Armando Litiatco and Ahmet Kirenbay, Co-Owners of F.O.B. and Shindig

This is Armando Litiatco and Ahmet Kiranbay, the co-owners of F.O.B. and Shindig. Armando is a classically trained chef who grew up in San Francisco in a food-focused Filipino family while Ahmet is originally from Ankara, Turkey and worked as an accountant before emigrating to the U.S. in 2006. And despite the fact that they’re from different countries where they grew up in much different environments, have different religions and different cultures, they believe that they were brought together by their love of food. The two met in San Francisco 13 years ago and have been working together ever since. Armando was working as a chef at Google when he met Ahmet and convinced him that they would make the perfect team to cater Google’s holiday party for 200 people. He told him, “You understand the numbers and I understand the food. Let’s help each other and do it together.” Within a week they had opened a catering company and secured the job at Google. And since that time, it’s always been that same dynamic: Armando in the kitchen and Ahmet managing the front of house operations and accounting. But now with their newest ventures, F.O.B. (their restaurant) and Shindig (their catering company), they’ve been working together to introduce New Yorkers to a cuisine that’s very close to both of their hearts: Filipino BBQ. Not only are they trying to educate customers about Filipino culture through their delicious food, they strive to create an environment in their restaurant that make customers feel like they’re eating at home.

Armando was raised around food. His father was a chef and wanted him to become a chef as well so he started working in the industry at a very young age. His first job was washing dishes at McDonald’s and his experience grew from there. He worked as a busboy, a server, a baker, a bartender- every job that you can do in any type of food establishment, he did. Until one day, he approached the chef at the restaurant that he was working at at the time and asked if he could work in the kitchen with him since he was always cooking at home for friends and family. The chef encouraged him to go to the California Culinary Academy (CCA) so that he could get proper culinary training rather than trying to learn it over years in the kitchen. So Armando applied, was accepted and went to culinary school for 2 years before starting his career as a chef in San Francisco. Ahmet’s path was little different. He had no experience in food before coming to the U.S. other than his appreciation for food, which came from his sophisticated palate. He was actually sent to the U.S. by his accounting firm in Turkey to learn English because he had told his boss that he was beginning to feel burnt out in his position. So they sent him to a language school in the U.S. for 2-3 months to help him clear his mind. It was during this time that he met Armando in San Francisco and decided to stay in the U.S. Ahmet says that he felt bad at the time and knew it was a huge risk to take, but he had gotten sick of only looking at numbers and talking to banks and was ready to make a change. And although their first event at Google really threw him into the industry and he initially felt uncomfortable, he felt it was something he could see himself doing long-term as a way to challenge himself and grow as an individual.

After growing their business in San Francisco to cater weddings, art gallery openings and corporate parties in Silicon Valley, Armando and Ahmet decided to move to Miami after visiting the city for vacation. They loved the lifestyle there (the weather, the beach) and it was easier to make a living because it was cheaper than San Francisco at the time. There they ran a variety of Asian fusion restaurants with Armando as the chef and Ahmet managing, and during their days off they would barbecue on the beach. Their favorite food to cook became Filipino BBQ, especially because most of the food was on skewers so it was easy to cook and eat as they sat in the sand. It was during their time in Miami that they started thinking about opening their own place and came up with the concept for F.O.B., drawing inspiration from their beach barbecues. They spent two years playing with menu items, perfecting recipes and finalizing the idea before they started looking at spaces to open the restaurant. They checked out Miami first and got a few offers but it didn’t feel right. There weren’t many distinct restaurants in Miami (a lot of places were doing a fusion of Asian cuisines) so they were concerned that they concept wouldn’t work there. They wanted to be somewhere with a little more diversity in it’s food community, where people were more open-minded and where they could focus on doing one cuisine really well. So they flew to New York and immediately it felt like that’s where they needed to be. Not only did it fit what they were looking for for F.O.B, they realized that they missed the city life that they had in San Francisco and were tired of the constant sunshine in Miami. Once they had settled on New York, they traveled back and forth for months looking for the right spot. Manhattan seemed too upscale and corporate but they liked the neighborhood vibe in Brooklyn where they felt like you could find more mom-and-pop places like theirs. One day in August 2016 they happened to be walking by a space in Carroll Gardens and noticed it had “for rent” sign out in front. They got in touch with the owner to see it and right when they walked in, they knew it was their place. They opened F.O.B. three months later in November 2016.

