Oklava Q&A

Oklava Q&A

Laura and Selin are the co-founders of Oklava a modern Turkish retaurant in Shoreditch. Laura takes the lead front of house and on the incredible all-Turkish wine list whilst Selin heads up the kitchen. She also wrote Oklava’s cookbook: “Recipes from a Turkish-Cypriot Kitchen” and makes regular TV appearances.

I sat down with them to talk hospitality, Covid and being co-founders.

Q. Give me some brief context. How did you meet and why did you decide to set up Oklava together?

L: We met when I was working for Salt Yard Group and Selin appeared at one of our guest chef events –  everyone raved about the food and I knew Selin was looking to open her own place. I had also started thinking about starting something of my own but knew I didn’t have the skills for the food and kitchen side of things. It was also highly unusual to find such a talented chef who was both female and the same age (we opened Oklava in our late twenties). Selin had a clear creative vision for Oklava that I thought was really missing from the London food scene.

Before we officially joined forces, we talked a lot about the kind of company and employers we wanted to be, how we saw the future of hospitality shaping up and it was these factors more than anything else that made us think it was a natural partnership.

S: As much I had the creative vision I knew it was incredibly important to partner up with someone who had the skills, knowledge and passion for all the things that are not food-related: front-of-house, finance, operations. The things that make a restaurant tick on a day-to-day basis. After my first meeting with Laura I was 100% certain that this was the person I wanted to partner up with.

Q. What does each of you bring to the company that the other doesn’t?

L: Selin is hugely creative and the driving force of our concept. Her heritage obviously gives the brand an authenticity it otherwise would not have and she also is largely the public face of the company. These are such key things to our business that I am either not capable of (food) or to be honest not comfortable with (media) so it really is key to have a business partner who is so strong in these areas.

S: I would echo everything Laura has said there but in the reverse. As much as I love good wine and service, they are not my expertise. Laura is also a numbers person which is absolutely integral in a hospitality partnership. An idea can be as good as it wants to be but without the numbers to back it, it’s useless. Without Laura’s expertise in this I don’t think we would have gotten very far.

Q How do your daily routines and working styles differ?

L: Our daily routines have evolved a lot over time as both the business has developed and as we have changed personally. When we first opened we were extremely hands-on and both worked full time in the restaurant. That has changed over time as we have realised that it is more important to have well trained and trusted staff so we are able to push the company forward strategically than it is to be there every hour of the day. W

S: At the beginning I used to be in the kitchen all the time in order to get Oklava to the standard that I wanted it to be at. However, this meant not having the mental capacity to think outside of the kitchen – especially creatively. I have spent the last few years slowly taking steps back from the kitchen and putting more trust in my staff to deal with day to day issues. Overseeing the kitchen in this way genuinely allows me to come up with my best ideas for all aspects of the business.

Q If you were teaching a class on how to create the most productive, enjoyable co-founder relationship what would be your top tips?

L: I think its extremely important to have equal balance in the relationship whilst accepting that at times one of you may have to carry more of the burden than the other. It’s key to develop mechanisms for how you will resolve differences when you inevitably don’t agree on something. In our case we usually leave it a few days when it’s obvious something is contentious during which time we either find a compromise or someone concedes: like every relationship you can’t get what you want all the time and you just have to get over it! Often disagreements on the path can actually reveal another option you hadn’t even considered so it’s really important to try to view it as debate and not disagreement which can be hard because everything feels so personal with your own business!

S: Laura has summed this up really well, I would only add that it’s really important to always think about the business and partnership holistically. It is never just a case of doing your bit and that’s it; you need to also understand each other’s areas of expertise and the challenges that come with that. For example, chefs can often become all too consumed with the food and ingredients and forget how many other aspects go in to making a successful restaurant or business.

Q. What advise would you give any co-founders starting out, knowing what you know now?

L: Try to surround yourself with as much experience as possible, having been an ops manager for some time I really did not expect the huge jump it is to be the owner and I have found the advice and comradeship of other business owners so helpful. Also find ways to separate your work and home life: employees perform best when give the space and trust to do their jobs and whilst the business is of course a huge part of who I am, Covid really rammed home to me that it can all just disappear overnight.

S: Be prepared to give a large part of yourself to the business, because ultimately the buck stops with you. It doesn’t matter even if you’re on holiday – if you’re needed you will be contacted. Laura and I are pretty good about taking personal space and time but the inevitable stress that comes with owning a business doesn’t ever go away and I think people should know they are signing up for that.

Q. What has been your biggest challenge as founders?

L: It goes without saying that covid is the biggest challenge hospitality has faced full stop:the obvious financial challenge, the creative challenge of constant pivoting and adapting to new rules and more recently the staffing crisis and how to find and retain great people.

That said I think there are some positives to take from the crisis. It has opened up avenues we had not otherwise considered e.g. meal at home kits and it has made us really hone in on the day to day financials and being the best employer we can be.

S: Covid for sure. Pre-Covid we didn’t always have the answers to everything, but even in what we didn’t know we were able to have the initiative to solve it or come up with a creative solution. Covid left us all completely blank and void of answers because of the complete unknown and unprecedented nature of it all. Trying to support staff as a leader when it was incredibly challenging to support yourself at the same time was incredibly tough.

But I am grateful for the time that the Covid lockdown gave us to reflect on our business and lives. I think we have a newfound confidence in ourselves and in our ideas for hospitality, and the way in which we want to make real changes for the better in the industry we adore.

Q. What does the future hold for yourself and Oklava?

L: Right now we are focussing on recovery post covid but there will be more to come from Oklava and from us personally – we are hugely passionate about hospitality. Its all about getting through the rest of this year before we take on whatever is next.

S: Yes – there are many ideas swirling around but it’s important to stabilise what we have and see where the industry ends up before making our next move.

Q. What’s your favourite restaurant to go to at the moment?

L: It’s so hard to narrow down a place in somewhere as ever changing as London! But I do love Passione Vino in Shoreditch. The owner Luca is such a character, the wines are beautiful and I always have a fun evening.

S: I have many but I’ll pick Perilla for its innovative, effortless and delicious style.

Q. Either the company or the relationship has to be sacrificed? Which do you save?

L: I really would hope it wouldn’t come to it! But at a push I’d rather bow out and let the company continue to function because I really think what we’ve created is something special and I’d hate to see it die on the hill of my ego!

S: I honestly wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else or in any other way, so I’ll be dramatic and say everything can fall down together!

Q. And final question which partnership do you admire most and why?

L: A bit cringey perhaps but it’s my parents. They recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary and what they have taught me about relationships both professional and personal is you don’t get very far unless you’re happy to let each other change, grow and explore opportunity and that there is equal value in keeping the ship steady while it’s the other ones turn to do that.

S: Harry and Meghan. Controversial for some, but those two (at least from where I am looking) seem to move in unison and decide things together – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Some thought-provoking reads on how to manage conflict generatively.
                                                                           Conflicted Ian Leslie
                                                                          Finding Confidence in Conflict