If you haven’t tried a delightful Turkish doner kebap yet, you will soon, if entrepreneur Ongun Kocabas has anything to say about it.
Ongun, born and raised in Turkey was always inspired by his father, a successful business owner in the food manufacturing industry. After Ongun studied economics in Turkey, he set out to pursue his own entrepreneurial dream and applied for a scholarship to a culinary school in Chicago, expressing in his application his desire – and business plan – to bring doner kabap to the mainstream market in the United States.
He received the scholarship and after graduating from the program, he worked in an internship at a Los Angeles Michelin star restaurant. “It was a good process to understand the restaurant business in the United States. After that it was time to start my business with my family.”
Ongun is co-founder of Egea Food LLC of Miami, along with his brother-in-law, Tufan. To start Egea Food, Ongun’s father borrowed some funds from a friend and they set out to find a meat processing facility in the states. Not able to afford the prices in the New York area, they headed to Florida and were able to buy a Miami meat processing plant that they had seen listed online. After purchasing the plant, Ongun and Tufan did all the renovations themselves. “We started painting walls, repairing the coolers, the plumbing lines, everything. And then in three months we prepared the facility for inspection,” Ongun said.
After passing USDA inspection and receiving the required permits by the end of 2017. , they used a credit card to buy two cases of meat to get started and grow from one employee. “We started our operation in 2018 in January,” Ongun said.
HELP FROM FLORIDA SBDC AT FIU
Florida SBDC at FIU began working with Ongun and his team in late 2018. SBDC’s partner Accion referred them to SBDC after providing them with financing for new equipment. “Our team has assisted them with marketing and financial management assistance. Working with them for a few years now, we have been impressed with their dedication to grow the business and the progress they have made in that time,” said Brian van Hook, regional director of Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center within FIU’s College of Business that offers business consulting services to growing small businesses for no charge.
Recommended by SBDC at FIU, Ongun was selected as the 2020 SBA Young Entrepreneur of the Year, for the State of Florida and South Florida. Last year, SBDC nominated Egea for the SFMA Manufacturer of the Year award in the 1-30 employees category and Egea was a top 4 finalist for the award.
At Florida SBDC at FIU, Egea worked closely with business consultant Nile Kirec, a specialist in marketing, customer acquisition and business strategy, who helped Ongun with the company’s road map that included expansion into multiple states and planning for a future retail packaging line. “Every two weeks we had a meeting. We shared everything with Nile and Roberto [Castellon], who helped us with financials… Now we are distributing in eight states and we started this process with Nile,” Ongun said.
The business is focused on sales of doner kebap cones, which are similar only in shape to the gyro or shawarma. “Our product is 100 percent sliced beef and lamb, hand-stacked and made with traditional spices. Egea is working with a single farm in the USA which offera Certified Angus Beef.”
THE PANDEMIC IMPACT
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Egea pivoted to retail lines, which was in the plans but not for this soon, Ongun said. “2020 was really difficult for us. We had to shut down our operation for about 45 days and our sales decreased 70% because all the restaurants were closed or they were just serving takeaway or deliveries.”
The company had planned to launch a retail line of ready-to-eat doner kebap cones but during the pandemic decided to launch it sooner rather than later. “We didn’t want to miss the opportunity because I didn’t want to just sit down and wait for this pandemic. So we started with small cones we slice by hand for just a couple of groceries around Miami. Thanks to SBDC’s assistance, we were able to get a bridge loan for $50,000. It was perfect timing.”
Egea was able to buy a slicing and packaging machine and increase capacity to 1,200 pounds a day. Soon the small business started to sell through distributors in Miami but also in New York, New Jersey and other states, Ongun said. “Now 40% of our sales are retail products. “Sometimes crisis brings opportunity.”
With limited time, Egea launched first with white-label products for two different distributors. “By the end of the year, we are going to launch our own brand,” he said.
SBDC consultant Roberto Castellon also helped Ongun with the Paycheck Protection Program process. Egea received two critical PPP loans during the pandemic and was able to retain every employee.
“As an immigrant businessmen in the United States, We have been really fortunate to work with SBDC because they engage us with the community, they engage us with the business life in the United States,” explained Ongun. “They were great during this journey. All the assistance and mentorship that SBDC provides for business planning — it was really valuable for us.”
WHERE EGEA IS NOW AND WHAT’S AHEAD
Starting out with one employee in 2018 and about 30 restaurant accounts, Egea hit $550,000 in sales its first year. Last year, the company hit $2.4 million in sales, despite the pandemic, and this year Ongun is on track to generate $3.5 million, Ongun said. Egea now has 23 employees, and sells through four distributors, one in Florida and the other three in New York or New Jersey. In total, Egea serves customers in eight states plus Vancouver, Canada. The company is in conversations with a huge national distributor.
Egea’s biggest market is New York-New Jersey because of the large Middle Eastern and Turkish communities there. But Florida is a high-potential market for this affordable, healthy and tasty fast food, Ongun said.
What’s next? “By next year, we’re going to launch our own brand for retail lines. We want to start with local supermarket chains. We want to take our product from ethnic markets to mainstream markets and create awareness about the doner kebap,” Ongun said. “We want to create our brand as a pioneer of this market because it is going to grow. We don’t want to miss this opportunity.”
Longer term, Ongun hopes Egea’s ready-to-eat doner kebap cones, created in the traditional Turkish way, are in big supermarket chains and competing with hamburger and burritos. “We want to create a habit for all United States customers.”
His advice to other entrepreneurs: “Being an entrepreneur in the United States is the best journey you can ever have. If you work hard, if you know what you’re doing, and if you have [goals], you will not fail.”