In the almost two years since they opened their Turkish restaurant a half-block from a boardwalk that perpetually smells like French fries and caramel corn, John and Semra Tekmen have learned to read the beach crowd in this popular seaside town.
Like the weather, they are a fickle bunch, cramming the restaurant at varying times, depending on whether it’s hot and sunny, sunny with clouds expected to roll in later or already raining.
Many customers have never heard of dolma, baba ganoush or kofte, items on the menu. The Tekmens, who wait on customers and bus tables with their teenage sons, spend a lot of time explaining the dishes, their origins, how things are made. They are quick to offer samples and strike up conversations about Turkey and Middle Eastern food.
“A lot of them are meat and potato people from rural Pennsylvania,” said John Tekmen, 43. “These people have never tasted Middle Eastern food, Turkish food. To them, it’s very foreign.”
Though many want their beach food fast and cheap, some customers initially complained about the plastic plates, utensils and foam cups the restaurant used its first season, and the Tekmens switched to silverware, ceramic plates and authentic hour-glass shaped tea glasses.
Semra’s occupies prime real estate on Rehoboth Avenue, a coveted spot between an old time photo studio where patrons can dress up in Wild West costumes and a T-shirt shop that offers airbrushing and henna tattoos. It is a few doors down from Louie’s Pizza, the “home of the grinder,” and from the iconic Dolle’s, a nearly century-old salt water taffy, popcorn and fudge shop whose signature orange lettering towers over this corner of the boardwalk. This winter the Tekmens renovated their restaurant, replacing booths with tables and adding additional Turkish touches in preparation for the official start of beach season in May.
“It’s a good thing, and a bad thing,” John Tekmen said of the restaurant’s ocean-block location. “We get exposure, but our quality is more upscale,” meaning prices are higher than more standard beach fare, ranging from $8.95 for a beef gyro to $20.95 for the lamb chops platter. The vegetarian appetizer platter, Semra’s best-seller, which comes with hummus, stuffed grape leaves, potato and bean salad and yogurt sauce, is $14.95.
“We have a lot of people saying, thank you, thank you thank you for having something other than pizza,” John Tekmen said.
Alena Morgunova, who worked at the T-shirt factory on Rehoboth Avenue last summer, became a regular at Semra’s. She typically ordered the chicken and rice.
“I’m going to come every day,” said Morgunova, who is from Russia and works during the summer in Rehoboth. “It’s just amazing. I clean the table. It reminds me of my home.”
Michelle Davidson, who comes to the beach once a year from Philadelphia, wandered into Semra’s last summer while looking for a hot dog.
“The food was absolutely amazing,” she said. “I love Rehoboth, but you’ve got Thrasher’s french fries, pizza. In Philadelphia, you have access to different kinds of restaurants. This is great.”
Semra’s is trying to find its niche in a part of America where Semra Tekmen conceded, “they don’t know the Turkish people. They don’t know the Muslim people.”
In 2011, 8.4 percent of Delaware's total population was immigrants, compared to 5.7 percent in 2000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Of those, the largest group (41 percent) was from Latin America, followed by India and China.
During the summer season, three hectic, exhausting months when the restaurant must make most of its revenue to survive in the off-season, sandy tourists peak in the doorway or carry-out window. Some are curious about the meat rotating on the spit (for Turkish doner kebab) or the poster of the belly dancer, advertising weekly shows. Others have heard about Semra, the 37-year-old doting owner with the eager smile who makes her own yogurt, pudding and pastries.
“It’s my mother’s food, my grandmother’s food,” Semra Tekmen said. “I make my own red pepper. Do you want to try it?”
Also Turkish, John Tekmen grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and moved to Dewey Beach, Delware, in 1989. In the off-season, he traveled between Arlington and Turkey. He owns a development company and used to run a trio of hotels in the boisterous party town next to the more artsy, gay-friendly Rehoboth Beach. (He has since divested of those properties). In 1994, Tekmen returned to Turkey to marry Semra, and brought his 18-year-old bride to one of the hotels in Dewey Beach. It was her first impression of America.
“I think American people just drink,” Semra said. “People are not the same. They don’t like good food. They eat frozen French fries. They buy soup at the grocery store.”
Semra Tekmen said she learned to cook in the early years of her marriage because she missed Turkish food. She dreamed of one day owning her own restaurant.
She makes almost everything from scratch, in the kitchen behind a dining room where brightly colored fabric drops from the ceiling and scenes of Turkey hang on the walls. “I just buy ketchup,” she said, “and chicken tenders. Kids were dragging their parents away, so we have food for them, and we do a white pizza. I bought frozen French fries, but I didn’t like them. Now I do fresh cut.”
One of her specialties is homemade yogurt, which she serves with meals and sells by the container.
To make the yogurt, she warms two gallons of whole milk and adds three to four cups of yogurt she’s already made for the culture. Then she stirs the mixture with a whisk in a large metal pot in the back of the kitchen, the buzz of a fan drowning out any attempt at conversation with two Turkish ladies who work for her. Making yogurt sounds easier than it actually is. The temperature of the milk has to be just right. If the milk is too cold, it won’t turn into yogurt, she said. If it is too hot, it will curdle and turn sour.
After she’s finished whisking the milk and culture, she covers the pot in three blankets, finishing off with her favorite, a dark blue and grey shawl with brown striping that belonged to her grandmother, Meryem.
“This is my lucky one,” she said, wrapping the pot, which will sit for 10 hours until the milk becomes thick yogurt. She touched her right hand on the pot, in a prayer.
Although John Tekmen can be the more outspoken of the two, at least in English, he wanted to make clear that Semra’s is not his restaurant. “It’s my wife’s restaurant,” he said. “I made her wait until our boys were older. But this is her restaurant.”
Indeed, Semra Tekmen is not only the namesake but really the face of the restaurant. She is obsessive about the details, about the appearance of the dining room and quality of the food.
“She’s a bit like the soup nazi,” John Tekmen said, “only nicer.”
Semra Tekmen shrugged.
“If I’m not here, they won’t eat,” she said of the customers.
Jackie Spinner is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She most recently reported from Palestine and Oman for the Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.” Spinner is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.