About the Entrepreneur
The joy of sharing their rich culture and food with people is what fuels Ahu Hettema and her mom Chef Nili. They started at farmer’s markets and grew a loyal following before finally opening a restaurant in Ward Village amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Istanbul Restaurant specializes in Turkish cuisine. Their dishes are representative of the seven diverse regions in Turkey, with flavors heavily influenced by its proximity to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Many of the restaurant’s recipes have been in Hettema’s family for generations. Serving both street-style and elevated Turkish cuisine, Istanbul uses fresh, organic, and local ingredients whenever possible.
“Everything is possible, you just have to believe in yourself and you just have to keep moving forward.”
More with Ahu
What is Istanbul Restaurant and how long have you been in business?
We created this business with my family and friends. We started at the farmers market. And we kept growing through that time. We’ve been open for about 6 years now, but the restaurant has been open for only about 7 weeks. It is a challenging time hard to open a restaurant but thanks to our local, loyal customers, they are keeping us busy, supporting us every day. This is a 100% family business. And a 100% women-owned business.
What challenges have you faced during this pandemic?
When we first started the business, we could seat 156 guests. Now, it’s only 75 seats, so it has caused a lot of loss. We had to start with a more limited menu because we had to be more cautious. We had to let go of some of our team members. It is very challenging, emotionally challenging.
What did you absolutely need to get this business started?
It’s not just whatever business you are doing. For instance, this is cooking. It is not about cooking. Cooking is maybe 20% of the business. You have to understand what business means. You have to take care of your team members. You have to be ready to fix things around, to install things around—because, in Hawaii, it costs a lot of money.
What do you love most about working together?
Chef Mom Nili: I am proud of my daughter. Since she was born, she was always strong. And whatever she did, she was always successful.
Ahu: Having my mom here, I can’t describe it. It’s so special. Everything she makes becomes so special. Everything she touches, everything she tells me. It’s just a relationship that I know I can only have one time in my whole lifetime.
What do you love about working with Hawaii National Bank?
We looked through pretty much every single bank in Hawaii. Our broker recommended Hawaii National Bank to us – she knew that HNB was a bank that had women-owned, small, immigrant businesses, so she suggested them to us. And they were super friendly. They love what we are doing. They tasted our food. They came and visited us at the farmers market. They believed in us.