Omer Onder is a whirling dervish in the kitchen.
Some of it is by necessity, as he frequently works solo in the kitchen of his business, Springfield Diner LLC, which opened in March 2018 at 1730 E. Republic Road, Ste. U.
The chef is focused as he prepares several dishes simultaneously – a bacon double cheeseburger, ravioli and menemen, a traditional Turkey dish with eggs, tomato and green peppers. Still, being focused doesn’t mean having no time to chat – something the native of Turkey clearly enjoys.
While flipping burgers and chopping up veggies recently, Onder reflected on the journey to Springfield from his homeland.
“I’ve always wanted to come to the USA,” he said, noting he was drawn by the opportunities and freedoms the country offers. “Because here is different from the rest of the world.”
Springfield wasn’t Onder’s first destination in America. It wasn’t even on his radar when he made the trek to Houston, Texas, before by Columbia, South Carolina, and St. Louis became temporary homes. In all, he traveled over 8,500 miles between stops before settling in the Queen City.
In the kitchen
For Onder, the kitchen has always been a place he’s felt comfortable. His small but cozy kitchen at Springfield Diner has plenty of the usual fixtures – stovetops, a refrigerator unit, a cutting board and lots of utensils. One addition to the kitchen, a Johnny Cash poster, is decidedly different. It’s a gift from his employees, Onder said, adding he’s a big fan of the legendary musician. He also owns a Cash-signed copy of a Rolling Stone magazine cover, another gift from his staff.
He remembers cooking back at age 7 for his grandparents, Ahmet and Hatice Onder.
“It was some kind of banana with biscuits dish. It was just some kind of random stuff,” he said with a laugh, recalling his grandfather hesitatingly trying it and saying it was great.
Onder would help in the kitchen for family meals, recalling special annual gatherings with dozens around the table.
“It was big tradition for our family to come together,” he said, flipping tomatoes in a saucepan. “It was at least 30 people having dinner.”
His cooking continued in the early 2000s while attending Ankara University in Turkey’s capital city, where he would host parties and make food for friends. In between his kitchen exploits, Onder said he earned his undergraduate degree in political science, followed in 2008 by a master’s degree in digital media and journalism.
Onder then ventured into journalism, focusing much of his writing and editing on stories about the Turkish government.
He wrote for Begun and Cumhuriyet, two newspapers in Ankara. He said Cumhuriyet, which means “republic,” is an independent newspaper still in operation; however, Begun closed in 2014.
“It’s gone because government shut it down,” he said. “They were writing about corruption in the government. So the government shut them down. It happens in Turkey.”
During Onder’s nearly three-year stint at Begun, he was jailed by the government for his coverage on a couple of occasions.
“It was not a long time, just a few hours until I see the judge,” he said.
One incident was when he was taking photos of a march the police did not want him to photograph and write about. The second was an investigative look at government corruption, including allegations President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was taking 20% of all government purchases from sellers.
According to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global press freedom watchdog group, Turkey had nearly 70 journalists in its jails at the end of 2018. The country is responsible for jailing more journalists than any other country in the world, the report said.
After Begun’s closing, Onder moved on to Cumhuriyet for a few months before becoming a freelance journalist, with his work appearing in newspapers in China, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom.
“I liked it, but it is really hard to write articles about Turkey because the whole government situation is really hard. I just wanted to make my dream come true,” he said.
The dream was a restaurant.
Chasing the dream
Leaving behind family, friends and his culture was difficult, but Onder said his desire to pursue a dream and live in a country with more freedoms was a strong motivator to move. He used money from his father and earnings as a freelancer to help fund his first ever trip to America in 2015. He initially settled in Houston, Texas, at the suggestion of a friend. He worked briefly for a gas company, before moving the next year to Columbia, South Carolina, where he worked for GriHat, a digital media company.
But neither of those jobs was in the kitchen, where Onder really wanted to be. At the encouragement of Max Mesut Kaya, a friend in St. Louis who owns Florissant City Diner, he moved in 2017 to the Show-Me State to learn about running a restaurant.
“It started like this. I thought, ‘Yes, let’s do that.’ I wasn’t thinking at that time that I should open a restaurant and pursue an opportunity,” he said of working at Florissant City Diner.
He spent much of 2017 learning on the job. It was a tough start. The first two weeks, he worked the breakfast and lunch shifts and remembers coming home so tired he went straight to bed and slept until morning to do it all over again.
Still, Onder knew the restaurant industry was where he wanted to work.
By the start of 2018, Onder was still working at the diner, but Mel Yalin, a friend of his in Springfield, notified him of a possible business opportunity. Yalin sent him some photos of a space available in Springfield in the Southgate Center.
On a foggy January 2018 morning, Onder made the drive down to see it. Later that month, he moved to the Queen City, signed a lease for undisclosed terms with Green Circle Projects LLC and Springfield Diner was born.
“This place is nice,” he said, noting he spent about $30,000 in startup costs. “I like the neighborhood too.”
Onder hasn’t returned to Turkey since coming to America, but his family plans to visit him this summer for the first time. Part of the purpose is for a wedding ceremony, as Onder got married in January but no family was able to be present. A local venue is still yet to be selected.
“We’re still working on it,” he said with a laugh. “My family, they have to apply for a visa first to come here.”
He also still needs to get his wife, Goknur, to Springfield. She currently lives in Boston, where she works for Harvard Medical School.
“We have 1,444 miles between us,” he said. “Google Maps says so.”
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