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Nevi Centiner

Tell us about yourself

I was born in Turkey and because of my father’s job, I grew up all over Turkey. East, west, south, middle (laughs). I studied civil engineering, although I never worked as one.

I started my work with American Airlines. After working there for 7 years as a marketing manager, I moved to Cathay Pacific Airways in Turkey. So 6 years I worked with Cathay.

After that I got an offer to set up a new airline in Macau. In 2004 I moved to Macau, with my son. I employed staff...And we started flying to Sydney, Melbourne, Jakarta, Maldives, Japan, Vietnam. I worked there for 4.5 years. After that I got another offer, for work in Hong Kong. I was offered the Aerial Manager position for Kingfisher Airlines, a five-star airline.

And after that, 2 years later, I decided to open my own business.

First I became the silent partner of a Turkish restaurant. And this is how I started my F&B adventure.

2 years later, Kingfisher airlines closed down, so I completely devoted my time to new restaurants.

So with my partners as well we opened 6 more restaurants.

When was that?

Between 2005-2015. After that I sold most and only kept one. I had a break for one year.

And started  again in 2017, with our current restaurant, Tava. I changed the concept. Now we are more healthy. We have more vegetarian dishes.

So can you tell us about your business as it is now?

At the moment I have one brand. That is solely Tava.

How was being a silent partner useful? How did it contribute to your experience of being a restaurant owner?

It was the first step to start in the restaurant business. I was silent partner but I got involved with the daily operations. Checking to see if everyone is happy, and enjoys working here. I was looking at the service. So I started going there often and enjoying the operation. I thought if I got more involved I could make a difference in the business.

So how did the idea of being a silent partner come up?

I always had the idea of owning a small coffee shop or restaurant. My son was also looking for this opportunity, he was studying tourism and hotel management at the time. So him being in this made me more sympathetic towards actually pursuing it.

So how long were you a silent partner before you got involved?

Just a few months. (try to keep this woman silent...goodluck with that...laughs)

Yeah maybe 3 months.

After that I started as manager of the 1 restaurant. So everyday I was there, trying to understand the business, communicating with the staff.

What was the most difficult part of that learning process?

Managing the kitchen side was the most difficult part. When it gets crowded everyone works like crazy. So to be able to catch up to that dynamic. It took time. But the service side, the marketing side, was easy.

When came the decision to open the second restaurant? And why did you decide to open the second one?

About 5 months later. That was the second one.

Because my partners found a place, and because of my involvement, they wanted me to run the second one.

What do you think is the most important thing about running a successful restaurant?

I will never serve any food that I won’t eat. The food has to be good. People should like it. Of course every business owner wants to make money. But my first aim is establishing the quality, and after that money will come. Also the concept of friendliness. I like our guests.

What is the biggest difference between running one restaurant and running a chain of restaurants?

Running one restaurant is of course easier. You can control everything and you can run it as you want. As a chain, you train the staff, etc. but you are not there all the time. When the guests come they want to see you there. You know about them. You have a conversation. Here in Tava all our guests are repeated guests. And they will bring their friends as well.

What is your favorite part of the day?

When I see our guests after they eat and they say it was great. We love our food. Seeing this appreciation and satisfaction, that is the best thing.

What is the dish that everybody comes back for?

That would be falafel and chicken. After that wraps. Salads are on the rise, as well as hummus. We have different kinds of hummus. We have tabbouleh, that is bulgur, cracked wheat with parsley, onion, salt, and pomegranate beets.

Sounds delicious.

How was the concept of Tava born?

I wanted to offer a place where people can eat healthy and balanced everyday. There are so many offices around. You want something that you eat at home. So I wanted to offer that combination. I add more vegetarian and vegan dishes. We have meat lovers also. But here you can find everything.

The clients are raving about how tasty your food is...what is your secret ingredient?

LOVE! (laughs). When we are making the food we really enjoy it. I believe it is crucial for  the staff to be happy. The colleagues here are happy, we help each other. We are a family. They come here happily, they work happily, and serve happily. So I think this is the secret. So we give that energy to the food. It is important.

So how long have you been in food and beverage industry now?

6 years.

Do you see the difference between running the restaurant 6 years ago and today?

When I first started it took time. That time I had a lot of business partners. They knew it. Now I have to do everything by myself and the concept changed to more healthy.

I can decide these things now by myself.I believe we are what we eat. So I would like to offer that to our guests. Also what we do is introduce more dishes. We are sharing with our guests. Asking if they like it. It is an interaction. They give us feedback.

Which marketing tools are most successful in promoting your restaurant?

Social media. How you use it. That is very important. And also events. If you have the right product and do it from your heart it comes back to you.

6 years. Your own restaurant. I’m sure there were times when it got tough. What was the most difficult thing you came towards?

At the beginning we opened but we didn't do any marketing and advertising. Because I didn't want to do it until I felt the food was good enough to serve. When I don't like the taste I don't want to sell. We had a chef from Turkey. She came and we picked the menu together. She trained all of us. The colleagues as well. But the taste of the market is different. So it took us a little over a month. Here people will not eat the same thing that they will eat in Turkey. There needs to be adjustments. We were asking for feedback from our guests. We cannot make the dishes the ways our mothers made them. People have a different taste here and we needed to adjust to the market.

How do you bring new dishes to the menu?

I am now more vegetarian and vegan. I think I am turning. And I see the demand also. So currently I am adding more vegetarian and vegan dishes.

Advantages and disadvantages you did not think of before starting?

You are more free. No board meetings. Decisions are quicker and easier for operation. Now it is quicker. You can go quickly. Of course on the negative side. The financial part. How am I going to pay? What if I cannot reach my target? You are on your own here as well.

How did you fund your first business?

I had an investor.

How did you find investor for F&B?

That company knew the investor for a quite some time. He had been an investor with them for a long time. So they trusted him and they also trusted me.

They are now waiting for this restaurant to settle down and then they’d like me to open another one.

What are the future plans for Tava?

Our place is very small. I like the area but I will look for an opportunity to enlarge. Make the kitchen bigger.The staff is also very important. They should be trained really well. Keep the same service.

What do you think are the most challenging parts of F&B in Hong Kong?

Rent and staff. Rent is really the biggest problem. It happened to me before. We rented a place in Tsim Tsa Shui. Before the contract was finished we received a letter that we had to move out. So there was fine print in the contract that we didn't see.

Now I have a lawyer. Always.

Staff retention? Finding the right staff?

They have been working for us at other restaurants and have been asking me to take them when I open my own restaurant. They are not really committed because they know they will easily find another job. They like to feel part of the team. If they feel like that, and they are satisfied with their salary, they become committed and will stay. If they feel comfortable. Professional approach.

What would you recommend for someone wanting to open a coffee shop or restaurant?

(literally half of my friends dream for retirement) Laughs

First thing is location. What is your target. Finding a place with rent not too high. The location and the rent.

What is your motto, work philosophy, business motto?

Enjoy what you are doing.

Thank you for sharing your story! 

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Shop 1B on Ground Floor, No. 31. Hillier Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong 

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