MADRID — Few things are quite as quintessentially Spanish as the Chocolateria San Ginés, off Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Filled with older Spanish couples dressed to the nines, guiris or tourists, and even a few celebs, this thriving restaurant only sells a handful of things: relaxing cups of cafe con leche, fresh orange juice, and the main event -- churros con chocolate caliente.
Since 1894, the city of the night’s only 24-hour source of food — besides the storefront pizza places that have popped up over the last few years — has thrived through the Spanish-American War, the Spanish Civil War, a 36-year dictatorship, an economic boom and downfall to remain the staple of Madrileño breakfasts and hangovers. But after more than a century, San Ginés is suddenly attracting foreign investors and beginning to spread worldwide, due to a recent surge in Spanish tourism and the fact that a treat whose main ingredients are flour and frying oil is essentially recession-proof
And the cafe's beloved reputation doesn't hurt. “San Ginés is like the Museo del Prado, the Thyssen [museum] and tapas — a mandatory stop in Madrid,” Delphine Artiñano, who handles marketing for San Ginés, said. San Ginés actually falls behind Retiro Park, the city's three main museums, and one other cafe, as the sixth most popular check-in on Yelp Madrid.In just the last 18 months, San Ginés has gone from being a local business to an international franchising success. Artiñano says emerging markets especially are interested in San Gines, with two spots each now in Shanghai and Bogota, Colombia. Investors from Egypt, Mexico, and even wealthier countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Canada have also sought out San Ginés to create franchises soon.
Since the crisis began in 2008, Spanish tourism has continued to grow significantly — about ten percent annually. Particularly, the Chinese are eagerly flocking to Spain, which in 2013 beat out China for the first time to become the third most-popular tourist destination in the world, following behind France and the United States.
Artiñano says churros’, and subsequently San Ginés’, quite sudden popularity comes mostly from buzz that came around the first franchise that opened in Shanghai, spurred as a result of a Chinese businessman's Madrid vacation. She says San Ginés’ expansion to China has been featured in international tourism media, particularly in French, Brazilian, Japanese and Canadian television; plus a feature in Vogue luxury fashion magazine, couldn't have hurt.
The growth in tourism to Spain has also generated interest in other ways of bringing a taste of the Iberian Peninsula home. The Chinese are even attempting to create their own Iberian ham -- the giant, expensive and delicious legs dangling around just about every Spanish bar, from free-range pigs only fed acorns. In the last couple years, Chinese businesses have produced more than half a million patas negras, but have still fallen shy of the official quality standards.
But it's not just the Chinese trying their hand at Spanish delicacies. Churros seem to be the next cupcake or cronut. Chefs around the world are trying to make them, although there’s often a twist on the basic oily dough, sometimes stuffed with things like with cheddar, green tea, and eggs.
Mr. Churros is an American-based chain of carts, venders and food court stands that is rapidly expanding in the U.S., selling cream-filled churros like hot cakes. And a large churros franchise will be coming to the United Kingdom soon, according to an investor who preferred not to be named, as negotiations are still being finalized.
This worldwide fever is spurring its own enthusiasm back home. While you can find churros served on marble tables under glaring fluorescent lights in pretty much any pueblo on the peninsula, this cafe is looking to use that foreign investment to expand with franchises across Spain. Two hours north of Madrid, San Ginés is the star of the newly opened Estacion Gourmet, a hipster marketplace next to the Valladolid train station, while an Avila branch will open soon. Santander will be next.
While more and more extranjeros are looking to mimic the Castillian way of life, only time will tell if imitation turns from flattery to just another thing hurting the Spanish economy.
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