Gourmet craze

Germany's Fling with the Burger

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Not a Big Mac in sight: A selection of Berlin's finest.

Having endured years of communist rule in the East and isolationism in the West, Berliners were more than happy to embrace fast-food mega-chains such as McDonald’s after German reunification.

But just like their city, tastes change, and the industrialized burger is now being given a serious run for its money.

Germans willing to spend more to get more have developed a penchant for a new rendition of an old favorite: A burger made of quality beef, often organic or free-range or both, creatively crafted and topped with exotic vegetables and sauces.

New gourmet-burger joints are popping up across the country but nowhere are they changing the culinary landscape more than in Berlin.

Walk around the capital today and you’ll find restaurant names such as Burgeramt, Burgermeister and Westburger – all plays on the German word Bürger, or citizen – as well as Glück to Go, To Beef or Not to Beef, and Heat & Beat.

Nearly every week, it seems, a trendy community website publishes its top-10 of Berlin gourmet burgers. Among the sites closely watched are Stil in Berlin, Mitvergnügen and Berlinfoodstories. What Berliners like the most, of course, is a matter of taste.

New gourmet-burger joints are popping up across the country but nowhere are they changing the culinary landscape more than in Berlin.

There’s even a regular food event dedicated to the famous patty – Burgers & Hip Hop. Thousands of hungry party people join a block party every few months in the Kreuzberg district to find out who is making the best burgers in Germany’s capital. Sometimes, foreign chefs even fly in for the event. This Saturday, seven burger flippers will be serving their latest creations to celebrate the event’s spicy theme.

“The best thing about the burger is that it’s a democratic food,” Kravita Meelu, the founder and organizer of Burgers & Hip Hop, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “No matter how old or educated you are, you know what makes a good burger. A gourmet burger is a lifestyle choice.”

And Berliners have ever more burger restaurants to choose from. Some estimates put the number at more than 80, others at more than 100. No one knows for sure.

To put that in perspective, Berlin had just one fine-burger diner in 2006, The Bird. Two Americans opened the classically decorated American-style joint in the upmarket district of Prenzlauer Berg, once a neglected neighborhood in the former communist eastern Berlin. Their 250-gram (nine ounce) burgers, made of freshly ground beef and cooked to order, became an instant hit, prompting others to enter the fray.

Most gourmet-burger diners are united in their effort to change the burger’s chintzy image in Germany, shaped by a generation of consumers who wolfed down factory-made Big Macs in over-lit dining areas furnished with plastic tables and chairs, or on the move.

But the new burger joints offer quality, such as Angus beef and locally sourced vegetables – some even bake their own buns. They tout their creativity, offering different types of toppings with a rich variety of sauces and seasonings. And they promise atmosphere.

“The really good burger joints don’t just offer a good product; they offer an experience,” said Giulia Pines, an American food writer married to a German and living in Berlin. “They’re a place you like because of the décor, the music, the people – a place you like to come back to often.”


Video: A mouth-watering video of a Burgers & Hip Hop event.

 

The burger explosion in the German capital is also fueled by what many entrepreneurially minded Berliners see as a golden opportunity to do more with less – creating new twists on a traditional American favorite without all the overhead.

Heat & Beat is a prime example. The burger joint’s proprietors, Jakob Schottstadt and Louis Shapus, knew nothing about burgers when they started flipping them in 2014. Mr. Schottstadt, who studied theater, and Mr. Shapus, a former architect, chose a location in Neukölln, a district with low rents and a rapidly gentrifying population.

“We both liked burgers, observed what was happening in the market and decided to give it a shot with our own original ideas,” Mr. Shapus said.

Business is booming. The owners have carved out a lucrative niche, using Aberdeen Angus beef with combinations such as gorgonzola, Karan, pears and roasted onions, to distinguish themselves from the competition. Since opening, they’ve seen 15 rivals sprout up within walking distance.

Like many other shops, Heat & Beat also offers veggie burgers, so as not to scare away Berlin’s large vegetarian community. Its “Bunker” burger consists of a huge patty made of kidney beans, carrots, olives and various spices, topped with tomatoes, red onions, salad and a honey-mustard sauce.

Prices range from €4.50 ($5) at the low end for a basic burger with a simple topping to €8 for the works. Fries cost another €3, and beverages between €2 and €4. These are common prices for Berlin, where eating out is still relatively inexpensive. Cheap gourmet burgers in Munich, by comparison, begin at €7.

