Ana Sortun may be done with opening restaurants. The Boston-area chef rose to prominence — and business success — by creating and running three popular eateries. But now she’s looking in new directions.
Sortun owns a Mediterranean spot near Harvard Square called Oleana, nearby Middle Eastern cafe and bakery Sofra, and the Turkish tavern Sarma in Somerville, each with different partners. When we featured Sortun in a July 2014 video and article, her restaurants employed about 150 people and grossed about $8 million in annual revenue — and those numbers are roughly the same today.
But Sortun has by no means stood still. Over the last two years, she has overseen renovations at Oleana, now 15 years old, and at Sofra. In fact, much of Sortun’s creative energy these days is focused on Sofra. She has added a small new retail area and written a new cookbook, “Soframiz,” published this October, that tells Sofra’s story and includes recipes for delights like lamb sausage katmer, cheese borek and tahini shortbread cookies.
Those efforts are helping to pave the way for Sortun’s new, big and different — yet complementary — food-business challenge: growing a retail business. Already, takeout prepared food, baked goods and grocery items like special tahinis, preserved lemons and pomegranate molasses provide about 35 percent of Sofra’s revenue. Sortun wants to increase that by opening a larger retail shop and expanding its presence at Boston farmer’s markets.
But to stock new shelves and market stands, she will need a much bigger kitchen. So, much as she did when she moved to open her restaurants, Sortun has begun cooking up plans to secure private loans from investors, likely between $500,000 and $1.5 million, depending on the ultimate scope of the project.
Retail is where her most exciting growth opportunities lie, she believes. Not only could she increase revenue, she could reach many more people with the food she loves than she can through restaurants. “There’s only so much you can do with full service,” she says. “When the restaurant is full, it’s full. But with this, as long as we have the space and the means to produce, we never have to say ‘no.’”
Sortun is also noodling on her next big food-business challenge: figuring out how to help sustain independent farms by putting them together in new ways with restaurants.
Her husband, Chris Kurth, owns Siena Farms, a 100-acre farm in Sudbury, Mass., that provides all of her restaurants’ vegetables between June and November. It also supplies other restaurants, serves 700 CSA members, has a farm stand at Copley Square Farmers’ Market a two days a week, and operates two retail outlets in Boston — and still loses money.
“The real cost of growing food is not exposed yet,” Sortun says. Labor costs are high at vegetable farms, especially at those that want to pay workers a living wage. To survive, many farms host weddings or sell prepared foods or have restaurants.
Experiments are aplenty, and “someday the model will be cracked because we need farms,” and more and more people value them, she says. “We have the opportunity to make a change that keeps them around, I think.”