From Dishwasher to Head Chef

Ana Sortun, who owns three restaurants in greater Boston, discusses her rise in the kitchen.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a two-part series on entrepreneurial women chefs. Last week, we spoke with Jody Adams.

Julia Child, the iconic chef, made her home for decades in Cambridge, Mass. Her high-profile role as a woman in the kitchen may be why the area has produced a number of prominent female chefs, including Ms. Adams, Barbara Lynch (this year’s James Beard recipient for Outstanding Restaurateur), “Top Chef” winner Kristen Kish, and Ana Sortun, who has run the Mediterranean restaurant Oleana near Harvard Square for the past 13 years.

In 2008, Sortun and her business partner, Gary Griffin, opened Sofra, a nearby cafe serving Middle Eastern cuisine. That was followed last October by Sarma in Somerville, which is modeled after a Turkish mayhane or tavern. Together, the three restaurants employ 150 and gross about $8 million in annual revenue.

Sortun, 46, is a  Seattle native who started as a dishwasher at age 14. She counts Adams and Lynch as friends and mentors – and indeed, she says their paving the way has helped her build the company she is running today.

That said, she is reluctant to talk about gender bias in the industry. “There is always so much talk about it,” she said. “It’s always been there.” The reality, she said, is that long hours make it “hard to be a man or a woman in this business” – especially if one is a parent.

Today, Sortun, who is married with a young daughter, says her biggest challenges are the rigors of running a restaurant group, including the low profit margins. She manages food costs in part by buying produce from a farm operated by her husband, Chris Kurth. “I don’t know of many people that are actually rich from being in the restaurant business,” she said in a conversation that has been edited and condensed.

The Story Exchange: How tough was it to get your first restaurant to be profitable?

Part of our business plan was to find a space that had relatively low overhead so that we could afford to pay back the debt, almost $1 million from investors. Both my partner and I went into the project having nothing — I survived on a credit card and no income for about five months. It was extremely hard not to spend a million dollars building out a restaurant, and it took a village of everyone I knew to help me get it open and to pay it back. We did show a profit from the get-go, but it was relative to the sales. It could barely support myself and my business partner for the first few years.

The Story Exchange: Was it easier with the next two?

Sofra, a bakery and café, was the hardest model and took the longest to show a profit. It is small — only about 19 seats — and the ticket price is low, the labor cost is incredibly high and there is no alcohol to sell. It meant that we had to do some crazy, high volume to make it work. It took about three years before we showed a profit. Sarma hit the ground running but still is vulnerable to the debt that is owed for build-out. There is a very real feeling of vulnerability — or faith.

The Story Exchange: How much time do you spend in the kitchen these days?

I spend two nights a week at Oleana expediting, and once a month I’m in the kitchen for a few days changing menus and training staff on new plates. At Sofra, I’m in the kitchen once a week working with the sous-chef and chef. I’m not in the kitchen at all at Sarma. After the initial workload and problem-solving of opening was over, I stepped out and am relatively hands off.

The Story Exchange: Which do you find more rewarding – running a kitchen or running a business?

A. The hard part is running the business. The cooking part is just plain fun!

The Story Exchange: Which do you think you are better at?

A. I would like to say cooking, because it feels like it’s all I know — but I’m not so bad at running the business either.

The Story Exchange: Do you have female chefs working for you?

A. Yes. The chefs at Oleana and Sarma are women. Four sous-chefs out of six are women. I don’t do 70-hour work weeks with them — or any employees. The last cook that I just hired was a young man. He said, “I was working 75 hours in my last job.” Already, he is functioning better because he is not working 75 hours a week.

The Story Exchange: What’s your advice for women who aspire to be restaurateurs?

A. I don’t think there are any restrictions. You can always have children later than earlier. Find people who are doing it, and figure out how they do it. And you have to have talent. Can you cook or can you not? That’s what it comes down to.

The Story Exchange: What’s your next big project going to be?

Something built around my husband’s farm. I can’t do what I do without my husband’s farm. It’s an impossible business to sustain and I want to crack the code on it so that we can keep doing it year after year.

 

Posted: June 1, 2014

Colleen DeBaiseFrom Dishwasher to Head Chef