ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News
Pushing the position of Turkey's favorite and cheap fast-food, simit, to another level, a phenomenon called "simit sarayı" (Simit Palace) and copycats have popped up all over Istanbul within the last five years. The popularity of "simit ve çay" ("simit and tea") among Turkish people manifests itself with fast food chains and the whole episode can be seen as a revolution in the way business is done in Turkey.
Simit, a baked ring of bread covered in sesame seeds, is famous throughout the Middle East. Simit, whose popularity has grown due to its low cost, is bought and sold in practically every town, neighborhood, and even on the highways in Turkey.
Traditionally, simits are mass produced in local bakeries and distributed by unlicensed and untaxed vendors throughout the neighborhood. However, in Istanbul, as in other cities, the individual municipalities have provided licensing to the salesmen at busy intersections.
Street simit vs store simit:
Ferhat Korkmaz has been selling simits in the Mecidiyeköy neighborhood of Istanbul for the past six years. He works 12 hours a day and sells approximately 150 simits. Korkmaz buys simits from local bakeries for Ykr 50 and in turn, sells them to the public for Ykr 75. His daily earning, thus, is YTL 37.5 on average, which makes $31.
Right behind Korkmaz stands Istanbul's first "Simit Sarayı," - a palace indeed, compared to what humble vendors got. It was built nearly five years ago. The shop employs 15 people and pays each at around the minimum wage: Approximately YTL 450 ($375) a month. The store sells 500 plain simits a day and up to 2,000 of their cheese and sausage varieties.
But Simit Sarayı sells plain simits for Ykr 50, undercutting pushcart vendors.
The chain has transformed a street food into a "meal" that has become popular with middle class citizens and students, said Süleyman Tarakçı, manager of the Mecidiyeköy Simit Sarayı.
Although plain simits are still in demand, the store sells a variety of sandwich simits and drinks. These changes have led to pushcart vendors offering similar amenities at their own stands.
Veli Altun is another street vendor, but an entrepreneurial one. He has sold simits along Bağdat Caddesi for more than 28 years, expanding his simple simit stand into a profitable family business. With family support, the stand is open all day and nearly all night.
Altun sells a total of 400 simits a day, up to 1,000 during fall and winter. He even "imports" delicious cheese from his hometown of Ardahan, a city in northeastern Turkey on the Georgian border, to improve his sales. "My income is excellent," a proud Altun said.
Despite their good sales volume, simit sellers on streets are in danger of being wiped out of the market by the emerging "simit palaces" and similar "simit cafes." A pushcart vendor buys simits and sells them at his own risk. This enterprise is more profitable than being employed at a Simit Sarayı and offers the opportunity for expansion that sellers such as Altun have taken full advantage of. But there are no simit cafes on Bağdat Caddesi where Altun works - not yet.
A fair share?: When asked about the effect Simit Sarayı has had on street sellers, Tarakçı merely smiled. "God gives everyone their fair share," he said, echoing the general belief in all Turkish tradesmen. But Korkmaz does not agree. Since the opening of the Simit Sarayı, his daily sales have been halved. He worries about the future of his business and whether he can afford his annual cart license fee that he has to pay to the municipality.
Bilal Çilente runs another simit stand just down the street from Korkmaz. He sees no conflict of interest between his business and simit cafes lined up behind him. "Our simits are more expensive," Çilente said. "People don't buy them for the taste, but as part of their lifestyle. Here there is no waiting, no lines. Just get your simit and go."
Simit Sarayı follows health and safety regulations. It represents a transition in Turkey from informal, small-scale businesses into corporations that pay taxes to the government and employ a larger workforce.
However, with the business revolution that is taking place in these cafes there also comes the decline of the pushcart street vendors. These vendors pay only marginal taxes and do not follow any health or labor laws. On the other hand they offer a higher potential salary and room for entrepreneurship.
While the two modes of business – corporate and individual – currently live side by side, it is uncertain whether they will be able to continue to do so harmoniously in the future.