Raci Erdem came to the United States from Turkey in 1990, still a teenager, aiming to find out if America looked anything like it did in the TV soap, Dallas. After developing a taste for the restaurant business in New York (where he worked as a waiter and coffee boy), he met his wife and moved to her native Spokane.
Erdem worked odd jobs at Salty's and Clink's but never in the kitchen. In 1996, with no formal culinary education and little business experience, the self-proclaimed "wannabe chef" opened his own restaurant. Ever since then, the White House Grill in North Idaho, serving up tabbouleh, kebabs and baklava - "Mediterranean cooking with a Post Falls flair" - has been one of the most beloved restaurants in the region.
So how did he do it?
Step 1: Pay Attention to Detail
Erdem leads me through the rigors of his daily routine. The key to maintaining a successful restaurant, he says, is to keep an eye on the little things that make the experience for the customer. The first thing he does every morning, he says as he draws me into one of the restaurant's three dining rooms, is to walk the floor, looking for the details others might have overlooked -- burnt-out light bulbs, misplaced silverware, too-loud music (right now, it's the Gipsy Kings, at a reasonable volume). He checks to see if the bathroom has been cleaned. He makes sure all of the pictures on the wall are sufficiently crooked (one of the restaurant's trademarks, the product of a drunken night of interior decorating at his original location).
Turning toward the kitchen, Erdem explains. "You make the same kebabs for eight years," he says, "you start to think you're pretty good. But that's when you miss something." The White House had to move out of its first building (a block south) because it couldn't hold all of the people who showed up each night. Even now, in a building more than twice the size, he says, lines can grow long during dinner hours. But success hasn't made him lazy. "Climbing is hard," he says of the restaurant's early days. "Staying there is harder."
We step behind the kitchen's busy front lines, slippery floor mats under our feet, white-clad cooks swinging from one end to the other like acrobats, tending to tall boiling pots and flaming saucepans. Erdem moves quickly, throws open a refrigerator; he's making mental notes of his inventory, taking a "snapshot," he says. He looks closely, smells the ingredients at the salad bar and then, heaving open the door to the walk-in refrigerator, invites me in. "This is my office," he says, checking on the sea bass.
"Every day is a new day" in the restaurant business, he tells me. Every day is a new opportunity to forget the previous night's mistakes and make everything right again. That's where the little things matter.
Step 2: Give the people what they want
Throw a sign reading "Turkish Food Here" on your Post Falls restaurant and see how many people come. Probably not too many. Hummus and kebabs are not staples of the Inland Northwest's diet. But garlic -- now that's universal.
Ask anyone what they think of the White House, and they'll bring up garlic in their first breath. In fact, having visited the restaurant a week ago, their first breath will probably be laden with the stinking bulb's pungent aroma. The White House is famous for its heavy hand with garlic, burning through 200 pounds of the stuff every week. So much is garlic the White House's trademark, in fact, that Erdem says his customers have returned from trips to Italy and Turkey expressing their disappointment at the lack of garlic in their culinary travels.
So it doesn't matter if you've never tasted hummus before. If you like garlic, then the White House is for you; if you don't, Erdem says, "you'll hate this place."
Step 3: Make It A Spectacle
To really understand the White House's allure, all you need to do is get a seat near the open kitchen and watch -- or listen to -- Erdem work. The man is, pardon the expression, a ham. He shouts, he cracks jokes, he hums and sings loudly and endlessly, often off-key, in la la las and lie la lies -- even after the music has ended.
He's a showman. On busy nights, with diners packed together in busy European style, lines bunching up around the front door, Erdem patrols the floor, banging on a drum, engaging customers in spirited conversation, singing "Happy Birthday" or whatever else occurs to him. He even acquired a small gong recently -- another way to make noise, to keep customers on their toes.
"We don't like to be stuffy," he says, understating the issue.
That zaniness pays off. As customers head out the door, they make sure to say goodbye to Raci ("RAH-jee"), the women cooing almost girlishly, and he bids them adieu in almost operatic fashion. Those are customers who will be back.
Erdem's charisma and roguish good looks might also be his key to larger fame. Executives at the Food Network are currently sifting through a sea of video applications for a new reality show, a kind of culinary American Idol. On one of those videos, they'll find Raci Erdem from the White House Grill in Idaho, smashing plates in his kitchen and tenderizing chicken breasts with a sledgehammer. Erdem says he's not holding his breath, but he acknowledges that being one of the eight contestants on the show could open some doors. If he gets on, he says, with glee, "I want to cook in nothing but an apron; I'll be the real Butt Naked Chef."
They don't teach you this stuff in business school. But it's that kind of enthusiasm, if nothing else, which has made a vibrant success out of an unlikely idea.