Passion, Purpose, And Persistence: Inside San Francisco’s Troya Restaurant

Pictured above: Troya owner Berk Kinalilar with his wife and daughter

When asking Troya Restaurant owner Berk Kinalilar about how Troya has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’ll be quick to praise the efforts of San Francisco’s locals.

“I’ll never forget the first day of the shelter-in-place order,” Kinalilar recalls. “We came to work and I think, Oh my God, that’s it. Fifteen years in the restaurant business and twenty-two years in America. I guess this is how it’s going to end.”

Lucky for him, local patrons refused to let that happen. On the very first day of the mandate, Kinalilar received message after message from “people [who] were calling the restaurant and going ‘I want to order food. I don’t want you to go out of business.’”

By the end of the day, Troya Restaurant had made more sales than a normal business day. Kinalilar remembers being overwhelmed with gratitude, also hopeful, so maybe Troya would be able to weather the storm.

Humble Beginnings

The outpouring of public support for Troya Restaurant should come as no surprise. The establishment has been around since 2006, serving a wide variety of Turkish-Mediterranean cuisine to San Francisco locals and visitors.

The name “Troya” comes from the city of Troy, often associated with Greece but actually located in Turkey. For Kinalilar—who came to San Francisco in 1997 from Turkey—Troya Restaurant was about bringing his culture to the San Francisco area. When he and his friends dined out on weekends, he’d often be asked to take them to a Turkish restaurant. What he realized, though, was that there wasn’t one. “They were all like gyro places, fast food joints. There weren’t any proper sit down restaurants.”

After a friend mentioned wanting to sell his struggling restaurant, Kinalilar decided to take a chance. At the time, he was running his own valet service for high-end hotels and restaurants across the city, so he had a wide range of business experience. This, coupled with passion and purpose led to the creation of Troya Restaurant.

Within a few months of opening, Troya Restaurant was operating full-steam-ahead. Kinalilar credits his Turkish chef and a staff of dedicated, hard-working people for the restaurant’s early success. A self-proclaimed workaholic himself, there was never any doubt that Troya would prosper. Kinalilar is a hands-on owner. Whatever’s needed, he does. Cooking, cleaning, serving; and if he’s inexperienced with something, you can bet he’ll teach himself how to do it.

This entrepreneurial spirit has made Troya Restaurant a staple in the city. In fact, during San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer’s legendary thirty-two year career, Troya became the first ever Turkish restaurant to receive 2.5 stars from the tough taster-of-foods.

Most recently, Kinalilar opened a new location in the SOMA. Both locations are currently open during the shelter-in-place order.

Navigating Crisis

Kinalilar and his wife are no strangers to crisis within the restaurant industry. Despite a successful two-year run upon opening in 2006, the severe economic fallout of 2008 left Kinalilar losing thousands of dollars every month for an entire year. He had no choice but to remain open. Selling wasn’t an option because no one was looking to buy, so day-to-day operations became about persistence. Celebrate the small victories and look toward the future.

The same can be said for today’s state of affairs. Unfortunately, Kinalilar has had to drastically reduce his staff. In the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, operations were run by just him, his wife, and two other employees. Now, as takeout sales and gift card purchases have increased, Kinalilar has been able to bring back a handful of staff members, with others filing for unemployment as the pandemic continues.

When asked about what people can do to help, Kinalilar is very clear: Support small businesses. “When you support a small business, you’re really touching people’s lives,” he says.

Kinalilar spends his days working to keep Troya afloat not only for him and his family, but for his employees. He sees support for small businesses as something that goes beyond just his restaurant. It’s about a community of people helping a community of businesses.

And community is what will get us through these unprecedented times.

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