Sultan’s Kebab: how one small restaurant became a Bay Area Staple

10 mins read

Sultan: Immigrant Founder of Sultan’s Kebab

SF Times: Maybe we could start from the beginning, how everything started, especially considering your father’s role in this journey.

Fatih: Sure, starting from scratch then. My father, may his soul rest in peace, was an extraordinary man—very ambitious. He originally came to the United States during ’97 or ’98, having been a chef back in Turkey. He worked on big container ships and saw a bit of the world that way. His dream was always America, where he envisioned bringing his family for a better life.

SF Times: Was his interest in America sparked during those trips?

Fatih: Always. He was just waiting for the right time and opportunity. When a ship he was working on docked here, he took his chance and stayed.

SF Times: And he brought you over shortly after?

Fatih: Yes, it was in 2000. Within days of arriving, we celebrated our first Fourth of July, totally awestruck. My father initially worked at various small restaurants around Palo Alto. However, by 2002, he had opened his own place in Redwood City, Sultan’s first iteration.

SF Times: What was it that drew him to start his own restaurant?

Fatih: He always had a passion for cooking and for sharing that with others. Starting his restaurant was his way of realizing that dream in America, where he believed we could all have a better future.

Sultan’s Vision

SF Times: What made your father’s restaurant stand out when he first started?

Fatih: My dad had this vision of not just serving food but serving experiences. He was very generous with his portions—his idea was to let people enjoy food without worries. For instance, back in the days, a full plate of lamb shawarma with sides was only $6.99. Despite low prices, the quality was never compromised.

SF Times: That’s quite affordable. Was this pricing model part of his vision?

Fatih: Absolutely. He believed in generosity over profits. He used to say, “Let people eat. Don’t worry about it.” His pricing allowed anyone to enjoy a good meal, regardless of their budget. For him, it was about love for food and people over anything else. Everything was priced the same, $6.99, so people wouldn’t have to skip what they really wanted because of a few dollars difference.

SF Times: How did this approach influence the restaurant’s reputation?

Fatih: Tremendously. People recognized his generosity, and it became a hallmark of Sultan’s Kebab. Customers didn’t just come for the food but for that feeling of being cared for. My dad loved feeding people, making them happy with his cooking. That’s something that deeply influenced how we operate even today.

Facing Challenges

SF Times: Transitioning from your previous profession to taking over Sultan’s Kebab must have been quite a change. Can you describe that period?

Fatih: Definitely. When my dad faced serious health issues, it was a critical moment. He told me I had to decide whether to come in and take over or he would sell the restaurant. It was a very hard transition for me. From being a hairstylist, dressed up nicely every day and interacting with clients, to putting on an apron, washing dishes, and managing a restaurant… It was a complete 180.

SF Times: What were some of the initial challenges you faced?

Fatih: One of the biggest challenges was financial. We had to let go of some staff we couldn’t afford, even though they were needed. I ended up doing everything from cooking and cleaning to serving and taking orders. But bit by bit, through engaging with the customers more and making small changes, we began to see improvements.

SF Times: How did you manage to keep the restaurant afloat during those tough times?

Fatih: It required a lot of sacrifices and hard work. I worked without a single day off for a year, all while commuting 45 minutes each way from Redwood City. But during that time, I also used to listen to audiobooks, learning about business, leadership, and motivation, which helped me not only improve the restaurant but also grow personally.

SF Times: Any particular moment from that time that has stayed with you?

Fatih: Yes. There was this time when a school teacher, my neighbor in Pleasanton, approached me. She was inspired by my story and wanted to share it with her students who were facing their own challenges. She made a poster depicting my journey: an immigrant who didn’t finish high school but managed to take over a family business, navigate tough times, and eventually buy his first home at a young age. That interaction, and knowing I could inspire kids in my community, meant a lot to me and highlighted the impact of hard work beyond just financial success.

SF Times: So, would you say those hardships contributed to your growth?

Fatih: Absolutely. Those hardships taught me the value of perseverance, hard work, and most importantly, the importance of directly connecting with our community. It shaped me into not just a better businessman but a more empathetic person, fully embracing the vision my dad had for Sultan’s Kebab.

Answering the Call

SF Times: What inspired you to expand Sultan’s Kebab initially?

Fatih: It was a combination of honoring my dad’s legacy and responding to the community’s love for our food. After my father’s passing, I saw the potential not just to keep Sultan’s Kebab going but to grow it, to reach more people. My dad had always envisioned Sultan’s as a place that could bring a little piece of our home country to the neighborhood, and I wanted to carry that forward, introduce more people to the warmth of Turkish hospitality and the flavors of our cuisine.

SF Times: How did you approach the expansion? It must have been daunting.

Fatih: It was, but what drove me was a blend of passion for food and a sense of duty. I began by just making small improvements, buying an extra table here, a couple of chairs there, all while ensuring we stayed true to the essence of what my dad started. The community was incredibly supportive. Their love for what we did fueled the expansion—from a small space next to an after-school learning center in Pleasanton to a more significant, more welcoming restaurant that could host more of our neighbors and their families.

SF Times: Can you share a bit about the role your customers played in this journey?

Fatih: Our customers have always been at the heart of what we do. I remember kids who would come in after school for a bite, grow up, and return with families of their own, telling us how much it meant to them to have Sultan’s Kebab as a part of their lives. It’s stories like these that remind me of why we do what we do—creating a space where people can come together, share a meal, and make memories.

SF Times: Reflecting on this journey, how has it shaped your vision for Sultan’s Kebab?

Fatih: Taking over from my dad, and then expanding, has reinforced my belief in the power of community and the universal language of good food. Every step we’ve taken with Sultan’s Kebab has been a step towards more than just business growth; it’s been about nurturing a place that holds memories, traditions, and the joy of sharing. That’s the legacy I aim to continue, ensuring that Sultan’s remains a place where everyone feels welcome and leaves a little happier.

Abigail Kouma

Abigail is a caffeine-fueled bookworm and journalist from Marin County. She's passionate about art and constantly searching for new ways to express creativity and stay on beat with the cultural scene in SF.

Delivered weekly to your inbox📰

Stay connected with the heart of the Bay Area! Subscribe to the SF Times Friday Paper for your weekly dose of local news, events, business updates, and more from San Francisco and surrounding areas. Don't miss out on what's happening in your city.

 

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

You have Successfully Subscribed!