Turkish celebrity chef and entrepreneur Nusret Gökçe is breaking records again by opening his first Saltbae Burger restaurant at Istanbul International Airport (also referred to as Istanbul Grand Airport). Opened this past week with seating for nearly 200 people, it becomes one of the largest restaurants at the airport. The new outlet is just one part of a master strategy to grow the brand, a disrupter in the fast-casual burger category, internationally. Around 40 new locations are in the works, including about ten in major global airports.
This is not the first time a celebrity chef or well-known eatery brings its dining concept to an airport. In fact, airports worldwide are experiencing a boom in fine dining options that are reflective of the destinations they serve. While airport and airline lounges are always appealing, the idea of sitting down to a pre-flight gourmet meal is catching on quickly.
Saltbae Burger is just one of the restaurants in the Nusr-Et family of brands (the hyphen was added by the chef himself as a play on his name as well as the Turkish word for meat, “et”). Another well-known name under his collection is Nusret Steakhouse, a high-end steak restaurant akin to Morton’s, but with far more dramatic flair and entertainment.
It’s not only about the meal, but the performance of it all from the food’s presentation to staff to the DJ and staff interaction. With this proposed expansion for Saltbae Burger, it signals a new chapter for the culinary powerhouse as it plans to overhaul its menus, beverage lists and even music at restaurants around the world.
The airport outlets are just one component of this initiative, but an important one as it will introduce the brand to more people on a global scale.
Already well-known globally
Ask anyone about famous consumer brands that hail from Turkey, and they will likely mention Turkish Airlines, but foodies will immediately point to Nusr-Et. With locations across the globe including New York, Las Vegas, Miami, Dallas, Beverly Hills, Dubai, Bodrum and Mykonos among others, both the fine dining Nusr-Et Steakhouse and more casual, high-end fare of Saltbae Burger are well-liked.
Not everyone lives near one of its locations, however, and not everyone will have had the chance to travel to Turkey to see the chef in action, either.
The brand was born after a youthful Gökçe had to leave school after sixth grade to help support his family by becoming an apprentice in a butcher shop. This decision as the beginning of a successful career that has been on the rise ever since. He has honed his craft through decades of practice, including stints in Argentina and the United States (despite being turned down for an American visa multiple times before finally getting one for a three-month visit) where he worked in local restaurants.
He later returned to his home country to open his first Istanbul restaurant in 2010 followed by a second location in Dubai in 2014. Today, he has 29 restaurants in 14 cities and seven countries relying on more than 3,000 staff with more locations on the horizon.
The geographic awareness of his businesses can vary. According to Nusr-Et executives, U.S. diners are more familiar with the chef as a personality himself whereas in Turkey and the Middle East, people can quickly associate him with his restaurant brands.
The next chapter of expansion will help to overhaul that equation with Saltbae Burger leveraging the benefits of its sibling Nusr-Et Steakhouse and making both brands more familiar to diners worldwide.
For tourists, visiting one of Gökçe’s restaurants in Turkey is often a top request for hotel concierges in the country. Adding an airport venue makes it easier, especially for transit passengers.
Growth through social media
Developing a global brand from scratch is no easy feat, but Gökçe deserves credit for organically growing the business. Already a successful restaurateur, he once happened to post a series of internet videos showcasing his flair for slicing meat and sprinkling his signature pinches of salt. That seasoning move is not just a dash thrown gently, but more of a drop of sea salt from his fingertips down his wrist and into the air before landing on carefully sliced slabs of meat.
The videos quickly went viral spawning a worldwide love affair with the young chef, his knack for meat preparation and even more so, his ability to build entertainment out of a meal (something that some foodies call “eatertainment”). Today, he has more than 53 million global followers on Instagram alone.
In fact, the name of the restaurant, was born as an online meme, referring to “salt” and “before anyone else” (leading to the BAE acronym) since the chef salts the meat “before anyone else.” It quickly caught on. His menus rely on high-quality ingredients, often from Turkish farms or producers.
Among his friend list are celebrity names like Leonardo DiCaprio, David Beckham, Andrea Bocelli, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and many others, who often pay a visit to his restaurants around the globe, quickly making headlines when they do.
The chef’s Instagram feed is filled with pictures of him slicing and salting meat, interacting with customers and showing off his two-stage meat selection process. This involves maintaining top relationships with suppliers so that only the finest cuts of meat are reserved for his business. He uses a “double selection and elimination” method taking more than necessary to assure that only the finest pieces are used.
