By Aby Sam Thomas
Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East
With an estimated net worth of US$2.3 billion, this Turkish billionaire’s insights on running a business are definitely worth learning from.
When I met with Ferit Şahenk at the Dubai outpost of the internationally renowned Japanese restaurant Roka on a sunny morning in March this year, one of the first things that struck me about the Chairman and CEO of the global conglomerate Doğuş Group is the very affable and animated personality the Turkish businessman showcased to everyone around him- and when I say “everyone,” I mean that in a literal sense.
Now, you may probably think here that, well, of course, Şahenk would behave in such a lively fashion with me and my team, and yes, you’ll also perhaps grant that, yes, that’s the way he works with the few members of his executive team who were also with us that morning. But what I found particularly interesting (and quite endearing, to be quite honest) is in the fact that I saw Şahenk exhibiting the same spirited attitude as he went about interacting with the staff that day at Roka- this is where you need to know that this award-winning restaurant falls under the purview of Doğuş Group’s hospitality arm, D.ream (Doğuş Restaurant Entertainment and Management) International, of which Şahenk is Chairman. And so, when I saw Şahenk talk, applaud, and even joke with almost everyone in the Roka team who were there that morning, I found myself taken in by the magnanimous persona of this man, who, with an estimated net worth of US$2.3 billion, has been billed as one of the richest people in Turkey.
Later, when I asked Şahenk about this friendly rapport that he demonstrated with the staff at the restaurant, he seemed almost surprised by the query, pointing out that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the way he interacted with his team- this was his family, he told me, and so, this was normal for him and his style of leadership. In fact, he believes that this is the only good way to behave with one’s employees, especially in a consumer-facing, experience-driven business like this. “Your employees are the face of your enterprise,” Şahenk says. “They are the ones keeping your brand and business going. So, if you don’t treat them with love, respect, and kindness, if you’re not working to keep them happy and satisfied, you can rest assured that your end customers aren’t going to be pleased with whatever it is you are offering. So, yes, I believe in treating all of my employees the best way I possibly can- I think you have to, if you want to run a successful business.”
Şahenk definitely knows a thing or two about running a thriving enterprise- Doğuş Group, which was founded by his father, Ayhan Şahenk, in 1951, is today one of the largest private sector conglomerates in Turkey, with its portfolio including over 300 companies and more than 19,000 employees working in businesses spanning sectors like automotive, real estate, construction, energy, and more. With its key hubs in London and Dubai, the Group’s interests in lifestyle and hospitality are today centered in D.ream International, which was launched in 2012- besides operating over 150 luxury F&B outlets in Turkey, it also has a global presence with over 60 restaurants across 13 brands in 11 countries. The latter has been made possible thanks to D.ream International’s efforts in seeking out and building partnerships with the likes of Azumi Group, Coya Group, Paraguas Group, and Nusr-Et Group- the foodies among you will recognize all four companies as the names behind some of the most celebrated concepts on the global F&B stage.
For instance, Azumi Group, founded by Arjun Waney and Rainer Becker, is the operator of brands like Roka, Zuma, Inko Nito, Etaru, and Oblix, while Paraguas Group, founded by Sandro Silva and Marta Seco, runs Amazonico, El Paraguas, Numa Pompilio, Ten Con Ten, Ultramarinos Quintin, and Aarde. Meanwhile, Nusr-Et Group’s claims to fame includes its eponymous steakhouse as well as the Salt Bae Burger concept, while Coya Group, founded by Arjun Waney and majority owned by Dream International, has its namesake restaurants spread around the world. A Google search of each of these restaurants will reveal that they are inventive, innovative concepts in their own right, and that definitely seems to figure into the modus operandi that D.ream International uses when deciding what brands it should associate itself with.
