“In the last few months we’ve opened two venues in Sydney and in the coming months, we’ll be opening two more venues,” he says.

It will bring his total to five restaurants with an outlay of more than $1.5 million.

“I feel super-confident. I think the future is really bright in this industry. And I’m willing to risk whatever’s necessary to fulfill my own set of dreams,” he says.

Circa Espresso in Sydney's Parramatta.

Source: SBS

Aykut has taken 15-year leases on several properties in Parramatta, as well as in Sydney’s east and north. He says this is a good time to ask for lower commercial rents.

“Landlords are willing to negotiate for good operators because it’s in their interest,” he says.

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“You might get four or even six month’s rent free, and this allows you time to develop your business, and get an income without having to pay rent for it.”

Aykut is a qualified engineer who arrived in Australia in 1976 as a seven-year-old.  His cafe menu is inspired by memories of growing up in the small town of Mezre Turkey’s east.

And his Sydney businesses are prospering by adding a modern twist to traditional Turkish dishes. 

Aykut Sayan at his Sydney cafe.

Source: Supplied Circa Espresso

“A lot of [my influences relate to] coming home from school and spending time with mum in the kitchen while she was cooking,” he says.

However, during lockdown the usually busy 80-seat Parramatta dining room has sat empty. Even now, it’s running at less than capacity due to social distancing rules.

“We have taken a considerable loss at Circa, by all means, ” Aykut 

“Revenue is still about 70 per cent of what it was, but I can sense that there’s a great energy in the air.”

However, other migrant and refugee businesses are just getting by. Racha Abou Alchamat is among those who struggled during lockdown.

The cancellation of many events since July has cost her Sydney-based catering business, Racha’s Syrian Kitchen. 

“We have lost around $10,000 of orders. Many were from locked down LGA’s so we could not even deliver the food,” Racha says. 

“It was a very bad time for us, during that lockdown.”

The Syrian-born mother of two migrated from Dubai with her husband in 2014, seeking better opportunities. 

Racha Abou Alchamat runs a Syrian catering business.

Source: Supplied: Racha Abou Alchamat

She fears for family still living in Syria, and has not returned there since 2011. 

“The war (in Syria) made us think of our future and the kid’s future,” she says.

“With COVID now, that’s also keeping us apart. It is very difficult.”

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In recent years, Racha has joined forces with a Syrian business partner, refugee Nidal Alali, in starting a small venture to make and sell traditional Syrian food.

“I miss my country, I miss my family, and I miss the food there. So I started cooking to share it with people here.

“Also, I used to go to Middle Eastern restaurants in Australia and all I was seeing barbecue food, but it was not authentic. So I wanted to introduce our food to people,” she says.  

Racha’s is among more than 80 businesses, many founded by refugees and asylum seekers, finding new outlets through online platform Welcome Merchant.

Marjorie Tenchavez started the platform last year just prior to COVID, inspired by other services promoting businesses affected by bush fires or drought.

“The pandemic has been a particularly difficult time for refugees and asylum seekers,” she says.

“[Refugees] are among the most vulnerable in our community and lack many of the safety nets – financial and otherwise – that others take for granted.

The 36-year-old migrated from Manila in the Philippines as a child in 1997, and holds a degree in social science. In 2016, she graduated with a masters degree in human rights and democratisation.

Marjorie Tenchavez is the founder of online platform Welcome Merchant.

Source: Supplied Marjorie Tenchavez.

“We also run skill-building workshops, and social media marketing, because we really want to see these businesses succeed on their own and be sustainable in the long run.”

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By connecting founders with online food delivery platforms, Welcome Merchant is helping businesses like Racha’s to keep going.

The food delivery sector has experienced 30 per cent growth during COVID-19 and is now valued at $850 million nationally.

However, as lockdowns lift in Melbourne and Sydney, restaurant owners like Aykut predict a return to sit-down dining.

Aykut Sayan expects a busy summer at his Turkish restaurants.

Source: SBS Sandra Fulloon

“People want to spend money and they want to go out and enjoy themselves,’ he says.

“The future is really, really bright and there’s really nothing to be afraid of.”