Five years ago at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, Turk Murat Demirtas ate a meal that changed his life. It wasn’t beef with red peppers or kung pao chicken that moved the Istanbul resident, who was vacationing in the United States at the time, but what came after: a fortune cookie.
“‘What is it?’ I asked my friends. I had never ever seen this product! Then I opened it and read my fortune: ‘Your new business will be successful,'” Demirtas told us recently in the front office at ForFun, his small fortune cookie factory — Turkey’s first — in Istanbul’s chichi Nisantasi district.
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A lawyer specializing in copyright and branding, he saw great potential for the novelty food in his own country, one with a historical affinity for fortune telling. In the Ottoman era soothsayers advised sultans in Topkapi Palace. Today Turks still practice kahve fali, or fortune telling from coffee grounds. After returning home, Demirtas shared his hunch with his American partner (and now fortune cookie fortune translater) Douglas Groesser, a teacher at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, and founded ForFun Fortune Cookie in 2009.
Demirtas’ road from lawyer and dance teacher (infectiously enthusiastic, he moonlights as an instructor of salsa, samba and belly dancing) to fortune cookie maker was anything but smooth. When he tried to purchase equipment from Boston company Sci Technology, whose president invented the world’s first fully automated fortune cookie machine, he was refused.
“They didn’t trust me,” Demirtas says, but then Groesser’s mother stepped in. After a few phone calls on his behalf the company relented.
So he and Groesser spent a week in Boston training to use the machine. “Crazy! It’s very complicated!” Demirtas said. The partners then placed their order and returned to Turkey. There, the government denied their application for a license to manufacture.
It took six months to convince the licensing bureau, whose officials couldn’t comprehend that a food containing paper, such as fortune cookies, would be safe to eat.
A new recipe for Turkish fortune cookies
Local ingredients presented the next obstacle. In addition to white sugar, Sci Technology’s recipe calls for corn flour and cornstarch, ingredients expensive in Turkey that Demirtas had to replace with wheat flour to bring costs under control. The new batter was so sticky that it gummed up the machine. Finally Demirtas and Groesser flew Sci Technology founder Yongsik Lee to Istanbul, where he worked with the duo to tailor the local batter to the machine’s requirements. The unintended result is a better fortune cookie, crisp and delicious compared with America’s spongy, artificial-tasting one.
ForFun’s 2009 launch — the biscuits come in chocolate, strawberry and zade (plain, or vanilla) flavors — brought new challenges. Like Demirtas, most customers had never heard of the fortune cookie. Some popped the entire thing in their mouths, paper fortune and all, which prompted Demirtas to redesign ForFun’s packaging. The box now prominently features the phrase “kir, bak, ye” (crack, look, eat), which is a clever play on kurabiye, the Turkish word for cookie or biscuit.
Demirtas also had not taken into account the Turkish tendency to take a fortune literally. “Turks love fortunes because we know that if you really believe what you read, it will happen,” Demirtas said. But that also meant that his cookies’ fortunes shouldn’t be too cryptic, vague or negative. One customer called ForFun to complain after opening a cookie with a fortune advising “Be careful.” Another, after reading “Just wait,” for three hours refused to leave her table at the restaurant where she had opened her cookie.
Now the cookies contain more propitious snippets. Demirtas’ current stock of fortunes — about 1,000 in total — comprise passages from Buddha, Mevlana and Greek philosophers, phrases suggested by friends and dance students, and simple directives. One of the most popular: “You need to go to the beach.”
Demirtas’ initial impulse was on the money. ForFun, which distributes to grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses (in Laleli, an Istanbul neighborhood with a large Russian population, pharmacists give the cookies away with prescriptions), and fills custom orders, boasts a yearly production of about 500,000 cookies. With customers all over Turkey, Demirtas is thinking about purchasing a second machine to increase production.
But one thing the business isn’t immune to is politics: June and July protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities buffeted sales. They’re coming back slowly, said Demirtas, who blames continuing concerns among Turks about possible military action in Syria.
Top photo: ForFun fortune cookies in Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman