13 Years of Life Fighting for Dreams

Being female may mean that you have to work harder than men as sexism exists even in the most so-called modern developed countries

An Interview with Suzan Helvaci, a Femigrant from Turkey,

Owner of Lale Restaurant

Tell us a little bit about yourself (where are you originally from? When did you come to the USA?)

Suzan Helvaci Sarikurt, 35, a Femigrant from Turkey. I came to the US in 2005 to study. After completing my masters in double majors, Organizational Psychology and Marriage and Family Therapy, I worked in the non-profit sector as a mental health therapist.

How did you decide to open your business? Tell us about your business please.

I have always loved food, cooking and hosting guests at my house. My family are foodies in sense that they produced their own food: raising and butchering their own animals, growing their own vegetable and fruits. I grew up in an environment where we ate homemade sausages, the milk was fresh from our cows, the eggs were picked up every day from the barn and fruits were turned into homemade jams or fruit juices and jarred. So, I’ve always appreciated real food that’s made from scratch, fresh and clean. And I really really love Mediterranean cuisine: simple, flavorful and very healthy.

Eventually, I realized that I wanted to cook and serve for more people than the house parties at my home. So, opening a restaurant became an idea, which turned into a dream and stayed that way for at least 7-8 years. My menu was ready seven years before the restaurant was actually open J While I was doing my studies and working as a therapist, I always kept the light alive for my dream, and tried to stay positive that one day the dream would become a reality.

 I wanted people to have a clean and fresh experience in a restaurant setting, eating meals prepared from scratch. And, of course, prepared with love and warm hospitality. My restaurant is extension of my house and hospitality is as important as the food is.

“When we were preparing and tasting the menu, I remember entering the kitchen covering my nose, taking a bite from the dish and running to the bathroom. These symptoms lasted for a few months. The anxiety and stress of opening a business and being a first-time mom is something that I will never forget.”

My restaurant, LaLe, is not only a commercial space for me, but also my home where I spent 70-80 hours per week, like many small business owners.

We cook American Mediterranean-Turkish cuisine and serve daily brunch with Mediterranean-Turkish dinners. We prep and cook a lot from scratch and our customers are really happy when they are enjoying our homemade orange jam.

What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?

We were inexperienced: just normal people with no networking ties in the restaurant business in an expensive and competitive market such as San Francisco. We did not have big investors or venture capitalists to fund us and we did construction as rookies (which was eye-opening).

On top of everything, we learned that we were expecting just before the opening month, and the first few months of my pregnancy were very challenging. When we were preparing and tasting the menu, I remember entering the kitchen covering my nose, taking a bite from the dish and running to the bathroom. These symptoms lasted for a few months. The anxiety and stress of opening a business and being a first-time mom is something that I will never forget. If I endured those times, I can endure anything I guess J

Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?

Budgeting is a very critical in every entrepreneurship journey. You should save and manage your funds very carefully when opening a business. If you plan to spend $1000 for project, it often ends up costing more.

In many self-help resources, they advise that you save a few months’ worth of expenses on the side, and this is hugely important advice. You don’t get thousands of people lined up at your door on the first day of the business, so you have to be prepared for the ups and downs. Even as your business picks up over time, don’t become complacent and snobby. Restaurant businesses can be very fragile and sensitive to different factors. One week you may have people waiting in line to be seated; another week, you may have the space half empty. Too much rain, too much sunshine, the time of the month, etc. can have a negative impact on your business. For me, the lesson is always to stay humble and grateful. I have seen the very difficult times, so I know that carefully managing finances is critical.  It is always a huge benefit to have support from friends and family, if possible. For me, having supportive people around me was a blessing for which I am grateful.

How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?

When you love what you are doing, it makes it easier to stay motivated for sure. Keeping myself fresh and curious about what else we can do, what new dishes we can prepare and serve, etc. keeps me active and engaged.

Engaging with our customers is very motivating as many would comment on their satisfaction with our cooking. I have heard great stories where people would praise a dish for reminding them of their childhood and grandmother’s cooking and share memories as they are enjoyed our tender lamb shank with okra dish. Or someone would say that our homemade orange jam took them to their mothers’ cooking and jam-making at their house. And I take great pleasure when I hear people comment that dishes taste clean and fresh, or when they ask for an ingredients list because they are watching out for certain foods. We can answer these requests promptly and accommodate our customers’ needs since we cook from scratch as much as possible.

Sometimes, when I am tired and overwhelmed, a customer’s’ positive comment is enough to give me the boost I need to wake up at 4 am and start cookingJ

If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

I would manage the funds better during the renovation and opening stage. Prioritizing your needs and allocating the funds frugally is very important.

Running a business has many tenets nowadays, so it is not enough just to have good food. Having an active social media presence is an important factor for new businesses, so I would have put more energy and emphasis on social media exposure, but it’s not that easy when you are already running 10-15 hours daily shift and trying to manage hundreds of tasks: kitchen, customers, a clogged bathroom, a catering proposal, bills to pay, bookkeeping, payroll, filling taxes, dealing with a leaking roof, etc.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female immigrant entrepreneurs?

In my experience, as an immigrant, you are already starting the game 1-0 disadvantaged compared to natives. And I have this experience in my family, where we have been immigrants before, too. On top of this, being female may mean that you have to work harder than men as sexism exists even in the most so-called modern developed countries. Working hard and being persistent is very important to bring the game to 1-1 as an immigrant.  

For many women, especially single moms, this process can be very difficult. Having a supportive network of family and friends is vital for Femigrants. I have seen women immigrants who closed their restaurant business after six months because they were tired and worn out with a lack of support. In my case, I am very lucky that I have a devoted husband who is by my side every single step of the way, whether it’s a challenge or a victory, and a loving family who has helped with raising our baby.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women?

Nowadays, life is more complex in all dimensions in my view. Running a business is more complex compared to the old days, too. It is competitive, which has its own pros and cons, and everything is more and more expensive.

Suzan Helvaci, Femigrant from Turkey

If you were a Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?

Entrepreneurship starts as a dream and, hopefully, transforms into a plan and real project. Dreaming about it, planning it, outlining it and actualizing it can be very demanding, stressful, nerve-wracking and consuming. And when we actually do it (when I opened the doors of my restaurant, in my case), the task of actualizing the dream is not completed, but just beginning. We can get into a falsified sense of “yay done” mode, but this does not mean that we shouldn’t celebrate and pat ourselves on the back for our achievements, of course.

What I am trying to say is that in this stage, you are just about to begin the real deal. You need to have an informed understanding that you will be working very hard, with no days off, for months and months.  You will be there on the premises no matter what and you don’t have the luxury to slack, pause, etc. (at least I didn’t). Patience, working hard and gratitude for what you have are three golden rules for success. And of course, knowing your main motive is highly important, especially in the early stages. In my case, I did not expect to become rich in six months, and if monetary gain were my main motive, I would have given up a long time ago. Enjoying what you are doing is the key and that keeps you going every day.

Do you have any favorite quote that you think might inspire Femigrants?

I try to practice gratitude every day, and to remember yesterday, learn from it and be positive for tomorrow. I like to be a realistic dreamer who is not afraid to get my hands dirty in order to get the job done. Staying humble and grounded helps me maintain my focus and balance my work and personal life.

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