There is a key ingredient to chef Ana Sortun’s success, and it has nothing to with the bold Eastern Mediterranean flavors or aromatic spices she uses.
“I love change,” says Sortun, owner of three popular Boston-area eateries, including 18-year-old Oleana near Harvard Square, which collectively bring in about $8 million in annual revenue. “I’m a changemaker. ”
It’s often said that mediocre entrepreneurs struggle with change — but great ones embrace it. In Sortun’s case, the latter seems to be true. Since 2001, Sortun has been a force in the city’s restaurant scene, following up Oleana’s success by opening Middle Eastern cafe Sofra in 2008 and then Turkish tavern Sarma in Somerville in 2013, each with different partners.
But maintaining a thriving mini-empire, especially in the famously difficult restaurant industry, isn’t easy. Not only do employees come and go, but consumers’ tastes and preferences change, too. Constant tweaks and improvements are necessary, especially at Sofra, the smallest of Sortun’s businesses with just 18 seats.
While it started as a café and bakery, Sofra has become much more: The venue sells an array of Middle Eastern-inspired provisions in its store — house-made preserves, prepared foods and signature spice blends — and also caters special events, hosts cooking classes and serves as a CSA pick-up location.
Most of those changes came out of necessity. “In the beginning, it was just not working with the 18 seats that we had in there,” Sortun says. “We just weren’t making it financially, so we had to put a lot of other components in there to develop enough sales to stay there, basically.”
Sortun says change has become part of her workplace culture. She emphasizes that she means “change within reason — not shaking up the business, or growing it too fast, or doing anything abrupt.” Instead, “every single person on the management team is thinking about the next improvements,” she says, whether that’s using more efficient technology, such as a new reservations system, or bettering wages for non-wait-staff. “We’re constantly doing that.”
A piece of advice she has for other entrepreneurs is to delegate responsibility so that you can step back and assess what’s working and what’s not. For instance, Sortun has promoted her chefs to run their own show at both Sofra and Sarma.
“In order to grow, and take on something new, you have to let go of something,” she says. “You have to let go of something to create space to be able to take on a bigger view or perspective. And if you don’t do that, you don’t grow, period.”
At each of her restaurants, Sortun has teams in place that are “decision makers,” although it wasn’t easy for her to give up various parts of the job, starting with kitchen prep and going all the way up to menu development. “Those things can be all consuming, and being able to get rid of some of those tasks…means that someone else gets the opportunity to learn,” she says.
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Up next for Sortun is a possible expansion of her small eatery Sofra, potentially into a larger space. “We’ve changed so many times there, as far as just trying to get the maximum square inches in there,” she says. “It’s outgrown that space.”
Practicing what she preaches, Sortun says Sofra employees will be a part of what comes next. “There could be opportunities for managers and for chefs to be a part of creating an expansion, and owning a little bit more responsibility,” she says. “It’s really very cool.”
Meanwhile, at all three of her restaurants, Sortun and her team will continue to figure out what works best in terms of employees doing their jobs and customers enjoying the experience. “Change is very important, and what drives us….whether it’s reducing a little stress where we can, or giving better service, or having more knowledge,” she says. “But it never stops. It has never ever, ever stopped.”