For Istanbul Hawai‘i’s Chef Ahu, With Great Risk Came Great Reward

(Sponsored) Chef Ahu and her family risked financial ruin, even homelessness, to build the wildly successful restaurant we can’t get enough of.


Istanbul Hawaii Spread

Photo: Courtesy of Istanbul Hawai‘i


When Chef Ahu Hettema saw an empty space across from Whole Foods Market, she knew it was meant for Istanbul Hawai‘i. “I saw this beautiful trellis with flowers on it and it reminded me of the Mediterranean,” she says. “I said, ‘this is the place I have been looking for.’” Already a hit at farmers markets, she had been looking for a space to take it further. She envisioned a restaurant with an open kitchen, filled with local ingredients and the smells of Turkish spices. It would be a gift to her mom, Nili Yildirim, who had always dreamed of having a restaurant.


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But opening a restaurant is an incredibly risky and expensive business, and one banks did not seem keen on funding. Out of the 30 she approached, only one was willing to finance her with an SBA loan. To pull together capital, she and her family took on all the risk, pooling everything they had—retirement funds, home equity, savings. “Even then, what we thought would be enough to build this place was only enough for our HVAC,” she says. The space was completely bare—no electric, no plumbing, no water. Not even walls or framing. Turning this blank canvas into Istanbul would be a multimillion-dollar job. With no money to hire contractors, she, her husband and her dad took to building by hand every part of the restaurant—aside from the HVAC and chairs—from the ground up. Chef Ahu, who has a background in animation, visual effects and multimedia, lended her artistic eye to designing the entire space herself and spearheaded every detail of the restaurant. It took 14 tough, grueling months for three people to do the work of 30.


Istanbul Chef Ahu And Chef Nili

Immigrants turned entrepreneurs, chef Ahu Hettema and her mother, chef Nili Yildirim. Photo: Courtesy of Istanbul Hawai‘i


More than a year and several missed months of rent later, Istanbul was finally finished. Then, just as they were about to open, two things happened: “It flooded,” laughs the chef. With the budget maxed out, she had to use her credit card to buy more. Then, the pandemic hit. Fearing for her parents’ health, she chose to wait it out, thinking in a few months Covid would be a thing of the past. But as time passed with no end to the pandemic in sight, she realized it was now or never. “My husband said, ‘we need to start looking at bankruptcy attorneys,’” she says. “You maxed out your credit cards, we gave everything to the banks, we have nothing. We are going to be homeless. If you don’t open Istanbul, this is it.”


Istanbul Farmers Market

Istanbul first gained its following at farmers markets, where patrons would eagerly wait in line to order its Turkish eats. Photo: Courtesy of Istanbul Hawai‘i


You know how this story ends. Today, Istanbul’s brick-and-mortar space is alive and thriving. Though Chef Ahu laughs about it all now, she admits that the road to get here was paved thick with blood, sweat and tears. Because of this, there is only one Istanbul. “I don’t believe if I open another place that it will be that special,” she says. “It wouldn’t be something. It wouldn’t have the same secret.”