With Turkish, Greek and Kurdish communities on its doorstep and a bevy of Polish, Russian and Ukranian neighbours, it’s fair to say that Yasar Halim’s patisserie, in Haringey, North London, has a tough job to keep all of its customers happy.
But step into the shop and it’s obvious that the patisserie, one of many Turkish businesses stretching along the busy, colourful Green Lanes shopping district, is more than satisfying its customers’ needs. At 11 o’clock on a Thursday, before the lunchtime peak hits, the place is buzzing with customers of all nationalities, picking from an exotic selection of Turkish and continental cakes, pastries, biscuits and bread.
Turkish-Cypriot founder Yasar Halim has worked around the clock to build up the business since he opened it in 1981, and is still to be found at the patisserie seven days a week. That’s some achievement for a man who left Cyprus for London in 1982, arriving at Victoria station as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, with no firm plans. While Yasar initially found himself washing plates for a living, his love of, and interest in, food was to be the key to his success and he was soon employed as a filo pastry-maker.
Fast-forward 46 years and he is heading up a buzzing business. Five bakers work throughout the day, so that fresh goods are always available, from when the shop opens at 9am until closing time at 10pm. Eight staff man the counters at the front of the shop. And Yasar is not one to sit back and let others do the work - he’s to be found in the shop every day, keeping an eye on business and testing out new recipes to add to the large range.
Trial and error
Most of the products at the patisserie are based on Yasar’s recipes. He prefers trial and error when devising new ones, rather than painstaking research in books or the internet. Some are inspired by traditional Turkish Cypriot dishes, others by family recipes. Other products are based on food he has tasted during his travels and in the UK. "If I eat something I like, I find out what goes inside it," he explains.
The range, piled up in racks through the shop or displayed in counters, certainly has the wow factor. Traditional Turkish flatbreads in sesame seed or plain varieties are supplemented by Yasar’s more experimental versions, such as a flat round loaf made with tahini, sugar, cinnamon and butter. But fans of other European breads need not be disappointed - English, French, Italian, Greek Cypriot and Polish breads are also on offer.
A hot savouries counter offers exotic snacks, including: filled borek - pastries with spinach, meat or halloumi cheese; filled pancakes called gozleme; pastirmati, which are breads stuffed with meat or cheese; plus more widely-known favourites such as pizza. And these treats are a bargain - with most priced between £1 and £1.50, Yasar Halim’s patisserie offers a truly wallet-friendly lunchtime option in a notoriously expensive city. "We’re working at a very small profit," he says. Credit-crunch Thursdays - a recent introduction - see prices of basic items reduced further, attracting yet more custom to the shop.
Freshness and simplicity are key to the patisserie’s range. Only fresh egg and fresh milk are used, nothing is frozen, and customers hoping for some added animal fat or preservatives will be disappointed. The patisserie caters well for the various religious beliefs of its customers. Pork is not used and the range is adapted to cater for the needs of Muslims and Greek Orthodox, for example, during times of fasting.
As with any business, Yasar Halim’s patisserie has some challenges on its hands. Recruiting trained and skilled bakers is a real problem. "It has been very difficult to find skilled bakers," says buyer Birsen Halim (no relation). "We’ve tried people straight out of college and have even tried the local newspaper and talked to local schools." Many new recruits have dropped out after a few weeks, as they find it difficult to cope with the hours.
"The problem is, many young people come [to work] here and they don’t really know what their future is going to be - they haven’t really thought about it," she says.
The patisserie is additionally burdened because it finds students who have trained in the UK often have no idea how to make the Turkish-Cypriot specialities. The obvious solution would be to source bakers from Turkey. But the patisserie has been stumped, Birsen says. The Home Office is not keen to grant work visas unless it has proof that immigrants can prove they are trained. Yet Turkish bakers, while highly-skilled, have often trained on the job, so do not have certificates. Their visa applications are often turned down. It would be helpful to the business, Birsen says, if the rules were relaxed.
Parking is another problem that the patisserie’s local council, Haringey, has not been able to resolve satisfactorily. It’s quite common for customers to get slapped with a £50 fine after popping into the shop for 10 minutes to buy £10 worth of food.
Like everyone, the patisserie is finding it tough to deal with rising costs of raw ingredients and energy. They source their flour from ADM, which has just pushed through a price increase. Yasar, though, is a model of positive thinking. "It’s been a tough year, but we’re just going to carry on making good products and giving really good service," he says.
It’s very clear from talking to the pair that the patisserie is far more than a food business - it’s also a community hub. Seasoned locals often arrange to meet at the shop for a spot of browsing, before heading off elsewhere. And it also has its own celebrity fans. The cast of EastEnders often cheer themselves up with a treat or two from the shop. And Cherie Blair’s actor father Tony Booth can sometimes be spotted eyeballing the baklava, while comedian Bob Mills pores over the patisserie.
But, and probably most importantly, Yasar Halim’s customers know that if they need advice, someone at the shop will listen and help them. And this extends to all cultures and nationalities, and is helpful to recent immigrants just finding their feet in the capital, particularly if their English is not good. Yasar and his staff give practical advice on medical help and schools and have also provided emotional support to those in a crisis. He sums it up neatly. "We serve the human being."
No wonder his customers are loyal.
l Yasar Halim’s Patisserie, 495 Green Lanes, Haringey, London, N4 1AL. Tel 020 8340 8090/020 8348 1074
=== Highlights of the range ===
Turkish flatbread - 68p
Turkish ring bread, Simit, made with grape juice syrup - 45p
Olive bread with halloumi cheese - £1.40
Pilavuna, a type of bun, traditionally made at Easter, that the patisserie makes all year round. Ingredients include eggs, sultanas and halloumi cheese - £1.65
Lokma, similar to a doughnut - made from flour, yeast and water, formed into balls, deep fried and coated with sugar syrup - 10p
Large Borek, a pastry snack filled with spinach, meat or cheese - £1.40 Nor Borek, a sweet pastry filled with ricotta, cinnamon and sugar - 90p Peksimet, an almond biscuit, traditionally given as a wedding favour - £1.45 a packet
Pastirmati, a stuffed bread snack, filled with meat or cheese - £1.30