“My life really started the day I moved to the United States. I’m not sure what would have happened to me if I stayed in Turkey. Here, I have a good family, there are good schools for my two sons, and I can help my people here and back home.”
A tall, slender man in his mid-forties with a striking black ponytail and goatee, Kemal Aytac is co-owner of Cafe Istanbul and proud of his humble beginnings. He attributes his drive for success through his work ethic combined with his cultural and family-oriented values instilled in him from a young age. “I always went over and beyond what was required of me anywhere I worked.”
Though his birth name is Turkish, he says with a twinkle of mischief in his eye that he prefers the nickname he gave himself—Kemdino—which means “a little crazy” in Kurdish.
In recent years, Cafe Istanbul has seen its profile grow. There is a framed picture hanging of when former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter came to eat, and in the last year or so, “Atlwood” has discovered the unique interiors of Cafes Istanbul—a few TV shows and even movies have shot several scenes in the Decatur and Athens locations such as Little Woman Atlanta, Married at First Sight and several music videos. Aytac is reluctant to share which movies have shot scenes and wants to respect the wishes of the production companies.
Additionally, his wife was featured as one of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” and Aytac was initially featured in the Bravo reality show Married to Medicine, but pulled out because he did not want “to be fed lines.”
Born in Bumsuz, a village 60 miles from the Turkish capital, Ankara, Aytac’s large family was not particularly well-off nor well-educated: his father was a truck driver and his older brother was a goat and sheep shepherd. A bright student, his parents decided it was best to provide him with better scholastic opportunities elsewhere and at age 11 he moved to the capital with relatives where schools are considerably better. As it turns out, he became the first in his family to attend university, though he did not graduate.
Throughout his conversation with Paste at the original Decatur location, he acknowledged his appreciation for his family’s moral and financial support but added with pride, “Now I am able to support them!”
In 2012, his family petitioned the northern Atlanta suburb where they live to allow them to keep two pygmy goats as pets, perhaps a nostalgic holdover from his village youth. When asked if they still had them, Aytac guffawed, “Yes! The neighbors’ kids love them, too!”
Cafe Istanbul is known throughout metro Atlanta as both an ethnic restaurant with a unique, overt orientalist décor and cultural motifs offering various types of entertainment. In the Decatur location, customers sit on traditional, embroidered Middle Eastern floor pillows, and, according to Aytac, was the first establishment to offer hookah in Atlanta, “Now everyone offers hookah!”
There are four Cafes Istanbul: the original Decatur location, a second in Alpharetta, a third in Kennesaw and the newest location in Athens, near the University of Georgia, and there are imminent plans to expand elsewhere, “We are under negotiations to franchise out of state and even possibly in Canada,” says Aytac.
In addition to the “distinctively Turkish and Kurdish-inspired menu” (Smoked Eggplant and Eczme salads, grape leaves, lentil soup, assorted boregis and kebobs and lamb shank), professional belly dancers gyrate throughout the evening, and DJs plays eclectic mixes of musical genres that pulsate throughout the evening. Sometimes nights are themed, such as “Latin Night” and occasionally international musicians perform live, though this is less frequent.
“Sometimes we play Latin, Indian, American Top 40, Hip Hop,” but, Aytac reminds me, “we also play Middle Eastern and Kurdish music.”
In Turkey, Aytac, like millions of others, faced the looming reality of being conscripted to the army. “I did not want to join the army and kill my own people,” so he applied for a U.S. Green Card and waited. After one year, he received a letter informing him that his application was approved. He was ecstatic. “The nights right before I left I couldn’t sleep—I was so emotional,” he recalls.
Years before he applied for a Green Card, an aunt read his fortune from Turkish coffee grounds. “I don’t typically believe in superstition, and she told me that I was going to travel far away, get married, and become well-off financially. At the time, of course, I didn’t believe her, but all of those things have come true!”
When Aytac arrived in the U.S. in 1996 he had never flown in a plane before, nor had he ever left Turkey. The first few months were especially difficult for him since he did not speak English.
Immediately after his older cousin, Baran brought him to his Sandy Springs house from the airport, Aytac pointedly said, “I need to work.” Though his cousin encouraged him to acclimate, learn some English, and take a few days to rest Aytac refused, “No, I need to work now.”
He recalls the sense of urgency: “I only had $75 to my name when I came here and didn’t want to owe anyone anything.”
A few days later, Baran helped Aytac secure a part-time job at Wendy’s, and a few months after that, he found another job at an Italian restaurant. “I kept myself busy at every moment I could. For the first month, my cousin took me to work and picked me up. But I didn’t want him to have that responsibility so he kindly gave me one of his old cars.”
He adds, “I kept both restaurant jobs and even started another one selling wallpaper and blinds. I worked 12-13 hour days, and I taught myself English every day.”
After a couple of years in Atlanta, he met his wife, Maryam, who is originally from Iran. As fate—or luck would have it—their first date was at Cafe Istanbul, which is partly why the Decatur restaurant means a great deal to him.
“When Maryam and I became serious it was time to meet her parents and we wanted to impress them, so we made up fake business cards that said I owned the wallpaper and blinds company! Eventually I did come to own this business, but definitely not when I first met Maryam’s parents!”
In 1998, he and Maryam, and younger brother, Kalo bought Cafe Istanbul from its original owner. Over the next two years they struggled financially and even considered selling it again but eventually expanded and improved upon the décor, giving it their own original flavor which is noticeably influenced by Turkish, Kurdish and Persian culture.
One one wall, a large Farvahar, a Zoroastrian symbol, designed by one of Aytac’s friends greets people as they sit down on the low pillows in the dimly lit common area and a colorful painting of Kurdish dancers in traditional costumes adorns the opposite wall.
Shortly after these renovations, customers began returning, and many became personal friends. Says Aytac, “I knew that we were doing something right when I saw someone wearing a Cafe Istanbul shirt while vacationing in Amsterdam!”
When asked why his staff seems disproportionally Kurdish, he replies, “I try to keep people I know around me. I try to help out my people because we are disadvantaged in Turkey, and they are familiar with the cuisine already. However, I do hire many other types of people, too.”
Aytac shares that Cafe Istanbul has become a place for celebrations and romance, “Today, many people celebrate their birthdays and other happy occasions here and many people meet here that even get married!”
Reflecting upon his professional success and the importance of family he suddenly becomes serious and even paternal, “Having good, positive people around motivates me to do even better. Without my brother and wife, I’m no one.”