The world's sweetest fortune teller

He’ll tell your fortune by reading your coffee grounds. He’ll sell you handcrafted Turkish delights. He’ll randomly invite you into his NYC apartment for a podcast. How Uluç Ülgen, a Turkish immigrant to Rochester, went from a 9-year-old who couldn’t speak the language to “The World’s Sweetest Fortune Teller.”

Uluç Ülgen.
Contributed / Amy Shamblen (amy shamblen creative)

Our interview hasn’t even started yet, and Uluç Ülgen has already asked me to refer to him as “Dr. Honeybrew,” suggested that I fly him out to Rochester so I can meet him in person (“Even if it has to come out of your own pocket”), implied that he won’t do the interview unless he’s the cover story.

I tell him I’ll call him Dr. Honeybrew. That there’s no way I’m paying to fly him to Roch, especially with my own money. And that—if he even hints at trying to dictate story placement again—we’ll end the interview right then.

“Since you seem like a blunt and from-the-heart individual, I will set aside my vanity for wanting the cover story,” says Uluç, (pronounced “oo-looch”), on a Zoom call from his apartment in New York City. “Even if this ends up not getting printed, I decided in this moment that I want to have this conversation, just between one Rochester compadre to another Rochester compadre.”

But that—his unabashed self-promotion followed by his sincere desire to get to know another human being—defines Uluç Ülgen. Or at least it defines Dr. Honest Honeybrew.

Then, after all that, he made it on the cover anyway.


“This is what America tastes like, and I’m here for it.”

On his first day in his new hometown of Rochester—on his first day in America—9-year-old Uluç Ülgen and his mom burst through the doors of their new apartment.

And saw the filth. And saw the cockroaches.

Uluç’s mom, Sertaç, had gotten divorced from her husband (and Uluç’s doctor dad), Orhan, a few months earlier. Then accepted a residency in the pathology department at Mayo Clinic. Decided that she and her son, her only child, would leave their native Turkey—and Uluç’s beloved hometown of Istanbul—for the unknown of Rochester, 5,500 miles away. They arrived on a beautiful August day, 1998.

“My mom and I had just traveled 16 hours from Turkey to this foreign land and we enter into our apartment,” says Uluç, who turned 34 this month. “It was next to Just Rite Foods [the now-defunct grocery in southwest Rochester]. We walk in and it was like one of those scenes you would see in those films where you open up the cabinets and there’s cockroaches just flying out.”

Uluç and his mom. Sertaç. Photo courtesy Uluç Ülgen.

Here’s what Sertaç did. She stayed up all night cleaning that apartment—scrubbing and sanitizing, sweeping and bleaching. Then, at 7 a.m., she took her son to Rainbow Foods and let him get whatever he wanted.

“If there is an equivalent to a 9-year-old child being on crack, Rainbow Foods was it for me,” says Uluç. “We bought all the stuff I had never tried: Fruit Roll-Ups, Gushers. I made this waffle sandwich: part Canadian bacon, maple syrup, Oreo Cookie crumbs, Fruit Roll-Ups, nacho cheese Doritos. I remember taking a bite out of this and thinking, obviously, it was disgusting. But secondly, I thought, ‘This is what America tastes like, and I’m here for it.’”

“Why don’t you go back to your country where you belong?”

Uluç Ülgen knew the English names of the colors on the color wheel. He could count from 1 to 10. That was about it.

So he spent the next month taking ESL classes at Hoover Elementary. Then transferred to Harriet Bishop.


“My first day of fourth grade was a sensory overload,” says Uluç. “Here’s a language I can barely understand. They’re wheeling this television into the room and watching Bill Nye. In Turkey, we would never watch TV in class. It was a huge culture shock.”

And the 9-year-old, he says, just shut down.

“I think because of the overwhelm of the whole situation—and I would never do this—I just put my head down on my desk,” says Uluç. “The next thing I know, I get a tap on my shoulder, and it’s my teacher. He said, ‘In this country, we don’t sleep during class.’ From the very little English that I had, I knew he said that. And let me tell you, I was so embarrassed, so freaking embarrassed.”

It didn’t get much better anytime soon for young Uluç.

Contributed / Amy Shamblen (amy shamblen creative)

He had been a popular kid back in his school in Istanbul, Turkey, which Uluç describes as “vibrant, like the New York of the Middle East.” He even did some child acting in commercials for things like tuna fish and candy bars. He had plenty of friends. But now he was afraid to even talk. Now he was hiding in the bathroom whenever he could.

“I went from being the most popular kid in my elementary school to being the loser foreign kid who couldn’t speak a lick of English,” he says.

In Rochester, Sertaç, now a single mom just starting a residency, worked long hours at Mayo. Sometimes, Uluç says, she would leave at 7 a.m. and not get home until 10 or 11 p.m. So Uluç would walk home from school alone and spend the day watching TV. During his first tornado warning, at home by himself, he called his grandma back in Turkey, asked her what he should do.

