Business Matters: Bringing Istanbul to Kakaako

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HONOLULU (KHON2) — Ahu Hettema found her happy place in Kakaako.

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A native of Turkey, she wound up in Hawaii by way of California. But she was still somewhat lost until she reconnected with her roots through food.

“We started cooking so much because it was so fun,” said restaurant owner and chef Ahu Hettema.”So I started to give food to our neighbors and our friends and they were the ones who told us we have to open a tent at the farmers’ market.”

It turns out, there’s an incredible hunger for her Turkish inspired dishes.

“We just started with one tent and that turned into two, and two tents turned into four and we realized we needed a commercial kitchen. It’s not gonna work out just in a small place,” she explained.

Today, that commercial kitchen is the heart of her new restaurant called Istanbul. With her mom and dad with her in the kitchen, they serve up all of their favorite dishes to a full house every single night.

But building her dream did not come easy.

“We found out this commercial kitchen was expensive as the restaurant. Then we said, ‘Why don’t we just get a restaurant?’ Because then we could feel like people are coming to our home.”

That new home is a spectacular facility in one of Kakaako’s premiere high-rise buildings.

But though the space is surrounded by luxury, she initially started with nothing more than an empty shell.

“We didn’t even have walls here. I designed the whole place with my husband,” she revealed. “People come and say there’s so much detail in this place because we built it ourselves.”

Her design includes an open kitchen where people can feel like they’re part of the family.

For Ahu, family is everything.

Her general manager is the newest adopted member of her family–an unexpected partnership that blossomed from a Turkish dance class.

“Last year, I did Turkish nights,” said general manager Murat Demirtas. “It was a great event. We had a lot of people, and Ahu and her family brought all the food. The food was fantastic. I met with them at Turkish nights.”

That meeting led to an invitation to join Ahu and her family at Instanbul, where they work to create the same homey feel that they enjoyed at the farmers’ market.

Although Istanbul has barely been open for three months, and they’ve endured two separate shutdowns, the restaurant is sold out nightly. Reservations usually fill up three to four days in advance.

It’s something Ahu attributes to a heavy helping of Aloha.

“We didn’t expect to get this far but thanks to people, especially local people, who support us every single day. It’s not easy to own a business as a family, a woman, an immigrant. But Hawaii is so beautiful and so welcoming,” said Hettema.

“We are very lucky because the food is fantastic. The location is fantastic and the people that come here are fantastic. So everything together is just perfect,” said Demirtas.

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