272 Rise Above Poverty to Build a Worldwide Enterprise – The Esendemir Sisters

What You will Hear in The Esendemir Sisters' Story:

  • Grew Up in Poverty – How They Built Wealth
  • Building a Business to Support Family
  • From Family Business to Worldwide Enterprise
  • No Barrier to Success – A touching story
  • A Family Business’ Struggle and Success

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More about our featured guest The Esendemir Sisters

The Esendemir (pronounced A-SEND-A-MEER) Sisters are three Turkish sister who grew up in poverty and started a fast casual Mediterranean restaurant concept almost a decade ago, Flatbread Grill, that is now being expanded worldwide. They are currently working on opening their next location in Hoboken, NJ, with more locations to follow. 

Full Transcript

00:02 Joel: Welcome to ReLaunch, your daily dose of inspiring stories, fresh ideas and practical solutions to help you build a business and a life that you love. And if you are a daily listener, welcome back to the show, thank you for tuning in. And thank you for joining us in the before and the after show online conversations. And if you are new here, just know that you are among friends and here's what you can expect: Unique insights, aha moments and actionable information from self-made successes that share their trials, their tribulations and their come-from-behind… Come-from-behind rather, victories. And joining us on the show today, Pei, can you believe that we have the Esendemir Sisters on the show today? This is the first time we've actually had three people on as guests, but also three sisters, can you believe it?

01:02 Pei: I cannot wait to share their story. When I saw the commercial originally on the internet TV I'm like, “We gotta have them.”

01:12 Joel: Yeah, this is gonna be so much fun. And for those who have not yet met these three ladies, let me kind of introduce them and then we'll let them introduce themselves here in just a few minutes. But these ladies grew up in poverty in their native born country of Turkey. And since then, they have started and they have grown a casual Mediterranean dining establishment, a concept, and you might be familiar with it, it's called Flatbread Grill. And right now they're actually working on opening up their second location, but they have a lot more to share about how that concept is unfolding itself. But before we get into that, we've got to learn about the relaunch. So, Esendemir Sisters, welcome. Welcome to ReLaunch. And I'll tell you what, there's three of you, so why don't go ahead and just kind of introduce briefly yourselves. That'd probably be better than me butchering everyone's name, so go ahead.

02:14 Arzu Esendemir: Hi, I'm Arzu, I'm the youngest sister.

02:17 Fusun Esendemir: Hi, I'm Fusun, I'm the oldest sister.

02:20 Gonca Esendemir: And I am Gonca, I am the middle sister.

02:23 Joel: Gonca is the middle sister, okay, I got that. So, I'm gonna kinda feel my way through this interview as best I can. And ladies, it is a thrill to have you on and we are always excited when people are able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And we all have different circumstances and different situations, but when they are… When people are able to harness what they've been blessed and given in this life and then they're able to use it to help them build up themselves and their business, so this is going to be a fun time. And you obviously know your relaunch story better than anyone does, so I won't pretend to know what it was like for you growing up in poverty, and going through the immigration process. So, just start us wherever we need to start and we'll just go from there.

03:18 Gonca Esendemir: Well, we can actually start when we started the business.

03:25 Joel: Okay, great.

03:26 Gonca Esendemir: I think that was really our relaunch story, because we were all on very different paths at the time. And we've always been close and we've always had a really strong bond, it's just the way our parents raised us. And having grown up in poverty, we kinda established an even stronger bond because it was us against the world in way, so we needed each other for survival. So, we were all on very, very different paths at the time. I was in my last semester of college, I was working a part-time job. My intention was to graduate and be involved in the entertainment industry, or to end up being kind of like a starving artist for a while. [chuckle] And then Arzu had just graduated from college with a degree in business, and she was considering whether she was going to go on to get her MBA, if she was gonna go to law school, or if she was going to take a job working on Wall Street. And then it was really, Fusun, our older sister's story, which I'll let her tell you, but what happened to her is what actually set everything in motion.

04:42 Pei: Wow.

04:42 Fusun Esendemir: So, I was working in electronics manufacturing at the time. I went to a program for electronics engineering technologies. ‘Cause I really… I wanted to get into a field where I was so tired of not having money and I wanted to focus on a career that I can make some money for once. So, I spent my entire… I think about 10 years or so in that field, and one day I got let go from my position, because I was taking too much time off caring for my parents, taking them from doctors and hospitals. At that point I thought to myself, “I don't want my destiny being in somebody else's hands because… ” And I just had a crazy idea. I've actually had the idea of wanting my own restaurant for a really long time.