FOB Restaurant

Because Armando and Ahmet had a tight budget, they were looking for a space that was easy to open and were lucky enough to find a restaurant that didn’t need too many changes. They only needed to clean and paint and didn’t need any renovations, which allowed them to focus on making the space their own and embodying the homey, laid-back, comfortable culture that they wanted customers to notice right when they walked in. The design is very much a “beach town” feel, inspired by their time in Miami, combined with their home-style cooking. Many customers tell them it feels like they’re in their grandmother’s house, which Armando says is exactly the point. They want it to feel like you’re coming into a home when you enter their restaurant and that there’s no pressure to do anything except enjoy yourself. They decorated the space with bright colors, mismatched China plates on the walls and macrame plants, incorporating a lot of different styles that seem to work, just like at grandma’s house. Like their food, they wanted the restaurant’s environment to be very approachable and relaxed for customers, which has also extended into the working culture of their staff. Because they only have a small crew of 6 people, they try to make it more of a team atmosphere rather than “us” and “them”. Their management style, even in San Francisco and Miami, has always been very inclusive and focuses on leading by example, because they never want their employees to feel a separation between their work and the work of “the boss”. They believe that everyone is building the business together so they trust their employees to be as invested in the work as they are and want them to feel empowered in their roles.

Armando and Ahmet believe that continuing to learn- about food, about the restaurant industry and about your own business- is the best way for a chef or an entrepreneur to succeed in such a tough industry. They see it as a disservice when people work in food for a couple of years and want to open a restaurant right away. They believe that you need to learn as much as you can, either managing restaurants or spending time in the kitchen, before jumping into it. So that when you do open your own place, it won’t be such a huge shift that you’re not used to. Instead, you’ll know what to expect. Learning every part of your own business is another key ingredient to success for them. They suggest working every role in your restaurant, from dishwasher to salad station to server, so that you have firsthand knowledge of that job and what it entails. And so that you can answer any customer’s question regarding what happens at any step of their meal creation. This principle is, again, reflected in their staff and how they’re trained. Every employee goes through every station in training so that they’re aware of what’s going on in every role and can interact with customers confidently. They believe that you can’t explain something to a customer when you don’t understand it yourself so their method of cross-training gives all of their employees a solid knowledge of each person’s role on their team. And going back to leading by example, they encourage their employees to get comfortable doing other jobs, so their cooks will answer the phone and take reservations and Armando will wash dishes if someone is out. Not only is it a good way for them to learn, it also prepares their employees to own their own business in the future.

The toughest part of the restaurant business for Armando and Ahmet is how physically taxing it is to be on your feet and running around all day. Being a restaurant owner is a exhausting, especially when you’re working in the restaurant as well as coordinating catering orders and doing the deliveries. But being able to see a concept that you’ve worked so hard to develop come to life and be successful is the most gratifying feeling. And being able to educate people who have never tried Filipino food before on the food itself and the culture of it and watching them taste the food for the first time and love it, is amazing to see. Armando says that he loves knowing that NYC is so diverse and because of that, so many different people from so many different backgrounds are trying his food and being exposed to Filipino food. As business owners, both Armando and Ahmet aim to give off the same happiness that the Filipino people are known for and extend that happiness so that their customers feel it too. Even though the people in The Philippines may not be the richest in the world, they’re always smiling and enjoying themselves. Armando and Ahmet hope that they can infuse that happiness and their passion for Filipino food into the dishes that they create so that their customers always feels comfortable and at home.

 

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