Food for Thought: Turkish Coffee Lady encourages connection and cultural exchange
How the Turkish Coffee Lady is changing the way we think about coffee
Food for Thought is a series highlighting immigrant owned restaurants in the DMV area. Play the TikTok below to see this article's accompanying video.
Nicknamed the “Turkish Coffee Lady,” Gizem Şalcigil White is working to connect Americans with Turkish coffee house culture as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
As founder and CEO of the Turkish Coffee Lady Foundation, White started her Alexandria-based gourmet coffee business from the ground up with the goal of sharing her cultural heritage and building community.
“Coffee is a wonderful communication tool,” White said.
Establishing her business in 2009, White could not have predicted the various challenges she would face in both her personal and professional life.
Similarly to many other small businesses, the pandemic and its associated shutdowns permanently altered the course of business for the Turkish Coffee Lady. However, White used the pandemic as another opportunity to engage in cultural diplomacy and make connections with members of her community: immigrant-owned small business leaders.
White hosted weekly virtual coffee hours on Zoom for women from various backgrounds to share a cup of coffee and chat. Many of the women also shared their difficult experiences as immigrants navigating a new cultural environment.
“People are homesick here,” White said. “We miss our country.”
That was not the first time White had experienced challenges and resilience based on her identity as an immigrant. When she first pitched her business idea, White claims she was met with heavy resistance.
“As an immigrant, originally from Turkey, of course I had to overcome a lot of stereotypes,” White said. “Not only being from another country, but also being a woman.”
Now, business is booming. There is often a line out the front door of the small coffee house and White frequently comes in on her day off to make sure things run smoothly.
The team operates out of a small kitchen, where they handwrite orders and offer some complimentary Turkish delights to anyone who waits more than a few minutes for their coffee. This hospitality can be attributed to the familial feeling that encompases the coffee house.
“I didn't want to build a team,” White said. “I wanted to build a family.”
When you walk into the storefront, it feels like walking into someone’s living room. With strangers cuddled up on the couch with a magazine and White’s daughter running around, offering customers stickers from her fairy princess sticker book, the place feels like home.
“We are so connected to each other,” White said, noting that this is emblematic of Turkish culture. “In Turkish culture, family is first and nothing else matters.”
Ultimately, the Turkish Coffee Lady business and brand is one that fosters and supports social connection, whether it's over Zoom or in a coffee house. With a heavy focus on building a space in which people feel a sense of belonging and community, White engages in cultural diplomacy that encourages Americans to think differently about how they consume coffee.
Instead of silently picking up your to-go coffee order, Turkish-style coffee houses encourage human connection and cultural exchange.
“Turkish coffee is not a caffeine rush,” White said. “It’s culture.”