05:31 Joel: Okay, let me jump in there. Let me jump in there real quick because again, I'm not gonna pretend to understand what it was like for you at the time. But, you were the oldest of three. There's three total in your family?

05:43 Fusun Esendemir: No, it's four, we have a brother also. [chuckle]

05:45 Joel: Okay. So, were you the oldest of four? Or you were at least the oldest of the three sisters.

05:49 Fusun Esendemir: Yes.

05:51 Joel: Oh, the oldest four?

05:52 Fusun Esendemir: Oldest of four, yes.

05:53 Joel: Okay, so you were the oldest child, you were caring for parents that were ill it sounds like, yes?

06:02 Fusun Esendemir: Yes.

06:03 Arzu Esendemir: Yeah.

06:04 Joel: And so, that had to be just an incredible burden… Gosh, I don't know if that's the right word, I'm sorry. But, that had to bring with it an incredible amount of responsibility and I'm just wondering, how were you able to shoulder that responsibility like you did, but still look to entrepreneurial aspirations and wanting to do something that may be out of the status quo?

06:36 Fusun Esendemir: Well I think for me, my sense of responsibility actually started at a very young age. I came to this country when I was about four and a half years old with my mother.

06:46 Joel: Okay.

06:47 Fusun Esendemir: My dad had already, came to America. He had been here for about four years. He left Turkey when my mom was actually three months pregnant with me. So, when I came to his country, here I had to learn English. And English is my second language actually, and Turkish is my first. For me it was a matter of as I got older, I had to translate everything for my mom especially. My dad spoke a little bit of English from being here for those years but not that great. So for me, my responsibility was at a very young age. As I grew older, I found myself translating for them, as I got older writing letters for them, writing checks out for them. So for me, I never really had a chance to be a kid.

07:42 Fusun Esendemir: That taught me responsibility, and that gave me the background that I needed to be able to handle all of this. I mean, out of all the kids I'm actually the most gloomy one [chuckle] because I just went through so much at such a young age that it was really hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. But I grew up in the restaurant industry, I helped my parents. For them it was survival because if you're in a country and you don't really speak the language, you don't… What else do you do but share what you're talented at and making food was that talent to my parents.

08:23 Joel: So it's something that ran in your family and so you…

08:26 Fusun Esendemir: Yeah.

08:27 Joel: Okay. Okay, got yeah.

08:29 Pei: Do your parents have a restaurant where you all worked when you were younger?

08:36 Fusun Esendemir: In the past, yes. They've owned two different restaurants. Unfortunately it's… My mom was getting… She has a 85 pound hernia, at that time it was two… Both my sisters, they're actually 11 months apart from one another, so it was two c-sections back to back. And she never had a chance to heal.

08:56 Arzu Esendemir: We didn't have health insurance so my parents were unable to take care of a lot of their health issues early on and now it's exacerbated and they have more serious conditions now.

09:09 Gonca Esendemir: Which is one of the reasons we wanted to really do a business fast. Was going to allow us flexibility to take time off to take care of our parents if we have to. And also, our biggest goal with the business was just to be able to afford our parents' health insurance. And we were luckily able to do that even though we opened when we had absolutely no money left, 'cause we used it all trying to build the first restaurant out, and it was really word of mouth that drove the business. We ended up doing well enough to afford the health insurance. And we always tell people and it's hard for them to believe, but if we didn't open the business and we didn't get the health insurance, then my parents would definitely not be here because my father has had… He's had open heart surgery.

10:01 Gonca Esendemir: He's been in and out of the hospital about half a dozen times. My mom's been in the hospital about four times because of her condition, it's very sensitive. The smallest thing can set it off and sends her to the hospital and she needs immediate care. But especially for my father, I mean, he's got an oxygen tank. The business pays for that. If we didn't have the business and even just being able to take time off it's… My older sister, if something happens to my parents, and one of us has to leave then she doesn't have to ask for permission. She can take them to the hospital and she can stay there with them and she can watch them. And that's really important for us, that we can be there for our family.

10:42 Joel: Pei, not only do we have three highly intelligent women on the show today, but we're actually talking with three survivors here because they made it work because they had to.

10:55 Pei: Yeah.

