Erkan Emre's occasional cravings for Berlin-style döner kebabs led to an unexpected career shift, and proved to be a recipe for success.
NEW YORK — The graffiti on the wall is a rather surrealistic work of art. The piece, by Australian artist Damien Mitchell, shows a yellow Berlin subway car rumbling through the Brandenburg Gate and then past a high office tower over the Brooklyn Bridge to New York City. Written on the top in highlighted letters is the word "Kotti." A message at the bottom reads, "From Berlin to Brooklyn."
For Erkan Emre, who commissioned the piece for his Brooklyn eatery, the artwork is both a motto and an agenda. Erkan, a German-Turk, left his Berlin neighborhood of Kottbusser Tor — "Kotti," as locals call it — 20 years ago and settled in New York City after a three-month backpacking trip through the United States. The graffiti connects his two worlds.
So does the product he sells: Berlin-style döner kebabs, prepared just the way they are in the German capital. Emre says his restaurant is the first in New York City — maybe even in the whole country — to offer "authentic" Berliner kebabs.
Mid-June saw the grand opening of Brooklyn's DeKalb Market Hall, one of the largest food halls in New York City. And it's there that Emre decided to open Kotti — just a few steps away from a branch of Katz's Deli, the eatery that's famous, among other things, for actress Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in the movie When Harry Met Sally.
For Emre, owning his own restaurant is a dream come true: "It's a passion, and the döner kebab is a piece of the homeland," he says.
Food for thought
Life for this father of two could have turned out quite differently. After the Abitur (Germany's SAT exam) and his backpack trip across America, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York in the hope of becoming an architect. After completing his studies at the Institute's School of Art, he designed buildings for 14 years and even worked with Peter Eisenmann, who designed the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
He hired a venue, set up three skewers, and served döner kebabs to 500 guests — free of charge.
But Emre wasn't entirely happy with the work he was doing. "I wanted to design projects myself," he remembers, "to achieve something special." And so he decided to go back to school, this time at Harvard University, where he studied real estate finance and development. That led him to a series of new projects: "I took part in designing the Bill Clinton Library in Arkansas," he says, "and an embassy in Ankara." One of his last projects was a residential building in Brooklyn with 165 apartments.
At the time, Emre wasn't thinking much about döner kebabs. But he did have cravings sometimes for what had been his favorite food back in Berlin. Satisfying those yearnings was impossible in New York. There just weren't any restaurants that served real Berlin-style kebabs. And so at one point, he decided to take matters into his own hands. "I bought a rotating skewer for 400 dollars and invited a few friends to eat döner kebab," he says.
His guests were thrilled and suggested he turned it into a business. Intrigued by the idea, Emre decided first to do a little market research. He hired a venue, set up three skewers, and served döner kebabs to 500 guests — free of charge. "They got a free meal and a beer. All they had to do was fill out a questionnaire," he says.
The feedback of overwhelming: More than 99% of the guests backed the idea of a döner kebab eatery. Emre, though, still had his doubts. "I wasn't sure. I thought: Should I give up a well-paid job for this?"
That's when he turned to an old friend for help. Michael Stark from Heilbronn, in southern Germany, was working as a cook in New York. The two had met in Tribeca Grill, the restaurant owned by Robert de Niro. "I showed him my business plan, and he asked: What is a döner?" Emre recalls. "So we traveled together to Berlin for a weekend."
After visiting seven venues, Stark was convinced and so the idea of bringing the döner kebab to New York was born. Start, who is now working for the food supplier Fresh Direct, is also a joint partner in Kotti.
Setting up shop
The partners enjoyed their first taste of success in Brooklyn's Smorgasburg street food market, where another New York invention, the Ramen burger, made its debut. They set up a test meal to convince the organizers and managed to get one of the market's most coveted spots. "This really is an authentic döner kebab," one of the organizers, a German from Cologne, told them.
At lunchtime, a queue quickly forms outside the restaurant.
Emre is still in the Smorgasburg every weekend. "We usually sell about 300 döner kebabs within six hours," he says. At $14 a piece — three times what they cost in Germany — they're not cheap, but the customers don't seem to mind. "We only use organic chicken meat," Emre explains. "The quality is just better." And everything is fresh. There is no freezer in Kotti's kitchen.
The customers in his Brooklyn eatery are thrilled. "I'm a big fan," says Leora Moreno, a lawyer who came to Kotti with four friends. They all have different döner kebabs on their plates: Moreno loves the wrap, while one of her friends eats it with a salad without bread because of her gluten allergy. The third is a vegetarian and prefers the meatless kebab. "It's also delicious without chicken," she says.
It cost Emre and his partner $100,000 to get the business off the ground, but already the investments seems to be paying off. At lunchtime, a queue quickly forms outside the restaurant. Through word of mouth, companies are now hiring Erkan for private parties. "We then bring along the tent, the skewers, and our ingredients," says the proud owner. Recently, the German consulate in New York joined the list of clients and will be booking Emre in September for a party.
"Maybe I can create a new food chain in America," says Emre, who now has 20 employees. "A döner kebab shop in each college would be great. Young people want to eat quickly and healthy." The döner kebabs are "quick food," he says. "But not fast food. They'd be just the right thing."