To keep track of what's going on at each of his nine Nassau County restaurants, Ayhan Hassan relies on two tools: an iPhone and a yellow legal pad. With the former he communicates with his managers, chefs and suppliers from early morning well into the night. With the latter, he keeps a running list of problems to solve, issues to consider, ideas to develop.
In the 33 years since he opened his first restaurant, Ayhan's Shish Kebab in Port Washington, Hassan, 61, has become one of the most successful restaurateurs on Long Island. He has neither investors nor partners to help him run the 150-person company that feeds thousands of people every week. He credits the appeal of his value-priced, pan-Mediterranean menu, his hardworking managers and his own talent for "keeping teams together, mending fences and getting along with everybody."
Credit also is due to his SUV, which shuttles him from his base in Port Washington (where he lives and has three ventures) to Ayhan's Shish Kebab restaurants in Plainview, Westbury, Rockville Centre, Baldwin, East Meadow and Great Neck. He tries to visit three or four sites every day, and talks to each manager at least once.
His notes from a recent visit to one of the restaurants demonstrate the breadth of his concern: He noticed one employee wearing excessive amounts of jewelry and perfume, another very muscular server had rolled his shirtsleeves above his elbows in a way that Hassan thought might be "intimidating" to patrons. He witnessed one server hesitating when a patron asked if she could order a lunch item for dinner (correct answer: Of course), another serving water with a straw (straws are for soda) and lemon (an affectation). Chairs wobbled, a compressor made banging sounds, in the cooler at the coffee station were four open cartons of milk.
IT'S ALL ABOUT VALUE
After he reviews the previous day's problems, Hassan turns to his kebab-centric menu, the document that must simultaneously reassure customers they are getting what they expect, entice them with new offerings and, above all, offer value. All 45 main courses on the dinner menu cost less than $26, the vast majority less than $20.
"He gives you a lot for your money," said Dean Kois, chief financial officer of Reststar Hospitality Group, which owns six restaurants on Long Island, including La P'tite Framboise, down the street from Fish Kebab in Port Washington, and Brasserie Cassis, a few doors up from Shish Kebab in Plainview. "It's good food, it's made on the premises, and it's not Italian. Mediterranean is a cuisine that you just don't find a lot of on Long Island."
Hassan is adamant about value. Every main course comes with rice and vegetable and is preceded by a generous salad. "People love that if they come here, they order an entree, they get a meal."
Longtime Port Washington resident Beverly Hazelkorn figures she's been an Ayhan customer almost from Day One. "He's always tweaking the menu a little bit, but not too much," she said. "He always has new specials, new promotions. He'll add a dish, and if it works, he'll keep it. But he never messes with the basics -- the kebabs, the whole fish, the Greek salad, the hummus, the bread and the dip."
She admits that she and her family "weren't all that familiar with this kind of food until Ayhan came along. I don't know that we'd even seen a kebab on Long Island." More than culinary innovation, she attributes his success to good food, good prices and his personal touch. "He's always a visible presence in the restaurants, always coming over to chat, always so nice."
Hassan starts virtually every morning with a cup of coffee in the dining room of Mediterranean Marketplace & Cafe. The Marketplace, his third project, is at the intersection of Main Street and Shore Road in Port Washington, a site marked by a street sign that reads "Ayhan's Corner" as well as a bench, erected in 2002 by the Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington, "to honor Ayhan, who lives the American dream."
Two doors up the street is Ayhan's Shish Kebab, his first restaurant, which he and his then-wife opened in 1980. Across the street is Ayhan's Fish Kebab, opened in 1990, the same year they divorced. (The couple have two grown children.) The Marketplace, opened in 1996, sells prepared foods and imported Mediterranean groceries and also boasts a dining room with a spectacular view of Manhasset Bay.
"There's something about this view," he said, "the water, the houses, the hills -- it always reminds me of Kyrenia, and it's a blessing to look at it every day." Kyrenia is a historic port city in Cyprus, across the island from Paphos, where Hassan was born in 1952 to a Turkish family.
After attending school in Greece, he signed on to a Greek tanker and "zigzagged around the ocean" for three years. It was in Long Beach, Calif., that he met a fellow who said he had a cousin working at a diner on Long Island.
And so, 19-year-old Hassan became a busboy at the Tally Ho Diner on Route 110. He worked at the Syosset House Diner, Link's Log Cabin in Centerport and Mediterranean Snack Bar in Huntington (which, he believes, served the first kebabs on Long Island) before deciding to go out on his own.
EVOLUTION OF THE KEBAB
At his restaurants, Hassan's cooking draws on Cypriot, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Arab and Israeli influences. The centerpiece of his kitchen -- and of his empire -- is the kebab. "Meat just looks better on a kebab," he said, "and for some reason, it tastes better, too."
When Shish Kebab opened in 1980, Hassan and his staff had a lot of explaining to do: What was a kebab? What was a gyro? What was pita? "Even yogurt got questions," he recalled. Over the next 16 years, he converted Port Washington to the cult of kebabs, and in 1999, he opened, somewhat apprehensively, a very large space in the Plainview Shopping Centre. His fears were unfounded. "The minute we opened," he recalled, "people were lining up. Hundreds of them."
After Plainview, Hassan ventured south to Rockville Centre. A year later, in May 2001, an outbreak of shigellosis was traced to his restaurants. The Nassau Health Department eventually confirmed more than 100 cases of the nondeadly bacterial infection, including 15 of Hassan's employees. Hassan was slapped with three lawsuits (later, he says, settled by his insurance company out of court).
"It was like a brick fell on my head," he recalled.
Hassan said it took business about a year to rebound.
Over the next decade, he opened restaurants in Westbury, Baldwin and Great Neck. So as not to compete with Baldwin, he converted the nearby Rockville Centre location to an Ayhan's Pita Express ("slightly smaller portions, smaller price, more takeout") and, with his sister, he opened a second Pita Express last year in East Meadow.
Beverly Hazelkorn remembers those first weeks after the health-scare news broke. "He didn't say, 'It wasn't my fault.' He said, 'I'm going to fix it.' People knew him, they cared about him and they decided to give him a chance." She paused. "And time proved him right."