According to Şahenk, all of the restaurants under the D.ream International banner belong to what he calls the high-end luxury segment- this is the lifestyle domain where he believes he and his team have the requisite experience and expertise needed to win and lead in it. “Our restaurants offer what I like to call a theatrical experience to our guests,” Şahenk explains. “From the service given, to the food provided, to the entertainment we showcase, people come to our concepts for the unique experiences they get to enjoy at our establishments. They want to experience something out of the ordinary when they come to us, and we make sure we give them just that.” Actually, it’s Şahenk’s belief that the appeal of such restaurants has only been amplified following the COVID-19 crisis that struck in 2020, with people around the world wanting to move out of their current circumstances, and get back to enjoying the finer things in life as they once used to.
This is the sentiment that is reiterated by Tevfik Akdağ, one of Şahenk’s closest associates, when commenting on the current F&B landscape in the world at large. As a Supervisory Executive Board Member of D.ream International, Akdağ is extremely well-versed about this industry, a fact that is bolstered by his executive level roles in Doğuş Group’s hubs in Dubai and London, as well as by his participation in the boards of several of its operating companies. According to Akdağ, all of the brands that fall under his company’s banner today are seeing a renewed interest from patrons, regardless of whether they are located in, say, Madrid, or Riyadh. “Given the desire and demand that we are seeing from our customers around the world, the future is looking quite bright for us,” Akdağ says. “The experiences that we are offering are working because we are keeping our guests at the center of everything we do, and that is something that is going to stand us in good stead as we move into a world after the coronavirus pandemic.”
But this is not to say that the business is not paying attention to the changes that are afoot in the world around us either. Having seen the ongoing boom in the online food delivery space, Şahenk reveals that his company is working on setting up a cloud kitchen business of its own, with them tapping into the unique brands in their portfolio to offer something new and unique to this particular sector. However, Şahenk says that this new offering will continue to target the lifestyle connoisseurs that they know how to serve- when I asked him if he’d ever consider entering into the mass market segment, he replies with an emphatic no. Why? “Because we wouldn’t be good at it,” he responds, in a matter-of-fact tone. “We know our slice of the market, and we know we can do very good things within it. As such, it makes sense for us to focus our efforts on doing what we do best, and build on our niche. That’s what is going to guarantee our success in the long term.”
It should be clear by now that Şahenk is keeping himself very closely involved with all of what’s happening in his business, which is evidenced by him, say, keeping a finger on the pulse of the market at large and looking out for opportunities, or even with his intent interest in ensuring his staff’s happiness and well-being. All of this points to a man who is deeply passionate about the work he does, and Şahenk describes his temperament as a lifestyle in itself, because he can’t imagine himself doing anything differently either. Indeed, when I asked him what drives him to do what he does every day, Şahenk first answered by saying that he is propelled by the idea that the business he works on creates jobs, and that in turn ensures the livelihoods of so many people, wherein they are empowered to dream and build better futures for themselves and the ones they hold dear.
Now, this is, of course, a noble undertaking by itself, and while I could see Şahenk being spearheaded by this notion, I wanted to figure out the underlying factors behind this mentality, and so I kept drilling him on this, asking him to tell me why he wakes every morning to go to work. “Because I am alive,” he replies, finally. “It’s a gift to be alive. It’s a gift to be given the talents and skills we have, it’s a gift to be able to work together and build something wonderful, it’s a gift to come together and work hand-in-hand for the greater good.” Şahenk pauses for a moment here, reflecting on what he said, and then adds, “I don’t really see what other reason one needs than that.” Can’t say I disagree – would you?
Chief Operating Officer, COYA Restaurant Group
What sets the COYA concept apart? What are some of the most unique dining elements it boasts that keep diners coming back for more?
What sets the COYA concept apart is the multifaceted experience that we offer. This is unique! There is a journey, a full experience which goes beyond dining and makes our customers want to go back. We want to give over and over to our customers this unique and memorable dining experience. But before anything, COYA is a restaurant with fantastic food and service. We are consistent. This is the key to sustainability and loyalty from our guests.
Our teams on the ground make it happen.
