Oct. 12, 2015

Aslı Durukan Pasınlı


Aslı Durukan Pasınlı

Founder and Head, Soul Group

TBY talks to Aslı Durukan Pasınlı, the Founder and Head of the Board at Soul Group, on promoting the Asian-fusion culinary trend in Turkey, and the importance of location and differentiation to their brand's success.


Aslı Durukan Pasınlı holds an Economics degree from Bosphorus University İstanbul and an MBA degree from The University of Illinois, USA. She has worked for the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, İstanbul, and Vienna offices for a total of six years in Strategic Planning and Marketing managerial roles. She is the founder of Soul Group and has been the head of the Board for the last 12 years.

What have been the main achievements of Soul Group?

When we first started 12 years ago, my husband and I were both involved in the corporate world, mostly working in marketing, and did not know anything much about the restaurant business; only the marketing side of things, which allowed us to get together an idea, a brand, and a business plan. Importantly, our friends and our bosses in the corporate world were very interested. We offered them small shares; none of them invested too much money, and we diversified the risk and raised the money we needed. It was amazingly helpful, and we agreed that they would be silent partners, but through friendship they became active partners. Everyone had a strength; for example, one had the network, one had a finance background, another had an agency background, and so everyone's energy and know-how came together and that is how Banyan came to be what it is now. I find this a very interesting start up for people who want to do it; it is a creative way of raising money. It was a different approach, and very helpful for us, and Banyan was the first Asian fusion restaurant in Turkey. It was a challenge because people did not know too much about ginger, coriander, and all those ingredients, but it was a learning process for all those people and within a few years more restaurants had opened and the concept became more popular, and not just here. In the last 12 years, Banyan has received 10 awards, the last one being from Trip Advisor; we received an Award of Excellence and are in the top 10% in terms of customer reviews in the world, which is a great honor.What have been your greatest achievements, not only as Banyan, but also as a group?

When we were creating a concept, the main idea was to fill the space of what was missing in Turkey and see how we could differentiate ourselves, and we follow world trends, especially those in London and New York,and so we went there and looked around to see what was popular and so forth, and we recognized that Asian-fusion was missing in Turkey. So that is how we came up with the concept. In the world, the success of a restaurant typically comes down to the food; it is the number one criteria, followed by location, and we figured that in Turkey it is the other way around, with location being the number one criteria. You have to be either in a very convenient location or a very unique location, and in our case Banyan happens to be at a very unique location in terms of the view. I think the driving success behind Banyan is firstly the location, and secondly the differentiation; we offer food that is not readily available and which is becoming more popular. Thirdly, it is the people. The restaurant sector has a very high turnover of staff, and it is difficult to retain the same faces, but at Banyan, because we come from a corporate background, we brought that culture to the restaurant business, and now the corporate culture is being incorporated into this industry. I think our employees appreciate that approach and they have thanked us by remaining loyal, and most of our employees have been with us from the beginning, which is amazing. They are the key and people associate them more with the restaurant than with us. We are in the business, but not on the stage and many people do not know that we are the owners, because there are concepts in Turkey that are built around the owners, but our concept is built around the food and the ambiance. I find that for my business it is much healthier, because if you are big, you cannot be everywhere anyway. There is a classic saying that you have to be at the restaurant all the time; in our case, we reversed that and, on the contrary, I do not want people to come for me, and that has become a strength because we have very good people who deliver and our clients receive good food and ambiance and that is why they come.

How do you translate your motto 'Food for the Soul' into the eating experience?

We are the Soul Group; we want to build places that enhance your soul through the eating experience, and that is our goal. It is not all about dining out, it is the impression given; the way the food is served and the ambiance. It is all about creating a unique experience that will enhance your soul. One thing in common is the view; we have five places in Istanbul on the Bosphorus, and we do not want to go anywhere that does not have a view; the food is also a very important element of the concept and we always take care with that, the sourcing and the quality, the preparation, and the service. Everything is homemade, even our bread, and we even fly in special cheeses from around the country. For example, we source some cheese from the Ayvalik region, and we also have a farmer in Iznik that provides tomatoes from the mountains, not to mention a farmer in Alaçati that farms baby artichokes, and farmers in Bergama who collect herbs. We also work with people who bring in cheese from around Anatolia. For example, in the winery we have 20 different artisanal cheeses made by different producers, and that also contributes to the theme of food for the soul, because nothing is ordinary, even a cheese platter contains a story. In our case, we are building our strategy on not becoming a chain, which is another trend in Turkey. When we say “Food for the Soul" and you look at enhancing the experience, each location is unique and cannot replicated, and nor should it.

How do you market your restaurants in terms of branding to ensure that they are all unique, but consistent within the group?

I have a marketing background and I love to talk about it; my partner is also a marketing guru and we love discussing these things. Of course we have an umbrella, a group brand, but we choose to treat every location differently, as if they are competing with each other, so that each becomes unique.