When Mehmet Dari arrived in Dover, all he had in his pocket was 1,000 Deutsche Marks. He knew no-one, and his English only extended to “hello”, “welcome” and “bread”.
Sat in his solicitor’s London office six months later, he was told through a translator that his bid to remain in the country as a refugee had been snubbed. He was staring the threat of deportation in the face.
But now, the 41-year-old is a successful businessman with a burgeoning empire. The dad-of-four runs six restaurants – all turning over more than £1 million a year – spread across Herne Bay, Canterbury and Ramsgate.
And he has his eyes set on expanding. He expects to start building a £4m hotel and rooftop bar overlooking the sea in Herne Bay in two years’ time, as he moves ahead with plans to launch two more restaurants on the Kent coast.
However, Mehmet knows it could have all turned out so differently.
“I applied to stay as a refugee in 1999. They said my refugee status was not accepted because I had been to France and Italy,” he recalls.
“That case carried on until 2002 when I opened my business. I then asked to stay with my pizza business.
“It was very stressful. I was running my own restaurant. I was investing a lot of my time, I’d borrowed money from the bank and friends – and I didn’t know if one day I’d be told ‘Mehmet, it’s finished; you go back’.
“We went to the High Court in 2003. It said ‘he’s got a business, he’s paying tax, he’s employing people – why can he not stay?’ The Home Office appealed it. Then the case went to the House of Lords and courts in Europe. I got my first state visa in 2009.”
We met at Mehmet’s flagship branch of A La Turka in Central Parade, Herne Bay. Our table is inside a newly-fitted glass orb, one of three next to the restaurant.
Wearing a grey flat cap and puffy US Polo Association jacket, the restaurateur relaxes into his seat, as he is served a Turkish coffee. Workmen are beavering away around us, adding the final touches to the outdoor dining area, which had been home to a decrepit, long-shutdown arcade until the summer.
His life with wife Tugba in Greenhill is a far cry from his experiences growing up. One of nine children, Mehmet lived in a 3,000-strong Turkish village close to the Syrian border.
Having shown an interest in cooking, he was the only one of his brothers who helped to assemble meals. There, he learned from his mother how to milk goats, make cheese, bake bread and prepare meat.
“There was a lot of natural life in the village," he remarks. "If you live in Sturry or Broad Oak, you still go to Asda, but if you live in a village back at home, you have your own animals, vegetables, rice, bulgur - everything.”
By the time he turned 16, Mehmet had begun his career as a businessman. He would chug up and down main roads in a tractor to sell goats and onions grown on the family farm.
Despite this, he decided to leave Turkey. The move was influenced by the bigotry he encountered as a Kurd. He says he was banned at school from speaking in his mother tongue and was twice hauled into police stations because of his ethnicity. It was during these five-hour spells that he was subjected to beatings from officers, burned with cigarettes and told “it’s one language, one country”.
“It’s difficult to be Kurdish in Turkey. I wanted to stay away from the politics of it,” he explains in between gulps of water. “But when you’d try to speak Kurdish in school, the teacher would come and beat you up.
“Kurdish speakers would end up in the jandarma, police station. It was an offence speaking Kurdish. They thought you were supporting terrorists. They would come and grab you from school. It was painful when they burned me.
“They would scare you. It wasn’t nice. It’s your mother language; it’s not like you’re creating terrorism. It has changed now, but the majority of Kurds were in this situation then. I wanted to stay away from it.”
Mehmet’s father and friends pooled the money for his journey to Europe. But before he left he had no idea where he would end up. Beginning in Bosnia, he travelled 24 days by plane, lorry, van and car across the continent, sampling life in Germany, France and Italy.
He later found his way onto a bus filled with football fans in Paris. The coach boarded a cross-Channel ferry that disembarked in Dover. With the help of some family friends, he made a life for himself in London, whisking himself off for regular English classes.
“I didn’t know much, only like ‘bread’, ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’,” he remembers, as he sinks back into his chair. “When I saw everybody speak and I couldn’t, it was very frustrating.
“I was 18 and little kids were speaking English. I felt like little kids were cleverer than me. It was difficult, but I was learning quickly. I had a little book with me and would write down every word.
“It was so friendly here. I didn’t think I would end up in England, but I always had in my mind ‘family friends are here and can help me’.”
After six months, he claimed asylum. But his application was knocked back by the Home Office. This set in motion a lengthy legal fight to try to keep Mehmet in the country.
Meanwhile, he moved to Canterbury and took on a job - using the National Insurance number he was given when he claimed asylum - at a Church Street kebab house earning £200 a week. He was stationed in the outlet’s kitchen working “like a butcher” preparing meat.
“I didn’t enjoy London much. Can you imagine going from a small village to massive London and you don’t know too much about it?” he asks.
“Then I moved to Canterbury in 2000. I fell in love with the area – it felt like my hometown, Gaziantep. I had to go study in the morning to learn and the kebab shop was open late, 3am. One of the girls there helped me to open a bank account with Lloyds. I enjoyed the work.”
On January 7, 2002, Mehmet opened his first food outlet, Direct Pizza, in Herne Bay. He bought the business for about £40,000 from his Canterbury employer, using loans from friends, family and the bank.
In the months afterwards Mehmet learned of the Ankara Agreement. Under the little-known treaty – which ended after Brexit – Turkish nationals had the right to establish themselves with a business in the UK. Following a prescribed period of time, they would be allowed permanent residence. It was via this route that Mehmet mounted his last-ditch attempt to stay in the Bay in September 2002.
The case made its way to the European Court of Justice in 2007. By the time he received his first state visa, Direct Pizza in Central Parade was growing in popularity, having started with a turnover of £3,000 a week. He opened more branches, before switching his attentions from takeaways to Turkish cuisine.
A La Turka launched in Canterbury nine years ago. The first of his Direct Pizzas was then transformed into the chain’s second site. Two more were opened in Canterbury and Ramsgate, and he is set to unveil another in Whitstable in the spring.
He also owns a meze bar in the centre of Herne Bay and a chippie on the seafront a stone’s throw away. Furthermore, the town he calls home will gain another two Dari-funded businesses – a beachside restaurant serving seafood and his boutique hotel.
“I love this little town. People have supported me from day one. Why should I not improve Herne Bay?” the tycoon states, his eyes darting between the glass bubbles and his restaurant.
“I want to give back to this town. This town helped us to grow. Now is my turn to make it nicer.”