10:55 S?: Yeah.

10:55 Gonca Esendemir: Yeah. [chuckle]

10:57 S?: Yes, that's perfect. Exactly.

11:00 Arzu Esendemir: And something that it reminded me of is sometimes I hear… And I've done that too. Say, “Hey, I'm not passionate about this project or that job.” But there are, sometimes we have to think about what are we doing this, who are we doing this for?

11:23 S?: Yes.

11:24 Arzu Esendemir: And for this family, they're doing it for each other and that is very touching.

11:29 Joel: One, they do it not only to lift their parents and to give them a quality of life that they rightfully deserve, but they also… I love how this family just bonded together and they became even closer on multiple levels. Go ahead, Pei.

11:47 Pei: And I've seen that with a lot of immigrant families, and I actually hope to see more of that in American families as well. And as an immigrant myself, I definitely see that the family bonding seem to be more in a lot of other countries.

12:05 Gonca Esendemir: Yeah, yeah, it is. It's definitely something we see a lot of too, and a lot of American families will always say to us, “Oh, you three, you live together and work together, and you take care of your parents.” It's very difficult for them to understand that because here in this country there is very much that, “Every man for themselves.” You follow a certain path, you go to school, you go to college, you move away, you start a family, and you visit your parents on the weekend or holidays. And for us, we try to see our parents almost everyday. And even with my father being sick, we have to be the ones to be there and say, “Okay, you're not well. We need to take you to the hospital,” because he's not going to do it himself. My mom can't do it for him. My mom still doesn't really speak good English. So, we have to be there for our parents. It is definitely a sense of responsibility we feel, but it's who we are. It's such a big part of what makes our business successful as well, because the business is an extension of ourselves and our family values.

13:17 Arzu Esendemir: I love that. Your business is an… That's tweetable, pay her. The business is an extension of yourself and your family. And I wanna get right into the business application. Now, how do three sisters come upon this idea of having this casual Mediterranean restaurant? How do you just go?

13:46 Gonca Esendemir: Okay, well, I'm gonna answer that. I'm gonna start answering it since the sister that should be answering you is really the star. She's having a coughing fit.


13:58 Joel: Okay.

13:59 Gonca Esendemir: Well, what happened is Fusun and Arzu, younger sister and older sister came together. I was actually not a part of this in the beginning. I was often in la-la land and with my creative and artistic dreams. And they basically rented a space, told me about it after they had already rented it, and asked me if I'd like to be a part of it, and… I'm a free spirit and I love adventure, so of course I said yes, really not knowing what was going to happen. I don't think anyone of us knew what was going to happen with this business. And I…

14:38 Arzu Esendemir: Welcome to being an entrepreneur, right?

14:40 Gonca Esendemir: Yeah. It's really fascinating now 'cause when we first started there was no… Facebook was still being used by college kids, Twitter hadn't launched just yet, they would launch the following year. There was no Instagram. It was very like we were very under the radar and now people think we've come out of the blue like, “Where did you come from?” But there's almost a decade… There's a story here that goes back almost a decade with this business. ‘Cause it was 2006 when we came up with the idea. And it was really Arzu and Fusun who sat down and went back over growing up in the industry. And just our dining out experience too. We loved food and we wanted to take traditional Turkish food and make it accessible to people, and just serve it to them in a way that they wouldn't be intimidated about trying it.

15:33 Gonca Esendemir: And Arzu said, “Well, I want us to make our own flat bread.” So we thought,” Okay, we will create the recipes, do the logo, menu design, interior design.” We did all that from scratch, and people think it was extremely calculated, but it was kind of stumbling in the dark for us because we were learning as we were going. And we weren't quite sure that it was going to work, but it actually ended up working. People really, really took to it. And I think again it's because we poured so much of ourselves into it, and so much love and passion into making it excellent and not taking shortcuts. When we started out, fresh food made to order wasn't a trend. Now, it's a huge trend in the industry and people's tastes have shifted, so they won't accept anything less than fresh food. But back then, for us, that was the only option, we were going to serve great food. And people took to it, and it was really word of mouth. Within two months of being open we had an excellent review in the New York Times, so that helped us out as well.

16:47 Joel: I was gonna say that, that couldn't hurt. [laughter] A good review, that is, couldn't hurt.