When slicing meat, the brand’s signature is using one single slice after cooking over 100% charcoal that cuts in a way that retains its enzymes and juices. Tracing and tracking the origins of each cut of meat is another hallmark that Nusr-Et outlets implement globally.
Why airports are the perfect venue now
As travel roars back bigger than ever, people are flocking to far-flung destinations that were on their bucket list for too long. They are transiting major hubs and looking for both familiarity as well as new discoveries. According to Akın Tavuz, board chairman for Nusr-Et, there is significant competitive advantage to open first in its home market being a global brand that started there. This is why Istanbul was the perfect first airport location.
The local airport management team courted the chef from its inception in 2018. For Nusr-Et, however, it was always about taking a careful approach to where and when they open new outlets. Istanbul’s largest international airport has already seen more than 65 million travelers year-to-date in 2023 with the number expected to grow. Its new Saltbae Burger venue enjoys the perfect position just after security and sits amid the corridor of luxury retail brands like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta and Cartier.
Nusr-Et executives tout a strong partnership with the airport in building the ideal prototype for their future airport outlets. This includes choosing the right location surrounded by other high-end brands.
This is similar to how Nusr-Et chooses to open venues in hotels, too, in places like Dubai’s Four Seasons Jumeirah, Park Hyatt Istanbul, Sheraton Knightsbridge in London and Sheraton Doha. But, fitting the brand description of approachable and affordable luxury is key when selecting where they want to open a dining venue, and the restaurant group did not want to settle for out-of-the-way locations.
Airports have a multi-national flow of travelers that includes new taste buds to entice. The restaurant group acknowledges that for it to grow its footprint successfully, it needs to continue bringing in new customers, which is why airports are key.
Airport restaurants pose unusual challenges
Saltbae Burger’s menu centers around high-end burgers (that use 6.35 oz of Wagyu prime cut meat), but there are also salads and vegetarian dishes , too. While Saltbae has a few steaks on the menu, it is not a steakhouse brand like sibling Nusr-Et Steakhouse. It is a gourmet burger cafe, and it will be the only brand offering this tier of upscale casual burgers in airports.
There are some challenges for operating in an airport though. For example, airport regulations do not permit the same type of sharp knives used in land-based restaurants past security. For a brand that prides itself on experience and service, this wrinkle was an unfortunate one. Despite looking for alternatives (like having the high-quality steak knives tied with cords to the table to prevent someone walking away with it), the brand settled on a knife that was airport-approved without affecting the overall experience.
Space constraints can also be an issue. Airports generate revenue from retailers like duty-free stores, restaurants and lounges. This means that securing the amount of space that you need to achieve what you want to deliver can be a challenge.
Airports may be less likely to give up too much space that they can sell to another vendor. In Saltbae’s case, however, they refused to settle on anything smaller than the exact footprint they needed to offer the same airside experience as they do elsewhere.
That’s why this is a test where Saltbae team members will examine what works and what doesn’t in Istanbul before expanding elsewhere. While the brand is already in talks with other airports, it would not reveal details except to say that the potential locations are major global hub airports with a lot of traffic.
The airport venue could evolve
As the brand studies what customers want, they will make adjustments to the airport model before opening their next location. For example, there will be no takeout option at the outset. This is because it involves choosing the right material for takeaway containers that preserve the same high-quality dining experience wherever the customer chooses to eat it (whether on the plane, at the gate or even at the destination). If this becomes a common request, it is something they will explore in the future.
When asked about the use of iPad and tablet ordering already in use at many airport gate areas in the U.S. today, Tavuz pointed to a wait-and-see approach. If it is something that makes sense, they are willing to invest in it, but for now the goal is to see how Istanbul performs as a traditional restaurant.
With SaltBae Burger’s expansion into airports as well as new international markets like Sao Paulo, Paris, Ibiza, Rome, Mexico City and Milan among others, the goal is to support the global awareness of the Nusr-Et brand. Saltbae Burger’s aim is to expand with the same fervor that propelled the success of Nusr-Et Steakhouses.
“This first airport location is a laboratory for us,” adds Tavuz. “We know that the needs of customers are always changing, and we are always open to new ideas.”
According to Tavuz, the Istanbul Airport location is just step one in Nusr-Et’s next chapter of bringing Nusret Gökçe’s menu and “eatertainment” to more countries. And frequent travelers will be among the first to benefit.