“We can make between 20 and 30 hamburgers an hour, depending on the kind, and on a good day, we can sell as many 200 but our average is more like 100,” said Mr. Schottstadt, who with a total team of eight people is open for business at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week. “And on one of those good days, we earn enough to pay the rent.”

Many customers are regulars who stop by twice a week on average, according to Mr. Shapus. They tend to be in their mid-20s to late-40s, mostly Germans but with a growing number of Turks and other immigrants.

 

woman eating hamburger
Ich liebe dich! Source: Tara Moore/Getty images

 

The two business partners recently began using the delivery service Deliveroo, which sells and delivers a variety of take-away foods.

“It’s kind of incredible,” Mr. Schottstadt said of the additional business it has generated. “Deliveroo demanded a 30 percent markup, and since we weren’t willing to lower our prices, we just added it on top. The price doesn’t seem to bother some people.”

Sales increased 10 percent in the first month of using the service, Mr. Schottstadt said.

Room 77, a burger joint in Kreuzberg, has been a hit with consumers not only because of its tasty burgers but also because of its novel payment option: You can use Bitcoins.

Profits in the gourmet-burger business are a tightly held secret. Revenue and earnings data are hard to find in the nascent sector. One reason: The restaurants, mostly small mom-and-pop businesses, are particularly reluctant to discuss or publicize exact figures – to avoid snoopy rivals and curious tax authorities.

Annual sales are estimated to range between €200,000 and €500,000, with some even higher, depending on size, location and, of course, popularity.

But some ballpark figures for small restaurants do exist. Those with annual sales of €400,000 to €500,000 typically employ seven people, according to the German Hotel and Restaurant Association, or DEHOGA. Of total operating costs, labor accounts for 30 percent and ingredients another 30 percent, with rent, utilities, insurance and other miscellaneous items making up the rest.

“There is now an explosion of burger joints as if everyone wants to eat burgers every day.”

Ludwig Cramer-Klett, Food expert, Contemporary Food Lab website

What’s left is an operating profit of 16 percent for those establishments that rent their facilities and 19 percent for those that own them.

The explosion of the gourmet-burger joints and small chains such as Hans-im-Glück and Kreuzburger is putting pressure on the burger giants. So far, McDonald’s in Germany, the biggest of them all, hasn’t lost any market share but the steady growth the company has experienced for decades is slowing down, forcing it to respond to the gourmet trend with new products.

Two of Berlin’s other ubiquitous fast foods appear as popular as ever despite the burger boom: the Turkish Döner, toasted bread filled with lamb, beef or chicken together with a mix of fresh vegetables; and Currywurst, the sliced grilled pork sausage covered in a curry sauce, often sold with fries. Both foods have huge followings, in part because of their low prices, between €3 and €3.50.

Berlin has more than 1,400 Döner outlets and hundreds of places to grab a quick Currywurst.

“I really like the new gourmet burgers but I still like Currywurst and Döner,” said Robin Göbel, a masters student in Berlin. “It’s great to have more variety – I’m not dropping anything,”

Mr. Göbel spends €8 twice a week for a burger and fries at the same burger joint. “I guess you can call me a very loyal customer,” he said. “I really like the burger and the place is super convenient, just down the road.”

Some food experts see gourmet-burger joints as a trend that will peak soon.

“There will come a time when the market is saturated and I think that could be two to three years,” said Branslav Cuziz, the head cook at the catering company Kofler, which also organizes burger events. “Some will go out of business and others will look to branch out into new areas, like American-style barbecue ribs and the like.”

Few will deny that gourmet burgers are the craze today but opinions differ on what happens to the diners when the buzz subsides.

“There is now an explosion of burger joints as if everyone wants to eat burgers every day,” said Ludwig Cramer-Klett, a food expert at Contemporary Food Lab, a foodie website. “Burgers are a trend as pizza once was and sushi, too.”

Ms. Meelu begs to differ. “Gourmet burgers are definitely a sustainable business,” she said. “I see burgers in the same way as I see pizzas. There is always time to grab a pizza. It’s not a fad but an easily accessable and affordable food item, which everyone understands.”

 

John Blau, an American who has lived in Germany for 30 years, is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. He loves a good burger, but is keeping quiet about which country makes the best. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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