16:52 Gonca Esendemir: It was totally unexpected, and again we were young and naive. We didn't even have a website, and they linked to a website that had a, Coming soon.” And we just got busy and busier one day with lines out the door. And again, it was just the three of us. We weren't prepared for it because we were doing everything. We didn't have any…

17:15 Fusun Esendemir: We were making our bread by hand. We didn't even have a bread maker, a mixer. Everything was done individually by hand.

17:19 Pei: Wow!

17:21 Fusun Esendemir: The day after the New York Times article, we had a line out the door before we even arrived.

17:25 Joel: Wow!

17:26 Fusun Esendemir: We were running late that day.

17:28 Joel: Wait a minute. Hold on, hold on. Let me think about this. So, there's a line down the sidewalk in New York of all places, and then here comes three gals walking to work, and one person touches the other person on the sleeve and say, “Hey, look at that. I wonder what's going on.”


17:47 Fusun Esendemir: Yeah. We were like very casual about it and it still didn't occur to us that… We didn't know the article was already published. I mean, everything was just nonchalant, we didn't know. We were walking and I was, “Why is there a line?” And we just kind of looked at each and like,”Oh, my God, something's up.” So we snuck through the side door. We went through our side entrance, and we went inside and we saw people pulling on the door. I'm like, “Oh, my goodness. I didn't make the bread yet. What am I gonna… “I started panicking and crying in the kitchen.

18:12 Gonca Esendemir: There was actually a lot of panicking and crying back in those days. We didn't really have money to hire employees, so we would take on the task of… Individually. I think we would do the job of like five people each.

18:26 Fusun Esendemir: Five? I'd say more than a dozen.


18:29 Gonca Esendemir: Well no, the combination, like, the combined. But, we would literally make food for people, do all the prep work…

18:35 Fusun Esendemir: Clean up after them.

18:36 Gonca Esendemir: Baking, clean up after them, mop, clean the bathroom, dishes. I remember I would take orders, bring the food out for people, make all the coffee beverages. Arzu and Fusun would be in the back. They would handle the grill, the fryer, the baking, the prep work… Simultaneously, then I would serve the food. And if we would run out of dishes, I would bring the dishes to the back really fast and wash them by hand because we didn't have a dishwasher, or we didn't have a machine either.

19:04 Pei: Wow.

19:05 Joel: That's called bootstrapping your business. Wow. Talking with the Esendemir Sisters today. There are three of them and their restaurant is called Flatbread Grill. And as a matter of fact, right now, they are getting ready to open up their second location in Hoboken, New Jersey. But, let's fast forward even beyond that and kind of come in for a landing here in just a few minute. But, how do three Turkish immigrant women, highly intelligent in what they're doing here, how do they go from a do-it-yourself team of 12, which is really three in your Flatbread Grill, to getting ready to… You just cut a deal to open 300, did I get that right, of franchise locations?

19:58 Gonca Esendemir: Yeah.

19:59 Joel: Okay. Now, how does that happen?


20:04 Gonca Esendemir: That was… Well, actually the person who signed us on was Dan Rowe from Fransmart. He's launched concepts like Five Guys. So, he's been doing this a really long time.

20:16 Joel: Gotcha.

20:17 Gonca Esendemir: And I just… I read a book one day and he was mentioned in it, he was quoted and I reached out to him. He ended up coming and I guess he liked it. He actually doesn't really sign people on unless they have multiple units because it does take you… In this business, it takes you about five locations until you get your operations down and you know your branding, your efficiency. And he met us, he tried the food, he experienced it, and he got it. He saw that there was something there and that… I think he saw that there was a lot of passion and a lot of heart and authenticity there. And I think he likes our family too, and he met our father. I think he understood. He got it right off the bat that we were very committed to what we're doing. And our loyalty, kind of, appealed to him because in this industry, in order to make it passed the two-year mark you have to be very, very dedicated to it.

21:20 Pei: I was just gonna say, sorry to interrupt, because you guys picked a very tough industry, for three of you… ‘Cause you watch your parents working so hard.

21:33 Joel: And there's more than one restaurant in New York. So, I mean, there's…

21:36 Pei: Oh, my goodness. Yes, so go on. Sorry.

21:39 Gonca Esendemir: It is… Actually my father ended up… He was a successful entrepreneur at some point for a very limited amount of time and he ended up losing everything literally overnight. And it was really the restaurant industry that did that to him. And he warned us about going into this industry.

