemir Sisters: We each have our individual hobbies and sometimes we hang out together and sometimes we just need a break from each other. We are in the service business, so sometimes we are so overwhelmed with dealing with customers that having a day off and being alone can be rejuvenating. We expend so much physical, mental and emotional energy running the business that it’s important to pull ourselves away and re-energize. It’s also important to try and socialize with our friends. Gonca likes to go for long walks by the waterfront in Hoboken. She catches up on reading, takes photos, writes and indulges her creative side. Arzu does some reading, loves cooking, goes shopping and works out. Fusun catches up on her Netflix and shops. We all get together on our days off and love trying new places to eat, get manicures and pedicures, and recently have begun working more on our personal blog, esendemirsisters.com.
Her Agenda: Do you feel that women are often not taken as seriously in business as men? Have you experienced this with your experiences in business?
Esendemir Sisters: It is extremely unfortunate, but we have experienced it firsthand- women do not get taken seriously in business. People, both men and women, really skew the focus onto things like our age and our appearance and bring things like our relationship status into the mix, instead of focusing on our skills. It’s frustrating because you can’t walk around with a sign that says: “Hey, I’m brilliant!” We have to work hard to prove ourselves and let our actions speak for themselves, but even then, people are critical.
When we received an outstanding review in the New York Times after having been open for only two months, people insinuated that we ‘got lucky’and they still do that today. We have never once gotten ‘lucky’. Every press mention, every year we survived, every customer that walked through our doors was because of our hard work and persistence.
Unfortunately, people form their opinions about women based on what they look like, and the younger you look, the more they distrust your skills. People will write us off as a novelty not knowing we can throw down hard in the kitchen or kick their butts in the business world. We still get treated with passive aggressiveness or a sense of condescension by people who don’t want to acknowledge what we do or what we have accomplished. They somehow feel like men know what they are doing and we don’t because we are women. We constantly experience people giving us unsolicited advice like we are helpless and don’t know what we are doing. Sometimes, we laugh it off and sometimes, it really frustrates us because we know it’s being women that makes us an easy target for critics. Every day for us is about doing what we love graciously and with a smile on our faces. We’re still the underdogs in our industry and we’re completely okay with that because it’s more powerful than people realize!
Her Agenda: What is your motto, and how do you try to incorporate that motto into your lives, and especially through your business?
Esendemir Sisters: We believe that working hard, being kind and staying honest pays off. There is much to be said for living a life filled with sincerity and integrity. You can never go wrong like that, no matter what is happening to you or around you. It takes courage to commit yourself to living an honest life. Our business is a reflection of our family values and how we were raised in humility by a father who taught us courage and a mother who taught us about dedication and patience. Even though we encountered much adversity growing up and even though things were bleak and hopeless at times, our parents never wavered in their goodness or kindness, thus teaching us how to do the same.
Her Agenda: What advice could you offer to young women who are looking to start businesses or simply grow professionally?
Esendemir Sisters: We always tell women and anyone really who asks us for advice in starting up a business to keep going and not to give up. It sounds so cliché but that’s the biggest thing that has contributed to our success. Every time things got tough, or things were so overwhelmingly bad or we encountered setbacks, rejection and obstacles- we didn’t give up, we just kept going. People commend us on all the achievements that look so great on paper, but to us, what make us successful is facing the challenges head on and working through them and not walking away. With every new challenge you encounter, you grow stronger. No matter how bad things get, you have to dig down deep and find your courage if you want to make something work for the long-term. Starting, running, growing and sustaining a successful business requires strength, persistence and passion.
No matter what you set out to do in this life, whether it’s to climb the corporate ladder, start a business or follow a personal goal- the key is to persist and deal with the challenges, don’t run or hide from them. You can grow and develop tremendously not only as a person, but as a leader.
And don’t ever listen to the armchair critics! There are so many people out there who will offer you unsolicited advice, criticize you or tell you that you are doing everything wrong- learn to tune them out. Do it on your own terms, not on anyone else’s. This is your life and at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own happiness and your own decisions.
We women are stronger than we realize or give ourselves credit for these days. Being successful in business requires true strength. Find yours, no matter how far down it is hidden within you. You will surprise yourself and hey, you might just end up building multi-million dollar company! We have been criticized, bullied, made fun of, rejected and written off as insignificant- we are only here because we fought for our place. You deserve anything you want in life. You just need to believe that first and then find the courage to pursue it. Don’t let anything or anyone stop you. Unleash yourself upon the world and don’t look back.
[Editor's note: This feature was published on October 20, 2014.]