Turkey's coffee culture hits the road
The Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck project aims to connect with people across Europe by sharing a taste of Turkish coffee culture.
By J. Paul Barker for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 30/01/13
When it comes to experiencing Turkish culture, the small cup of strong, dark, aromatic and often sweet Turkish coffee is only the beginning. The coffeehouse atmosphere is something that has to be experienced.
Along with the drink comes time to sit and talk with friends old and new and to share the latest news or gossip. It is a pause from life, a few minutes, or hours, to share stories and views on the world, to connect person-to-person. "One cup of coffee is full of 40 years of memories," says one Turkish proverb.
In his book Understanding Global Cultures, Martin Gannon, a professor of strategy and international management, uses the Turkish coffeehouse as a metaphor for understanding Turkish culture.
"In the oft-cited famous words of the great Turkish 20th century poet, Yahya Kemal, coffee has created its own culture in Turkey. What the Turkish coffeehouse represents is quite different from its counterparts in other countries."
While certainly not the first or only culture to embrace coffee, its more than 500-year history in Turkish culture has given it an important place in society.
"In the past, Turkish coffeehouses were the anchors of a community where science, religion, government and philosophy were discussed," Gizem Salcigil White, founder of the Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck and Turkayfe.org, told SES Türkiye.
"We want to continue this proud tradition into the 21st century," she said.
The idea behind the Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck is to embrace Turkish coffee culture, take it on the road and use it as a means to share the Turkish brand with other societies.
The Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck grew out of the success of Turkayfe.org, Turkey's first virtual coffeehouse. The website started in 2008 with a very small budget to promote Turkey through the individual experiences of Turks and foreigners while facilitating two-way communication between societies, White said.
Efe Sevin, one of the co-founders of the project, said White contacted him after she read his blog while researching nation branding.
"We met for the first time [and] drafted the first version of Turkayfe.org on a napkin. The idea of co-creating and sharing Turkey's story was so exciting to me," Sevin told SES Türkiye.
Building on the growing the online coffeehouse community, the Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck was born to promote world-renowned Turkish coffee culture and engage people in "coffee diplomacy," White said.
The group first started in the US, where a 2012 tour sparked interest in Turkish culture and introduced "a friendly and original approach to nation branding of Turkey," White said.
The concept of nation branding is not easy to define and is debated by scholars.
"Scholars agree on one thing -- nation branding is not designing a new logo. When people hear the word branding, they start thinking about new logos, slogans, and advertising campaigns. Nation branding is beyond this simplistic understanding of branding," Sevin said.
"At the end of the day, nation branding is the attempt to understand and explain what makes your nation unique," he added.
The Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck came to Istanbul in January for a few cultural events in preparation for a European tour later this spring. The three-week tour will stop in at least 13 cities in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, where it will visit university campuses, public locations, as well as other cultural events.
Though a truck driving across Europe is a bit different than Turkey's traditional coffeehouse, the goal of connecting people and sharing stories and ideas remains the same.
The Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck is staffed by volunteers, but has been made possible with the support of Turkish businesses, cultural foundations and donations from individuals who want to support the project.
The coffee is served without charge in the same manner as a mobile kitchen or a food-service truck. As the hot beverage is provided, crew members explain its origin and its place in Turkish society.
The truck serves coffee courtesy of Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, Istanbul's famous coffee producer, to introduce Turkish culture to foreigners.
Ismail Erzurumlu, a doctoral student at Koç University in Istanbul who attended the Istanbul event, was excited about the project and the European tour.
"In Germany, for example, they have seen immigrants, but I don't think they have really seen Turkish culture," Erzurumlu told SES Türkiye. "This can help to improve the relations between the cultures."
This is a goal that that Sevin and White also share -- a desire for people to share with other people and be able to connect across cultural or national boundaries.
"Grassroots attempts, like the Mobile Turkish Coffee Truck, can more easily reach target audiences, and connect with them on a personal basis," Sevin said. "Our aim with the project is to simply start a conversation with people."
Reflecting on how the coffee truck introduced a friendly and an original approach to nation branding of Turkey, White said the project sparked interest in Turkish culture by reaching more than 10,000 people in the US who sampled Turkish coffee, many of them for the first time.
"Face-to-face communication is crucial to enhancing the bonds of friendship between societies," White said.
"We hope to expand this all-volunteer cultural initiative first to Europe and then other parts of the world. The success will come when this inspiring story about Turkey and Turkish people will contribute to the national brand of this great nation," White said.