COYA is a combination of Peruvian food, serving innovative pisco infusion with its very own exclusive pisco library, featuring cultural events with our ongoing commitment to art and our pride in being an authentic art destination and, without forgetting our COYA Music which is homegrown thanks to our Music Director and our unforgettable parties, including our Ritual’s & Azucar’s nights. We strive to offer our customers an experience that they want to come back to over and over again. From art exhibitions, to culinary masterclasses, such happenings are part of COYA’s edge.
Please tell us more about the importance of culture and entertainment to the brand.
To set us apart from other establishments, we want to give our clients not just an ordinary dining experience. We strive to offer our customers a cultural atmosphere to walk away with something extra at the end of the visit. Art is part of COYA Culture and atmosphere.
How has your extensive experience in F&B helped you build a vision of what you wanted to bring to the COYA brand?
COYA is a journey. A lifestyle experience. Our principal Ferit Şahenk, Chairman and CEO of Doğuş Group, has a vision. It is up to us to make it happen. I hope to be able to share an extensive experience in F&B with different concepts, volumes in various continents, to the team I work with and that we can take the brand to another level while maintaining its DNA and excitement. I will strive to bring best practices and some structure in order to be able to develop COYA as one of the best lifestyle destinations and make it even more successful.
How do you create different experiences across your venues around the world –adapting to the intricacies of every culture and diner profile – while maintaining the essence of the brand?
Understanding the local clientele and culture are the key elements to make each COYA restaurant more personable to each city. We believe that adding a little personal touch of local cutlure to each establishment is the key to our success. We always adapt ourselves to the local market at various levels.
What are some localisation tactics which you have implemented in order to increase brand appeal among Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh guests?
Understanding the city’s life is very crucial when localising each establishment. For example, while Dubai’s clientele is more international and tourist-driven, we have a lot of locals who are our loyal customers since day one. And Abu Dhabi location is also mainly driven by local and business clientele, we slightly adjusted the concept accordingly to fit the local needs.
Are you planning on expanding to other countries in the MENA, specifically the GCC?
Yes, we are as KSA is opening up as a market with solid opportunities. Nonetheless, we are very present in the Middle East at large, and we will continue our growth in top lifestyle European target cities and locations.
Please tell us more about the idea behind the COYA Dubai and COYA Mayfair London members’ clubs, and how they have helped the brand.
As Sanjay once told me, “COYA, to me, is you coming to my home. I just have a bigger dining room and a bigger kitchen.’’ Having a members’ club gives us this opportunity to get to know our clients personally, and we can offer them a more personalized experience and a family atmosphere. It has been helping our business to grow further and strengthen the ties with our loyal clients. Our members have access to personalised cocktails, menu items, service, art and we have a 2021-2022 plan to increase these added values.
How did you overcome challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and mitigate its effects given the hard hit that F&B has endured around the world?
In the pandemic, we needed to be open-minded and think about what we could do to maintain our best to offer our customers. We came up with a few initiatives on the take-out services and tried our best to make it exciting for our clients and keep them engaged. The key was to adapt rapidly to minimize the impact of the pandemic.
What are your future plans for COYA and its development on a global scale?
We want to position ourselves as one of the top luxury lifestyle brands. There are several markets where we believe COYA could be successful and currently we are pursuing several leads in Ibiza, St Tropez, St Barth, Milano, Marrakech, Zurich and others.
Please tell us more about some of the most important milestones in your career, and the moments which have helped shape your journey.
Two significant milestones helped me shape who I am today. The first one was when I moved from the restaurant manager to the corporate side as Director of New Builds, and the second one was when I became the COO of COYA.
To transition from floor operation to corporate taught me how to look at the business on a global scale and strategize and execute the plan for each concept in an accurate and timely manner. Effective decision making, allocating resources, recruiting, and hiring critical positions to each establishment are crucial elements for opening successful establishments.
