ISTANBUL - Oğuz Şenol, the owner of the Global Restaurant Group, which operates Harvard Cafe, Cafe Italiano, Bursa Kebap House and Neuhaus Chocolate, says he is planning to turn the current ecnomic crisis into an opportunity and grow his business in 2009

Despite the economic crisis, restauranteur Oğuz Şenol has big plans for his eating establishments. In fact, by expanding his empire while keeping prices reasonable, he thinks he can turn the crisis into an opportunity.

A graduate of New Hampshire College in the United States, Şenol entered the trade business in New York, then worked in the film sector for a year. When he returned to Istanbul in 1990, he founded the Global Food Company and imported dairy products for about six years. Eventually he decided to enter the retail sector and open a cafe/restaurant -- Harvard Cafe in Istanbul’s Etiler district.

Şenol’s now-wife, Pınar Ulusoy Şenol, a friend of his at the time, had studied restaurant and hotel management and helped him get started. They were inspired by the old Book Store Cafe in Boston, where Harvard University students would eat and have intellectual discussions. Since it was almost impossible to find educated staff at that time, they received support from the personnel managers of big hotels. Doluca also helped them train their staff about wine. Since the beginning, Şenol said, "we neither kept our prices high nor made concessions on our quality."

After they opened the Harvard Cafe 15 years ago, it quickly became a busy spot, but lost its popularity in the 2000s, when many similar places opened. Though Şenol was a leader in the cafe/restaurant concept, Harvard Cafe did not become a chain. (Another branch did open last year in Nişantaşı’s City’s shopping mall.) But Şenol’s ambitions for the food and beverage sector remained high.

A chain of kebab houses

In 1997, Şenol became the Turkish representative of Neuhaus, the most famous (and one of the most expensive) chocolate brands in Belgium. Today Neuhaus has three of its own stores in Turkey and 20 more spots where its products are sold.

Sometime later, Şenol got into the kebab business, partnering with a good kebab chef in Bursa and opening his first place in Akmerkez. When he realized that his customers did not like eating fast-food-style, but preferred to sit down, he closed the Akmerkez place and opened the Bursa Kebab Evleri (Bursa Kebab Houses), now found at Galleria and Carousel shopping malls, Yeşilköy Flyinn and the Güngören Outlet Center. All the food is produced at the same place and sent to the various branches. Şenol continues to invest in expanding the chain.

Pizza and pasta

A fan of Italian cuisine, Şenol then opened Cafe Italiano in Elmadağ, which is known for its pizzas and pastas and patronized by residents and tourists alike. "If I had opened a place selling expensive products, I would have hard times [now] because no one wants to spend too much money in a period like this," Şenol said. He thinks the reasonable prices at his establishments -- 30 to 40 Turkish Liras for a meal at Harvard Cafe, 20 to 25 liras at Cafe Italiano and 10 to 15 liras at Bursa Kebab Houses -- will make 2009 a strong year for his restaurant group.

Şenol’s Global Restaurant Group employs 200 people and brings in $7 million annually. Since rents and food prices are reasonable, Şenol thinks the company can bring in $10 million in 2009. Citing expert estimations, he says inflation will be about 6 percent, the current accounts deficit will reduce 20 to 30 percent and the dollar will hit an exchange rate of 1.7 liras. All this makes him think the time is ripe for investment, so he is looking for a Bağdat Avenue home for the next Harvard CafŽ and Etiler and Kadıköy locations for Bursa Kebab Houses.