In 2001, Sertaç and then 12-year-old Uluç moved into a northwest Rochester apartment complex that he describes—at the time—as being “no place for a young kid to live.”


He talks about getting sucker punched while walking through the neighborhood. He talks about the school bus driver who berated him on the rides home.

“I was the last kid to get dropped off,” he says. “By the end of the ride it would just be me and the bus driver. He would say things like, ‘Why don’t you go back to your country where you belong? Why are you here?’ It was incessant. Because I lacked so much confidence, I just thought, ‘This is how it must be in America for foreigners coming into your country.’”

Uluç attended John Adams Middle School then John Marshall High School. Then found music. And a friend.

“If it wasn’t for Zach, I don’t think I would have made it out alive.”

In 2003, Sertaç took her 13-year-old son to Wisconsin to see Radiohead in concert. “That experience totally opened up my eyes,” says Uluç. “For the first time, I had an armor, a shield for myself. Music is one thing that really got me through those lonely years.”

Uluç's Turkish Coffee Box ($20 at
Contributed / Amy Shamblen (amy shamblen creative)

His mom took him to see other bands. They went to California for the Coachella festival. Saw The Pixies and The Cure and The Flaming Lips.

Around the same time, Uluç met Zach Simon.

“If it wasn’t for Zach,” says Uluç, “I don’t think I would have made it out alive. I finally had someone to hang around with. Zach was this firecracker of a kid, and every day after school we would go to another friend’s and listen to Frank Zappa bootlegs and just talk music. I think I learned more from those times than anything that they tried to inculcate me with at John Marshall.”

Uluç did, though, start to find those people who cared.


Like Jack Samuell, the high school science teacher that Uluç describes as “just a ball of warmth, kindness, and understanding. I knew he loved lemon Turkish delights [a gummy candy covered in sugar], so when we’d visit Turkey, I’d bring them back for him. He treated me like he cared.”

And Uluç will never forget one incident with Tim O’Neill, JM’s social studies teacher.

“Once, I left during lunch hour to smoke, and I came back in the class completely ripped,” says Uluç. “I probably reeked of pot. Mr. O’Neill put his hands on my desk and looked me directly in the eyes and said, ‘I know what you did, but I’m not going to say anything this time. But you’re not going to do it again.’ ... It scared me stupid. I never showed up to the school high again after that.”

Uluç took jobs at Old Country Buffet, the Super America on Second Street SW. He was that kid at the Apache Mall Food Court—you may remember him from his large mop of black hair—who handed out samples of orange chicken in front of Manchu Wok.

Uluç places the endoscopy camera in the cup to project and read the coffee grounds.
Contributed / Amy Shamblen (amy shamblen creative)

He graduated from JM in 2007. Enrolled part-time at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. Took a job at First Avenue, the historic music venue in Minneapolis.

And, Uluç says, he was going nowhere. Was sliding into depression. Got rid of his cell phone. Closed himself off from the rest of the world.

Then he met Lester Lynch.

“I looked around and knew this was where I belonged.”

“I was at the YMCA in Minneapolis and ended up talking to this charismatic 400-pound Black guy I had never seen before,” says Uluç.


That guy, Lester Lynch, was an internationally known New York City opera singer working out between performances of “Roberto Devereux,” by the Minnesota Opera.

They struck up a conversation, then a friendship. Eventually, Lynch invited Uluç to move to New York City and work as his assistant. He’d pay for his flight, he said. Let him stay in his apartment.

“Every now and then, your path in life will cross with somebody who will see something inside of you that you yourself don’t realize,” says Uluç. “For me, that came when I met Lester. I had so much energy pent up inside of me, and I found someone who saw something in me.”

And, Uluç says, he had nothing to lose.

Contributed / Amy Shamblen (amy shamblen creative)

Uluç Ülgen, 23, quit his job and flew to New York City.

Two months later, he and Lester had a falling out. Uluç found himself alone in New York City. He had nowhere to live.

“I had like $1,500 and I thought, ‘I can either go back to Minnesota and be miserable again or I can try to make something of myself in this city,’” he says. “I looked around and knew this was where I belonged.”

He found a space on the floor in a slag tenement house for $500 a month he shared with 12 other people. He started walking the neighborhood looking for work.


“One day, I saw this restaurant that had a vaguely Turkish name and I walked in,” he says. “I said ‘Hey, I’m Turkish. Can I work here?’ They’re like, ‘Okay, you can come tomorrow and start work.’ They hired me on the spot.”

He took second and third jobs, moved up through increasingly high-end restaurants. Moved into a real apartment.

In 2014, he flew to Turkey for an impromptu hitchhiking trip to make his way along, of all places, the war-torn border with Syria. He didn’t know the language. Wasn’t sure why he was there. Figured he needed to find himself.

He walked with strangers. Caught rides with strangers. Shared meals with strangers who invited him into their homes.