The second milestone was when I became the COO of COYA. Working at this level is an exciting opportunity for me to grow even further, and I am looking forward to contributing to COYA and its further success.
The beauty of our job and one of its keys to success is to keep extremely connected and close to the teams, the clients and the operations. This is a business where we need to keep taking the pulse of our restaurants daily.
Culinary Ambassador, COYA
Your passion towards food flourished during your childhood; please tell us more about how your family has influenced your culinary journey.
When I was ten years old, I remember going on a holiday to Visakhapatnam, a coastal town in India. My mother’s cousin owned a 5-star hotel there named The Sun n Sea Hotel. During one of my visits to the hotel, I was allowed to go inside the restaurant’s kitchen, where the head chef prepared a dish. It was a whole fish with fresh herbs, lemon and butter all encased in a paper bag and cooked in a steamer. When the fish was ready, the chef carefully opened the paper bag right in front of me. The aroma and the taste of the fish was mind boggling. It was just magical. I have never seen such theater behind a dish, and I guess a seed of culinary was planted in my head at that moment. I was brought up on spices and all food was either cooked on a gas stove or on a BBQ grill. To have a steamed fish with no spices was for me an explosion of flavours – simply just the fish flavored with herbs and lemon.
From there on, I started to do few experiments with food. I loved to watch my grandmother cook and we spent time in the kitchen together. By the age of 15, I was a champion in making omelets for all family members. I remember I tried different methods. To name a few– I whipped the egg whites separately and then added the egg yolk. Another one was cooking tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and chilies together and then adding these ingredients to whipped eggs, and baking them together in the oven. To this day, every time I visit India, there is an Omelets Sunday by Sanjay, where I make omelets for our extended family members. Last year, just before the pandemic, I was in India, where I had to make 30 omelets and as always, a great hit with the family.
You have had a very colourful career, filled with dishes served to celebrities and prominent figures; what were some of the most memorable moments long the way?
We have had a number of prominent people and celebrities visiting our outlets over the years. When we first opened COYA Dubai, we had a guest from the royal family visit us. I remember speaking with them and showing them around the restaurant. They were very impressed, and I guess were happy to see a restaurant like COYA coming to their city.
I am a big fan of Formula 1. Every year, during the Monaco Grand Prix, we would have Lewis Hamilton coming in for dinner with his friends. I remember back in 2018 when we opened COYA Monaco, Lewis came in after the race for dinner. I went up to his table and mentioned I have cooked certain vegan food for him, and he was impressed that I was aware of his preference. Since then, he has always come regularly during the grand prix and whenever he is in town.
We also had Cristiano Ronaldo and his family – he was such a lovely gentleman.
As you sampled Peru’s finest culinary offerings, how have you envisioned the dishes at COYA taking shape; how have you crafted dishes with the culture and flavours in mind?
As a benchmark since my first menu, I designed a dish ensuring flavours to be very Peruvian and at the same time giving it a Western touch. I don’t like to call it fusion food as I just think, “Fusion is Confusion.”
I always make sure we use the best ingredients. We use chillies and spices that act more like a catalyst and complement the dish rather than just add spice to it and only mask the taste.
I interact a lot with all our head chefs and staff around the world on a regular basis. We are always looking out for new ideas and techniques.
At COYA, it’s all about experimenting with traditional Peruvian dishes and using Japanese, Chinese and Spanish cooking techniques; have you found that to be the essence of what makes the brand unique?
Peruvian food is so unique, as it takes influences form Japan, China and Spain, making the boundaries limitless.
When we first started this journey, in COYA Mayfair, London, the menu was more inclined towards traditional Peruvian food. The cuisine at the time was not as popular as it is today, so the best route was to combine traditional food with something that is more familiar to the market. I guess we hit the right spot. We had raving reviews and best of all is that people fell in love with COYA. I have never been as happy as when I opened COYA ever more than when we received a Michelin star at my previous restaurant.