21:58 Arzu Esendemir: He begged us, actually.

21:58 Pei: Wow.

21:59 Arzu Esendemir: He begged us not to open a restaurant. He said, “You girls don't know what you're going into. Just stick with… Arzu, you go into law. Gonca, you do this. ”

22:05 Gonca Esendemir: Steady paycheck.

22:06 Arzu Esendemir: Yeah. He wanted us to have a steady paycheck. He begged us, “Don't do it, it's one of the most difficult industries. You girls are going to suffer, and you're gonna cry and regret it.”

22:15 Gonca Esendemir: Yeah. He was… He basically… He did warn us and he said it's… And even very worried for us because it's… And it's very sensitive and it's volatile because changing economic times, the first thing that happens is people will… They'll cut their eating out. That's the first thing that almost always gets cut out from their paycheck. He did ask us not to go into this. He said, “You're all very smart, you're very talented at different things, do something else, but please don't do the restaurant.”

22:48 S?: But he is supportive now. He sees how much… How far we've come. He sees that we've dedicated 17, 18 hours a day for the past seven, eight years. So, he's really proud of us now. And he's like, “You girls stuck with it, you stuck with your guns, you've worked together. And together you can accomplish anything, as long as you're loyal to one another and you don't give up.”

23:07 Pei: Wow.

23:08 Joel: I love that.

23:09 Pei: Yeah. So, you were sharing the story about… That he saw the loyalty and the commitment the three of you shared. So, yeah, go on and take us to where your future plan is.

23:27 Gonca Esendemir: Well, right now, after we get this store open we… Ourselves, we will open up more stores, but we'll launch our franchise system as well. And from there, it's gonna be a different type of business for us because franchising is really separate from running a restaurant. They're two separate businesses. So essentially, we're basically launching another business. And there are definitely going to be new challenges and obstacles, and for us also as being women in this industry, we're being the first women to really launch an international franchise concept worldwide. That's a huge thing for us.

24:13 Joel: That is huge. Congratulations.

24:15 Gonca Esendemir: Thank you. And it's something we really feel a sense of responsibility to do it and to do it well because we want to send a message to other women out there. And especially people who come from really adverse circumstances that, who feel disempowered in their lives, or who think I need a high-priced education, or I need more money to do this. You don't have to be a victim of your circumstances. Sometimes it's enough to just have the passion and desire and the drive. And what people don't realize is that oftentimes, people from more privileged backgrounds are a lot more comfortable than those in adverse circumstances because that, kind of, builds up tension and you feel a strong desire to make a change. So, we want to really use this as an opportunity to hopefully inspire people and empower them in their lives, and tell them that you don't have to have the world at your feet. Or, don't have to have all these doors open for you. You can do it. You can open them yourself. You can build something out of nothing. And that's what we hope to share with people.

25:35 Joel: Well, you've inspired and empowered Pei and myself. And I would stand to say that the people that are listening to Relaunch today are also inspired and are just so excited like we are for your success. And you've said some wonderful, wonderful things today. I love how earlier in the show you talked about we learned as we go or as we went because that is definitely a key thing that entrepreneurs need to get in the habit of doing, is being okay with you're not gonna know everything at first, but you're definitely gonna have the opportunity through trial and error and error and error, that you'll get to learn as you go. And boy, running and opening a business is such a wonderful opportunity to pour all of yourself into what you're wanting to do, which is exactly what you've done with Flatbread Grill. We will of course include all of the social media hotspots, all the go-to places in the blog article that accompanies this episode. And Pei and I just congratulate you. We are just so excited for not only your second location, but just what you're doing with the whole Flatbread Grill concept. And we will expect Flatbread Grill flat bread in our mailbox one day, hopefully.

27:13 Gonca Esendemir: [chuckle] Thank you so much. We hope to open up by you guys, and you're next on the list.

27:17 Joel: Ladies, have a wonderful, wonderful rest of your day. Thank you for joining us on today's show.

27:21 S?: Thanks for having us.

27:21 S?: Thank you.

27:22 Pei: Thank you.

27:22 S?: We appreciate it. Bye.

Connect with The Esendemir Sisters on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and their website.

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Joel Boggess

Keynote Speaker | Corporate Trainer | Award-winning podcaster I help teams ignite their courage, take bolder steps, and get greater results. Together, we create possibilities that bring empowerment, meaning, and financial impact.

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