Who’s Afraid of Starbucks? Not This Brooklyn Coffee Tycoon

How a Turkish immigrant built a budding cafe brand, Hungry Ghost, based on a conviction he could deliver a better product

This month, Murat Uyaroglu opened the fifth location of his coffee-bar-and-café chain, Hungry Ghost (Photos courtesy of Hungry Ghost)

Starbucks was well underway in pursuing its manifest destiny to blanket the world with its coffee shops when Murat Uyaroglu, a Turkish immigrant living in Brooklyn, decided there was room in the business for him too. His angle: he would do it better, from the espresso to the decor. “I saw the game changing,” Uyaroglu says. “Coffee started being treated like wine; it’s special. It’s important where you get it, how you roast it, how you brew it.”

The recipe is working. This month Uyaroglu opened the fifth location of his coffee-bar-and-café chain, Hungry Ghost, on the ground floor of a high-rise apartment building at 80 Dekalb Ave. Set across the street from the LIU Brooklyn campus in Fort Greene, it’s the fourth Hungry Ghost within about a one-mile stretch. (The fifth shop is inside NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in Manhattan.) By June, Uyaroglu plans to open two more shops in Brooklyn and another in Tribeca. But you can’t convince him he’s expanding too fast.

“People say, ‘What, are you crazy? You’re opening three locations in five blocks?’,” says the 39-year-old Uyaroglu. “Actually, I could do five in five blocks!” Creating a coffee-shop brand has a lot to do with understanding the flow of foot traffic in the neighborhoods, because commuters typically walk the same route every day, Uyaroglu explains. The many subway stations near Hungry Ghost locations help ensure that traffic flow, while having multiple locations provides fiscal flexibility–if one shop’s revenue is down, the others can help support the business.

hungry ghost

The entrepreneur invests heavily in decor for his shops, believing it makes a difference with Brooklyn customers

Convenience isn’t enough, though, says the entrepreneur. The most important factor in building a customer base is the consistency of the product, Uyaroglu says. “If you do your job right, they’re always going to come back to you.” Hungry Ghost makes an obsession of quality, acknowledging on its website, “We seek out baristas who share our passion for coffee and are not afraid to chase the perfect [espresso] shot and coincidentally become very overcaffeinated.”  

Uyaroglu made a decision early on to focus on the brewing and serving rather than the roasting, choosing Stumptown Coffee Roasters as his supplier. The Portland, Ore.-based company, one of the pioneers of the third-wave, artisanal-coffee movement, has a roasting plant in the Red Hook neighborhood.

While many customers may grab-and-go, Uyaroglu designed his shops as places for people to linger, which he attributes to his Turkish roots. “You go to a café [there], you relax, see what’s going on, drink, talk, meet–and that was the idea,” says Uyaroglu, a native of Istanbul.

hungry ghost

Consistently well-crafted products are the brand’s hallmark

At age 12, still living in Turkey, he worked at his father’s electronics store and later at a tool manufacturer run by his father’s cousin. Though he joyfully just worked the cash registers and boxed products, Uyaroglu says he learned some of his most important business lessons during those formative years, including how to negotiate, he says, and “dealing with people, day to day, understanding how people react to certain conversations, and where you want to set your limits, without pissing people off,” he says.  

While in college in Turkey, he opened up an internet café, which he sold six months later at a handsome profit, he says. The next year, Uyaroglu relocated to Washington, D.C., to learn English and study business. There he met his future wife, a writer from Minnesota, and quickly lost all desire to return to Turkey.

The pair married three years later, and eventually moved to Prospect Heights. When he saw an opportunity in 2006 to take over the business of a nearby coffee shop on Sterling Place called Prospect Perk, Uyaroglu borrowed some money from his father-in-law and went about fixing up the place, including its coffee. 

After five years of practice in getting the formula right, he decided his next act would be to take it up a level by designing a flagship store on Flatbush Avenue. He embraced the seemingly sanity-questioning strategy of investing heavily on the café’s interior design. “People said, ‘What are you doing? It’s a coffee shop, not a restaurant,’” Uyaroglu recounts. “But it paid off.”

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On a recent snowy night, a Hungry Ghost outpost was a beacon of warmth

The flagship location’s rustic-chic look–a classically Brooklyn style with exposed brick, tin ceilings and wood tables, chairs and floors–has a dash of postmodern sleekness and has become the template for all of Uyaroglu’s Hungry Ghost outposts. Many people have asked if the brand name is a reference to the insatiable spirits in Buddhist teachings, but the genesis is more serendipitous. A friend of Uyaroglu’s once suggested they meet at a New England diner called Friendly Toast, which Uyaroglu initially misheard. He later embraced the accidental coinage for his new shop because he associated it with caffeine culture and the hungry souls of artists.

With their coffee or tea, Hungry Ghost customers can enjoy imported French pastries, as well as breakfast offerings at the larger shops. Italian sodas and kombucha on tap add a further cosmopolitan touch. “People are not going to settle with mediocre options in New York,” Uyaroglu says.

Hear how Brooklyn entrepreneurs expand their business in our story on the challenges of scaling up.

One of the few things Uyaroglu feels ambivalent about is the issue of Wi-Fi usage in coffee shops, which has sparked a backlash among customers who feel the laptop-toting hordes take up too much table space. At Hungry Ghost, the smaller locations don’t give out Wi-Fi passwords at all; the larger ones do, but offer limited seating to those with laptops. “It’s a sensitive issue. We want to serve both clientele,” he says, including those who “want to go to a coffee shop and not feel like you went into a library,” and freelancers, who “shouldn’t feel alienated from the space just because you want to sit down with your laptop.” The forthcoming East Williamsburg café will span about 1,500 sq. ft., with plenty of seating for both kinds of customers, he says.

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Uyaroglu and his wife, who now have two children, reside in Fort Greene, with easy access to Uyaroglu’s growing hospitality empire. It now includes a well-reviewed craft-cocktail bar, Sweet Polly, which the entrepreneur opened two years ago on Sixth Avenue, not far from the Hungry Ghost flagship. As with the coffee shops, attention to detail is paid at Sweet Polly, from the colorful cocktails to the décor and ambiance. Uyaroglu said he might open another bar sometime next year, but has to get the other coffee shops up and running first. “I don’t know what the end game is, really,” Uyaroglu says. “But, so far, one shop at a time, that’s my goal.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.