I love experimenting with flavours and ingredients. One of the ceviche’s we serve at COYA is the Corvina Trufa Ceviche that has Corvina, truffles, ponzu, and chives. It was quite unimaginable and unusual to use truffles and raw fish together, but the lime and the ponzu help bring out its flavours.
In COYA Dubai, we used the red snapper instead of corvina and it has been the outlet’s best-selling ceviche. It is the menu items like these that make COYA unique.
The best-selling dish of COYA across all outlets is Arroz Nikkei Cazuella or the Chilean sea bass with rice, lime and chilli. I created this dish with influences from Peru, Spain and the UK. The Chilean seabass is marinaded in miso, Aji Amarillo, tamarind, and soy for a minimum of 24 hours. For the rice, we use paella rice, which is cooked with dashi stock flavoured with soya, ginger, garlic and aji amarillo. Once the rice is cooked, we finish it with lime and chilli butter. We serve with Chilean seabass, cooked over charcoal and adding sweetcorn puree and pea shoots as the finishing touch.
The beauty of it all was that we are creating something new and unique, and I believe this has been one of the key reasons of COYA’s success.
Executive Chef, COYA Middle East
You grew up in a restaurant environment. How has it shaped your journey towards becoming a culinary head?The desire to become a chef was there from the outset. My passion was always to cook, but I never intended to be a Head Chef or lead a team. I think that the most important thing is if you show pride in your work, do your best, and enjoy, and you will go places.
Starting off with French-casual cuisine, how have you developed your skills and explored other global palates?
My background has always been French cuisine. I believe the discipline, skills and techniques I learned have put me in good stead and helped me progress through my career. I have implemented these into COYA’s kitchens as a matter of course. In terms of palates, it was a big leap for me at first to shift from French to Latin American cuisine. Traveling to Peru helped me a lot. It took a lot of adjusting and required a lot of understanding of ingredients and techniques. There’s no better way for me to appreciate and understand the food and culture than actually experiencing it myself.
How has your training in France helped you in your role as head chef at COYA Dubai?
The French kitchen is a very well structured and disciplined environment. My experience working at numerous restaurants and executing French cuisine have definitely influenced the way I run the kitchen and manage my team. My goal every day is to pass down that disciplined work ethic to my team and encourage everyone to get involved and work together effectively.
How has the transition from COYA Dubai to overseeing the brand’s culinary offerings across its Middle East locations inspired you as a chef?
The transition was challenging as I have always been very hands on in the kitchen. It required me to step back from daily operations in the kitchen. I’m very fortunate to have a team in all locations that I can trust and believe in and I’m thankful that I have their support also.
What are some of your favourite dishes at COYA? What about popular eats and bestsellers?
My favourite dish is the Pulpo Rostizado or Roasted octopus with potato, bottarga, botija olives, aji Amarillo. It’s our take on the Spanish dish Pulpo a la Gallega. The Arroz Nikkei or the Chilean sea bass with rice, lime, chili has always been a firm favourite and bestseller at all COYA locations.
COYA is known for its fresh offerings; how do you choose ingredients and source them, ensuring that you get it right every single time?
Choosing the right supplier is an onerous yet vital process. It took a lot of communication and trial and error to build the relationship we have now with our suppliers, but it is key to sourcing the best produce locally and globally. The quality of our ingredients is paramount to our success.
What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced during the pandemic?
When regulators asked restaurants to close last year, we thought of how colleagues can support themselves and their families as well as how we can continue looking after each other and our guests. This is how we came up with ‘COYA 2 U’, our very own delivery and takeaway platform that brings their favorite signature dishes for them to enjoy at home. It was very tricky at first; to switch from in-house fine dining to packaging the same quality food for delivery was challenging. Adjusting to the timings of the execution of the food due to the delivery timings was new to us. It was a challenge, but something we are relishing and overcoming. We are learning everyday. But it’s comforting to see the orders still coming through and the positive feedback from our guests.