When Gulcin Topel purchased Kiama’s Saltwater Cafe in May 2021 the country was almost immediately plunged into its second COVID-19 lockdown, however, despite the shaky start, the Turkish-born restaurateur has proven she’s got what it takes to run a successful business.
Gulcin’s seafood restaurant has gained a cult following in the town, and was recently voted the Illawarra and South Coast region’s Outstanding Restaurant at the 2023 Local Business Awards.
“I’ve worked really hard for a very long time to get to this point, and I’ve really put my heart and soul into Saltwater, so winning the business award is personally very meaningful,” Gulcin said.
“When I first took over at Saltwater we were plunged into a lockdown which devastated the hospitality industry.
“It was a very tough time, however it made us stronger as a business and brought us together as a community, and so winning this award feels like an amazing recognition of how far we’ve come in the last two years.”
Gulcin made the move from a small village in Turkey to Sydney in 2009 and relocated to Kiama with her family in 2020 so she could raise her two little boys in a supportive community like the one she had growing up.
“As a young person I received a lot of support from my community, and I came here not only to provide that environment for my own kids – but so that I could give back that support I received to the next generation,” she said.
“I moved here to be a part of a loving community like the one I had growing up, and I want everyone who comes to Saltwater to feel that community spirit.
“We work hard to provide quality products and outstanding customer service so that we can be a positive part of their lives whether they visit us one or 100 times.”
Gulcin said Saltwater was a family run business with a “passion for people”.
In 2023, the Saltwater team rallied together to lend a hand further afield, raising $15,000 to assist people impacted by major earthquakes in Turkey.
Gulcin said it was a cause close to her heart and the support from the Kiama community and businesses was “overwhelming”.
The community repaid that generosity and support by voting with their feet in the business awards.
With a strong focus on fresh seafood dishes, the cafe’s extensive menu includes the iconic Saltwater Basket, and also features a wide range of ever-changing breakfast and lunch offerings, as well as delicious coffees and cakes.
“We are well renowned for our excellence in seafood, and the Saltwater Basket, with crumbed calamari, battered prawns, salt and pepper squid, battered flathead tails and chips, allows our customers to enjoy a wide range of it and understand why that reputation exists,” Gulcin said.
Seafood lovers can also enjoy the Blue Oscar – grilled blue grenadier topped with grilled prawns, served with a side of hollandaise, lemon, chips and salad, as well as Australian barramundi, seafood platters, chowder and the summery salmon, prawn and avocado salad.
Gulcin started her first job at the age of 10, and has 14 years’ experience in hospitality, having managed busy restaurants in Sydney before taking over at Saltwater.
As a business owner and mother Gulcin is inspired by the young people around her who are “pursuing their dreams”.
“It is incredibly encouraging, and inspires me to continue growing Saltwater’s role in supporting them,” she said.
Gulcin’s favourite cuisine is Turkish, and she can’t live without Turkish spices or Turkish coffee, however she also loves Asian, Italian and other Mediterranean flavours.
“My biggest culinary influence would be my grandmother. I used to watch her cook while I was studying, as well as my aunty,” she said.
“Two local businesses I admire are Otis and Miss Arda. I love trying new things, so when I have the time I’m excited to explore more of the South Coast and find some great new places to eat.”
The family has settled into the Kiama community and Gulcin said a “must-see” for visitors to the region were the beaches, the Kiama Coastal Walk and the Kiama Farmer’s Market.