We bring societies closer through coffee diplomacy

07 Mar, 2020

Turkayfe.org & Turkish Coffee Truck


In 2008, during her graduate studies in Emerson College, Gizem came across the terminology “Nation Branding & Public Diplomacy”. Being a passionate citizen about her heritage and culture, she found out that awareness about Turkey’s history and rich culture ran low and positive coverage about Turkey was hard to find in international news. Despite all that she found no resources or ongoing projects related to country brand building efforts for Turkey’s image abroad in the long term. There were only tourism oriented campaigns, research papers and a few case studies available for review. Collaborated with a team of entrepreneurs who were studying on similar subjects, Gizem decided to tell a timely story  about Turkey using the Web 2.0 communication technologies and empowering Turkish citizens’ participation in the process. With a very limited budget, they started a dynamic social networking website called Turkayfe.org, a virtual Turkish coffee house for Turkish and non-Turkish people to share stories about Turkey. The goal was to promote Turkey and its culture through individual experiences while facilitating a two-way communication between societies. The online platform would give individuals the opportunity to contribute to Turkey’s nation branding process and give deeper insights to the online audience. In the past, Turkish coffee houses were the anchors of a community where science, religion, government and philosophy were discussed; Gizem and her team wanted to continue this proud tradition into the 21st century.


While building an online community, it became clear to Gizem that nation branding is a tough competition for the hearts and minds of the people. While Turkayfe.org achieved building an online presence and engagement with the help of the rise of Twitter and Facebook, she was looking for other unique ways to engage the general public in people-to-people conversations and educate this large audience about Turkey’s rich history and culture. In June 2011, she launched a lecture series called “Turkish Coffee Culture: 16th Century to 21st Century and Beyond” in partnership with ATA-DC and these cultural events drew big turnouts in Washington DC and New York City. She was also able to get support from Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, Turkey’s oldest coffee ground seller, as a main sponsor who offered complimentary Turkish coffee during these events. This initiative was covered by the local media and the demand from other Turkish American associations was to expand on these educational series across the U.S.


However, instead of maintaining this series, Gizem decided to explore another interesting idea: the growing trend of food trucks. In the U.S., these vehicles were an appealing place for Americans to buy their lunch. Further, many food trucks were exposing Americans to more ethnic foods. From a nation-branding standpoint, these popular vehicles seemed the perfect communication tool to represent Turkish coffee culture. Through grassroots communication, the project would not only aim to take diplomacy to people level to share the Turkish brand identity but also to contribute to the reputation of Turkish culture and cuisine in the U.S. Following her dreams, Gizem decided to quit her full-time job at the Turkish Embassy in Washington D.C. and started a fundraising and public relations campaign immediately. With the support of the local community and Turkish businesses, she was able to raise enough funds in two months. The Turkish Coffee Truck team rented a food truck and wrapped it with Turkey images. The collected funds would also cover gas, coffee supplies, application fees for parking permits, food and other related expenses. In addition, she formed a volunteer team including her husband where she met in Emerson College. In May 2012, she launched the “world’s first Turkish coffee truck tour” and planned to visit five major US cities in three weeks.


This all-volunteer, non-profit initiative aimed to increase US public’s awareness for 500-year-old Turkish coffee culture and foster friendship between societies through coffee conversations. Gizem and her team visited five major cities such as Washington D.C, Baltimore, New York City, New Haven and Boston while making stops at top universities including Harvard, Yale and George Washington to directly engage future world leaders. Powered by dedicated volunteers, Turkish Coffee Truck started spreading love for Turkish coffee, offering complimentary coffee as they traveled, hoping to bring societies closer through their mutual love of coffee.


In addition to visits at universities and festival, presentations from experts were also given at the Turkish Embassy in Washington D.C, Empire State building and Harvard University. Later, the project received a lot of domestic and international media coverage as well as official recognition from the Turkish Consulates in Washington D.C. and New York and from the United States’ House of Representatives. During her second tour in Washington DC in September 2012, Gizem was interviewed by Washington Post, BBC’s PRI World, SE Times, I Am Modern Magazine, university campus newspapers, several blogs, and local newspapers.


After generating international media coverage, Gizem started receiving many invitations from all around the world. The Turkish Coffee Truck project excited the Turkish Diaspora groups living abroad and local Turkish associations were seeking similar initiatives in their regions. In the meantime, Gizem and her team were invited to a conference in Istanbul featuring ‘Brand Turkey’ where she met media members and supporters asking if the truck was going to travel to other parts of the world. Gizem was able to rent another vehicle in Istanbul, again wrapped with Turkey images, which was used for photo shoots in front of Istanbul’s famous landmarks. Having an official invitation from the Turkish Tourism Office in Netherlands, Gizem decided to organize a “Turkish Coffee Tour” in Europe.


Between May 19-June 2, 2013, Gizem and her volunteers travelled to three countries including Netherlands, Belgium, and France. She and her team served free Turkish Coffee -- to share the taste of friendship -- at the Leiden, VU Amsterdam, Erasmus universities in Netherlands, NATO headquarters, the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels, Festival d’Anatolie, and street corners in Paris. The slogan of this tour was “Turkish Coffee: The Taste of Friendship for 500 years.” The Brussels tour also aimed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Turkey - Netherlands diplomatic relations and the 50th anniversary of Turkish migration to Belgium. Therefore, in cooperation with Turkish Connections Platform, Professor Ercument Ackman of Georgetown University also gave a presentation about the role and history of Turkish coffee at the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the European Union on May 30th. Professor Ackman educated the audience about Turkey’s role in introducing coffee to Europe and how coffee culture was spread to Americas and rest of the world.

In the next few years, due to her full-time responsibilities, she was not able to take time off from her job, however she started the Turkish Coffee Ladies, a non-profit initiative, to attend local events and keep promoting the remarkable history of Turkish coffee culture. She singlehandedly organized cultural events at prominent locations such as U.S. Congress, World Bank, various embassies, ethnic festivals and international conferences. Her nickname was ‘Turkish Coffee Lady” and she was recognized as the defacto coffee ambassador by the Washington Post newspaper.


In March 2016, with the invitation of the Turkish Tourism in Toronto, Gizem traveled to Canada for another Turkish coffee tour. Volunteers from the local community were very excited to welcome her to their international city where they sampled Turkish coffee at busy area and university campuses, offering hundreds cups of Turkish coffee to Canadians. Over the course of its five-day tour, the Turkish Coffee Truck visited popular locations such as Dundas Square, University of Toronto, Nathan Philip Square and the CNN Tower. During the tour, visitors were encouraged to share their experience on social media using the hashtag #TurkishCoffeeTO.


Finally, Turkish Coffee Truck launched a U.S. tour to bridge cultures through art in September 2019. The non-profit cultural tour in New York and Washington D.C. featured Hasan Kale; a micro artist master who can turn coffee beans into micro paintings, Göknur Akçadağ, an associate professor and historian, Cenk Girginol, an award-winning gastronomy author, Ahmet Şerif İzgören; a renowned Turkish author, and Gizem Salcigil White, founder of Turkish Coffee Lady. Events along the tour included live art demonstrations and fun interactive sessions on Turkey’s 500-year old coffee ritual and its unique traditions.


Through these cultural tours, we had the opportunity to promote Turkey’s human face, the depth of our culture and the richness of our history firsthand to other societies effectively.