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Column: At Tuckerbox, a Sweet — and Savory — Immigration Success Story

  • After a busy lunch, Tuckerbox owners Vural Oktay and Jackie Oktay chat with employee Katie Cawley at their restaurant in White River Junction, Vt., on April 19, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • In their office at Tuckerbox, owners Vural Oktay and Jackie Oktay watch as their daughter Ayla, 5, builds a little fort at their restaurant in White River Junction, Vt., on April 19, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, May 05, 2018

Vural Oktay, a native of Turkey, and his American-born wife, Jackie, bought Tuckerbox, a popular coffee shop in downtown White River Junction, in November 2013. They quickly transformed it into one of the few restaurants in Northern New England specializing in Turkish dishes.

This Upper Valley story is like many immigration success stories — a path of first arrival that was almost accidental, a migration of know-how and workers, and an adaptation to American tastes.

The restaurant sits across from the train station in the town’s rail transit district. The new owner, on the advice of patrons, decided to keep the old name, an Australian word for a lunch box such as railroad workers had brought to work.

Born in 1975, Vural Oktay grew up in a traditional neighborhood of Istanbul, where local restaurants served traditional Turkish dishes and provided him with part-time jobs during his school years. Interviewed recently in his hideaway-like office below the restaurant, he recalled the traditional dishes of his youth and, more recently, how franchising in Turkey has led to standardized offerings that leave out traditional flavors. He chuckled in response to a comment that Tuckerbox may be more Turkish than restaurants in Turkey.

As a teenager, Oktay went to a hospitality school to learn the food and beverage business. He found work at the elite Four Seasons hotel in Istanbul whose clientele he describes as 99 percent American. “I did all things there,” he said, “but never stepped up to captain of a service because my English language was not good enough.”

A Chance to Work

Hoping to improve his English skills, he chanced upon a way to work for a while in the United States. A Turkish employee of the Mount Washington Hotel (now the Omni Mount Washington Resort) in Bretton Woods, N.H., asked his nephew, a friend of Oktay’s, to come over to work.

“I got an invitation from the Mount Washington Hotel, and even the Four Seasons helped me with my visa application, as I promised to come back,” he said. “My interview at the American embassy was great, and I got a visa. But my friend did not.”

In the winter of 2003, Oktay began at the historic resort in the lowly role of busboy. Everyone working there seemed to be from outside the United States. “It was almost like a cruise ship,” he recalled. He said he thinks that the guests preferred being served by foreign workers over Americans.

Many of the foreign workers had arrived, like Otkay, on a H-2B visa. This temporary worker visa brings relatively low-skilled workers to the United States. Its popularity soared after the 1990s, as employers learned how to document that there are not enough American citizens willing to fill jobs at prevailing wages. Today there is an annual cap of 81,000 new visas for jobs ranging from fish-canning factories to hotel housekeeping. A parallel temporary farm worker program, the H-2A visa, has also seen a great increase in employer demand and numbers since the 1990s.

Many hospitality companies, including the properties branded with the name of President Donald Trump, vie for H-2B workers. The visa holders are beholden to an individual employer. Most of them do not speak English well. The longest these workers can stay, after extensions, is three years. The anti-immigration Trump administration has yet to take a clear position on the future of the H-2B program.

An Important Shift

Oktay rose to the position of head waiter, and on one shift he met an American woman, born in Jay, Vt., who was working as a cocktail waitress and who had not been trained on the drink ordering system. “I laughed at her,” Oktay recalled. That woman, Jackie, became his wife in 2006. Since then, she has learned Turkish, completed a nursing program at the University of Vermont, and is the mother of their three children — Cyrus, 7, Ayla, 5, and Destan, 2.

While she was finishing her nursing program, the couple moved to the Burlington area. Oktay, married to an American citizen in 2009, applied for his permanent residency visa, or green card, and received it six months later. He became a citizen in 2010.

About two-thirds of the 1 million-plus green cards issued every year go to family members. It has been estimated that, over the past 35 years, two-thirds of legal immigrants have been admitted on the basis of direct family ties. Green cards awarded to spouses are not subject to a cap, and neither are those awarded to parents and siblings of American citizens. In 2016, 304,000 spouses got green cards.

Oktay has since brought his mother to America — she helps care for their children during the day — and his brother, Hasan, as well. In 2016, 173,000 parents of American citizens received green cards and 67,000 siblings were admitted. The Trump administration has proposed ending what it calls “extended-family chain migration.”

Coming to the Upper Valley

While in the Burlington area, Oktay found his limited English still held him back. “People liked my resume but my language was not enough. I did not trust myself.” He continued to work in hotels, such as the Basin Harbor Club. In 2008, after Jackie got a job in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s inpatient cardiology unit, the couple moved to White River Junction. Oktay began working as a waiter at The Hanover Inn and was later promoted to captain of catering.

He knew he could go further. The Mount Washington Hotel was a “little step” in talent building, due to his experience at the elite hotel in Istanbul. “I know how human beings work everywhere,” he said. And he wanted to bring Turkish dishes to America. As for the traditional recipes, “I have it in my brain, my memory, and it goes straight (back) to when I as a child.” He said he felt he understood how to modify traditional Turkish dishes to appeal to the American palate.

In 2012, Oktay learned that the Hideaway, a restaurant in Essex Junction, Vt., was for sale. He was unable to get bank financing, so he bought it with a loan from the seller. Thus was born the Istanbul Kebab House. There, his skills at running a restaurant matured. He knows “the front of the house,” he said, but he realized he needed to bring in a chef from Turkey to run the kitchen, to make “real food with the real recipes.”

His brother now helps to run the Istanbul Kebab House with a Turkish chef. Oktay had arranged for him to spend two years learning the hospitality business in Istanbul, and it was Hasan who found the chef Oktay subsequently persuaded to come to Vermont.

Opening Tuckerbox

The Oktays then learned that Tuckerbox in White River Junction was available. They liked the culture of the place, and the sale was completed on Nov. 18, 2013. They added Turkish coffee and pastries, and then opened the full-service restaurant with a seating capacity of 70. Jackie Oktay is the co-owner and manager at the restaurant and does the bookkeeping, administrative work and employee management.

As was the case in Essex Junction, Oktay recruited a chef from Turkey — which involved an arduous effort. After several lawyers discouraged them from trying, the Oktays engaged an immigration lawyer in New York City, who obtained the necessary visas.

Vural and Jackie Oktay say they believe the Turkish community in the Upper Valley is made up of fewer than a dozen people, but they found that some of their Upper Valley customers acquired a taste for Turkish-like dishes at the (long-closed) Landers restaurant in Lebanon. And they are impressed by how many customers brought back memories of good meals from their travels to Turkey.

Having figured out how to import know-how and talent from Turkey, the Oktays are planning to open a retail store across from Tuckerbox, in the building now under construction, where they will sell Turkish consumer products. It will be called Little Istanbul.

A business that relies on foreign-born specialists, such as masters of a national cooking tradition, must develop skills in helping those specialists obtain visas — as essential as heating the building and paying taxes. The Trump administration’s plans for restricting immigration may, on balance, make it more difficult to pull off what the Oktays have done.

Peter Rousmaniere, of Woodstock, blogs about immigration issues at www.working immigrants.com. Email him at pfr@rousmaniere.com.

Correction

Vural Oktay, co-owner of the Tuckerbox restaurant in White River Junction, was born in 1975, married in 2009 and gained U.S. citizenship in 2010. An earlier version of this column inaccurately reported those dates.