When he had an emotional, midnight breakdown in the Turkish city of Gaziantep—when he sat down on the street and couldn’t stop crying—five garbagemen sat down beside him. Offered him cigarettes. After 10 or so minutes of sitting in silence, when they realized Uluç was going to be all right, then men patted him on the back and left.

“That,” says Uluç, “was a turning point. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make these kinds of connections with total strangers.”

As soon as he got back to New York City, Uluç started Murmur, a podcast he recorded from his NYC apartment. He posted flyers—with an open invitation for anyone to be a guest on the podcast—around the city. And people started showing up at his apartment for what Uluç calls “one-on-one conversations with strangers.”

The homeless guy who showed up to describe in detail his downfall from former honor roll student. The woman who gave birth alone in her apartment during a blackout. The Iranian porn star.

He rarely turned anyone away. By 2017, Uluç had hosted 900 off-the-street strangers as guests. He listened. Guided total strangers through telling their powerful and funny and moving stories. Made sometime real-life connections in those 60-minute conversations.

Murmur got mentions in the New York Post and Paris Review. People were taking notice.

Unfortunately for Uluç, one of those people was his landlord, who, finding out about his guests, evicted him immediately. Then Uluç lost his best restaurant job. Found out his girlfriend was cheating on him.

“In one month’s time I lose my significant other, I lose my livelihood, and I lose my place that I called home,” he says.

He decided he needed to head back to Turkey once again. This time to see his father, Orhan, who had once been a respected doctor in Turkey.

“When I showed up, his new wife and their daughter had just left him because his drinking problem had returned,” says Uluç. “I saw him in this completely disheveled, destroyed state where he would drink from 8 a.m. until midnight. We went on this road trip together to the top of this hill, and ... he offered to read my coffee grounds. I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently he had even proposed to my mom during a coffee fortune reading.”

“So he gave me this reading, and everything that I needed to hear in that moment, he reflected back to me. It gave me such an amazing amount of encouragement that when I returned back to the states, I started to implement Turkish coffee fortune readings as a part of my podcast.”

And Dr. Honest Honeybrew was born.

“This is all made possible thanks to Rochester.”

Uluç waited tables at high-end Manhattan restaurants during the day. Held small group Turkish coffee ground fortune readings at night. Then danced at clubs (“like I was in a trance,” he says) until 5 a.m., when it started all over again.

Requests for the coffee ground readings started to spread, and soon Uluç was giving them in groups of 8 (at $54 each) in his living room. A magazine story referred to him as “The World’s Sweetest Fortune Teller.” It stuck.

“The fortune telling is more like a Rorschach test,” says Uluç. “It’s a very visually-interpretive style of fortune telling, the improv jazz-equivalent to soothsaying.”

When you’re done with your Turkish coffee, and the grounds stick to the side of the cup, Dr. Honeybrew puts an endoscopy camera into the cup and projects the image on a screen. Everyone chimes in with what they see--and what they think it means.

It’s communal. And cathartic.

Just like when he landed that Turkish restaurant job, Uluç realized that his Turkish heritage was something, finally, to embrace.

So Dr. Honeybrew rented space in a bakery in Hamden, Connecticut (a 3-hour train ride from his East Village apartment), where he started roasting and grinding Turkish coffee, which he packages in gift boxes with fortunes. He began making Turkish delights from scratch. That’s where he spends his Mondays and Tuesdays.

Wednesdays through Fridays he holds virtual online fortune telling sessions for everything from corporate team building to family reunions.

Weekends mean in-person, in-apartment fortune teller readings for up to 8 guests at a time. Two shows a day, including a matinee. It’s billed like an off-Broadway show.

He has his merch stand—fortune boxes, Turkish coffee boxes, handmade Turkish bracelets.

He met his new girlfriend, Amy, during an in-person reading. She’s a photographer who shoots Uluç’s PR pics.

A few months ago, he recorded a “fortune telling gone wrong” story for an episode of “Judge Steve Harvey,” which is slated to air this month.

He’s marketing the online Fortune Boxes ($40) and his own line of sunglasses (Dr. Honeybrew’s ’HoneyBee’ Shades) on

“When I look back at Rochester,” says Uluç, “it instilled in me the blue-collar approach to work. ... I have worked nonstop since the age of 13. From bagging groceries at Just Rite groceries to slinging’ orange chicken at the Apache Mall--I have performed every job with pride. ... I felt as a foreigner to that land, an elevated sense of duty to serve in America. This is all made possible thanks to Rochester.”

With that, after answering enough questions about himself, Uluç starts interviewing me, trying to guide me toward telling my own powerful and funny and moving stories.

Eventually, Dr. Honest Honeybrew—and that will be his real name, he says, once he gets it legally changed—goes back to hand making the rest of today’s Turkish delights and hand grinding his Turkish coffee before tomorrow’s Turkish coffee readings.

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