‘I Wanted to Start a Business to Support Myself, But Also Give Back to the Community’
Standing on the banks of the Georgetown waterfront, DC and Rosslyn lit up in either direction, Emel Bayrak felt connected to her native Istanbul.
‘Georgetown reminds me of my home, which has the sea, and you can see across the water. In Georgetown, at evening time you can see the city lights. That was important for me. Always I remember that feeling.’
In 2004, the single mother of two teenage daughters needed a fresh start. She picked DC for one reason—her love of politics—and immigrated to Georgetown, sight unseen.
‘I was divorced and I took my children to rebuild myself from scratch. I brought them to give them a chance to study, and also finish my MBA degree. No experience from any job, I start working couple jobs part time—three jobs at the same time—and I ended up working with Turkish media.’
Emel covered the State Department and Congress, eventually working in the White House. As a journalist, she struggled to find a quiet coffee shop to write, or interview officials.
‘Other than going to restaurants, it wasn’t easy to find a nice, cozy place to read my news or to file my assignment. Of course there are many chain coffee shops but they got crowded. That was the idea. In 2011, I started thinking, OK, I love working as journalist and I’m in the White House covering politics, but what will be the next chapter of my career?
‘I was looking for another adventure, and knowing myself as an adult mature woman. What would be a joy? And I thought it would be great to bring my media experience to my new adventure. So the idea was not only to open a basic coffee shop or a bar, but of course coffee, wine, and friendship. We can meet with people over the coffee or wine to talk about things or to share things with our friends, or just to sit and enjoy the drink in a great ambiance.’
Emel drafted a business plan for Café Georgetown, and spent the next few years studying coffee shops around the country and searching for a supplier.
‘As a woman entrepreneur, first how can I start a business not only to support myself, but give something to people? That was totally amazing process. When I was traveling, from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles, I end up looking at coffee shops and concepts and designs. On a trip to Philadelphia, I found La Colombe. I fell in love with the taste of the coffee. When I found them I said, OK, time is up. Let’s find a place in Georgetown.’
It took three years to settle on the perfect location—a former office space at 3141 N Street. Emel’s sister moved to DC to support the business, and her daughter, Sena, offered her PR, marketing and social media experience. As an interior designer, she also helped transform the charming townhome into a coffee shop, with a wine bar in the back patio.
‘We said let’s reflect Georgetown and stick with this building, and surprise people. When they come in they suddenly see the hidden patio in the back and say, ‘Oh wow!’’
Since opening in late 2018, Café Georgetown has already amassed a following—particularly among latte art enthusiasts. Their baristas are trained artists, creating intricate designs that have gone viral on Instagram.
‘People come with their phones and show us, ‘We want this.’ We have people asking for custom things. A lady asked for an airplane and our barista did it. Two customers came in from West Virginia, showed us their phone and said we want this rose latte with art. I said my art guy isn’t here, can you wait 40 minutes? She waited. I couldn’t believe she drove here and waited.’
A popular photoshoot backdrop for local bloggers, Café Georgetown is also hosting private events, and recently introduced wine and draft beer tastings, and weekend brunch.
‘Two things I realized people get together over drinking are coffee and wine. I like my customers engaged with us, not just sitting here. This is the place I’m trying to create. Everybody can sell coffee and wine; our difference is we talk to people and let them talk to us. Like Cheers. The environment is to make friendship. The world needs it right now.’
Later this year, Emel will start recording a podcast, ‘The Blue House’, from Café Georgetown—marrying her current passion with her former journalism career. With interviewees ranging from politicians to entertainers, Emel says it’s another opportunity to engage the community and uncover the stories behind DC’s most fascinating residents.
‘I think Washington, and especially Georgetown, you can meet interesting people, very intellectual people. I welcome everybody. One thing I have to emphasize—we need to welcome everybody and we need to talk without judging anyone. I’m an immigrant and I found that America is the country that gives opportunity to everybody. Fifteen years ago when I came, I didn’t have anything, only my hope and hard work.’
Emel fell in love with Georgetown as soon as she arrived—clinging to the subtle ways in which her culture was celebrated in a diverse neighborhood that represented the past, present and future. Since then, she’s reinvented herself, and raised the bar for what life looks like for her family—and the larger community.
‘I’m an immigrant, a journalist, a single mother, and also an entrepreneur. Now I’m doing something that brings me a total joy in my life because I am not only building a successful business, but also building a great community around me. Our neighbors are amazingly welcoming, we have great customers, and we have regulars who come every day and we talk and laugh a lot. Since life is so chaotic, I am trying to help people who just want to enjoy friendship over coffee or wine. That’s why I love Georgetown. That’s my city and that’s my life.’