Global Observer

Berlin's fledgling street food scene improvises

Berlin's fledgling street food scene improvises

Posting in Food | From Issue 02 November 25, 2013

BERLIN — Food startups are stepping out of the shadow of Berlin’s hierarchical gastronomic scene. But can the movement survive Germany's lingering aversion to risk?

BERLIN — Biting winter cold and shorter days have already descended upon the German capital, but in Kreuzberg’s historical Market Hall 9, the air is warm and bright. 

Vendors beam with pride as they pass exotic specialties like smoked BBQ, Korean salads and British pie “experiments” to excited customers. The hall buzzes with approval. The event — called Street Food Thursday — attracts 7,000 patrons each week to what has become Berlin’s answer to the popular global street food movement. 

Events like Street Food Thursday and Bite Club — a newer street food gathering — are now catering to Berlin street food fans looking to get away from institutionalized restaurants with rigid hierarchies and move towards more self-determination, more freedom and to focus on just a few specialities. 

“I think there’s a shift happening right now in traditional food culture in the way people want to eat, and in the way cooks want to work,” Street Food Thursday co-founder Kavita Meelu told Berlin’s Tip magazine.

But, at the same time food startups in Berlin are growing, the cost of failure and the barriers to success run high in Germany. So the question remains as to whether food startups can surmount the odds and emerge as long-term game-changers for the German capital's established gastronomic culture. 

Whereas in the U.S. many street vendors purchase a vehicle, shoulder insurance costs, install a kitchen, and obtain a transient merchant license, many of Germany's artisan street-food vendors tuck themselves away in places like private business parks in old factory complexes. Events like Bite Club lure these businesses out of the shadows and into a common space to give them exposure to Berlin's enthusiastic public. 

Bite Club participants gathered three times this summer on the banks of the Spree River to celebrate the street-food diamonds that its founder, food journalist Tommy Tannock, was able to seek out of the rough. He said his hope was to help vendors offset a "self-marketing" deficit — an effort that is scheduled to pick up again during the Christmas market season and again in the spring when Bite Club moves back outdoors. 

“People are experimenting with food all over the world, but in Berlin it’s a little more subtle," Tannock said. 

"Some people are definitely trying new things — but even if it’s interesting or good, there’s a marketing problem in Germany. People aren’t particularly great at promoting themselves here.”

MAKI_promo image.jpg

Entrepreneurship is inherently risky — especially in the case of a food startup where overheads can be costly. As The Economist pointed out, the risks are amplified in Germany, where bankrupt entrepreneurs can take as long as six years for a chance to start anew, with the potential to be barred forever from obtaining senior executive positions at large corporations. It’s also no secret that most startups fail, with gastronomic businesses nearly leading the national pack in bankruptcies.

These statistics can turn supposed business mentors into naysayers: When Oliver Reuter and Nils Reimann showed their business plan for a maki roll business in the German capital to a business coach, he told them to forget it.

“We didn’t speak for a week after that,” Reimann said. “But then we came back together and said we’re definitely doing this — and we’re doing it right.”  

Reuter and Reimann said it was just this kind of adversity that forced them to tweak their business plan for another three months before asking the bank for funding — or before jumping into the rest of the fray too blindly. Following the rework, the partners were awarded financing for their business, Maki, in the first round.

Financing was only the beginning, though: The bank also told Reuter and Reimann their plan to sublet space inside a sausage shop on a busy street corner wouldn’t fly — meaning they would have to sell Maki out of Reuter’s car until shop space could be found. It was an act that would require a food handler’s permit, a transient merchant license, and even packaging for the Makis — but Reuter said their mobility over the next six months won them some of their most critical corporate customers.  

“Looking back, I’d say [the coach] was absolutely right to criticize us,” Reuter said. “Had we not been able to anticipate the risks we were taking, we might not have been as prepared for the surprises that followed.”

The Maki shop celebrated its first birthday on November 5th, not long after Reuter and Riemann were commissioned to cater Lady Gaga’s record release party in the city in October. Kavita Meelu and her Street Food Thursday co-organizers also want to expand out of their cozy covered Market Hall 9 into the rest of the city. 

“Everything I’ve seen tells me Berliners are excited to get to know new food,” Meelu told Tip.

“I’ll search the whole city for every single person with the energy to cook, and give them a platform to connect their food and their ideas with the people.”

PHOTO: Maki To Go

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure