Beer Battles

New Kid on the Oktoberfest Block

Oktoberfest 2013, Source: DPA
Munich's huge Oktoberfest kicks off on Saturday.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Tent owners at the Oktoberfest can make a fortune. The first new owner in 25 years, Siegfried Able, beat more established restaurateurs to win the highly lucrative concession.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mr. Able’s tent will seat 4,000 and he aims to serve 150,000 guests at this year’s Oktoberfest.
    • The tent owner he replaces claimed to earn more than €3 million during the 16 days of the festival.
    • Mr. Able has spent 30 years in the food service industry. He began his career at 20 with a pretzel stand.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Siegfried Able is the owner of the first new major beer tent at Munich’s Oktoberfest in 25 years. He has marketed himself well, but he isn’t particularly popular with his peers.

To make up for this, Mr. Able is taking a modest approach, choosing understatement over excess. But perhaps there’s a little too much modesty going on here. At the construction site of his new Marstall tent, Mr. Able has to shout to make himself heard over the din of circular saws, drills and hammers. “There are restaurateurs throughout the country who do such a great job every day.”

It’s already clear that Mr. Able himself is one of them – a member of the elite, finally. He is proud of himself, and it shows. After 30 years in the food service industry, he has arrived. The 50-year-old is now an owner of one of the 14 biggest tents at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds, known in Germany as the Wiesn. But as the new kid on the block, he is having trouble gaining acceptance among fellow tent owners.

“We're doing our job now, and we'll be pleased if the other owners decide they want to accept us. ”

Siegfried Able, Oktoberfest Tent-owner

The Marstall tent at the beginning of Wirtsbudenstraße, directly at the main entrance to the Oktoberfest, is an upmarket venue. There are more than 4,000 seats, and there are tablecloths on every table. At the center of the tent is a carousel with eight little horses circling around the band. There is also a quadriga, or chariot drawn by four horses, on the roof. The tent serves a three-course meal, and reservations can be had for €60 ($78). Mr. Able expects to serve 150,000 guests this year.

The arrival of a large new tent at Oktoberfest is always noteworthy.

Festival fans were in uproar when Sepp Krätz, with his legendary Hippodrom tent, a celebrity attraction, became embroiled in a tax scandal in the spring. Many saw Mr. Krätz’s departure as an opportunity. A tent at the Wiesn isn’t just the high point of any restaurateur’s career. It’s also a license to print money.

Siegfried Able
Siegfried Able, enjoying a beer or two in Munich. Source: DPA

 

This is in part because beer prices are much higher at the Oktoberfest than they are during the year in the traditional beer halls of the local breweries. It’s a matter of demand: anyone travelling from the United States or Australia to visit the beer festival and queuing up for hours to get hold of one of the coveted seats in a tent won’t really care whether the traditionally offered unit of one liter, called a “Mass”, costs €9 ($11.5) or €12, or even €14.  There are limits thought – even if pricing controls in the cartel-like situation are rather lax. The brewers send their suggested prices to the city administration every year – and need to gain their approval. However, the price of Oktoberfest beer has risen at twice the pace of inflation since 1950.

With his Hippodrom, Mr. Krätz claimed to have earned more than €3 million during the 16 days of the Oktoberfest. Given how profitable a tent is, it makes sense that an owner would demand compensation for the naming rights – which, in this case, was reportedly several million euros. Mr. Able took a different approach, as has so often been the case.

'Wiesn3_DPA
Previewing the Oktoberfest 2014, with the mayor of Munich, Dieter Reiter. Source: DPA

 

Mr. Able is a trained carpenter, and yet he has never really worked at that profession. He has been involved in the restaurant business for 30 years, working his way up from the bottom. At 20, he opened a pretzel stand with his wife. Then came a candy store and a pizza stall at the main train station, a self-service restaurant in Munich’s Hellabrunn Zoo, a mobile ice-skating rink with food and beverage service in the pedestrian zone, a beer garden on Lerchenau Lake and the Kalbs-Kuchl tent. “At 43, I was given the chance to get a small tent at the Oktoberfest. It was the first big step,” says Mr. Able. “It was almost a bigger deal than what’s happening today.”

There it is again, Mr. Able’s show of modesty, which he uses to court the sympathies of Munich residents, especially the other owners of Wiesn tents. He has to approach them gently, remove prejudices and gain trust to be accepted. The central person is Toni Roiderer, the spokesman of the tent owners.

Mr. Able is familiar with the skepticism. One of the candidates for Mr. Krätz’s spot at the Wiesn was Lorenz Stiftl, owner of the Spöckmeier Restaurant in Munich and a supplier to public festivals throughout southern Germany. Mr. Stiftl wanted to buy the Hippodrom from Mr. Krätz, including the staff and the naming rights. The offer was well-received. Other luminaries in the restaurant business also submitted their bids. But in the end the city’s economic committee chose Mr. Able, a nobody that no one had expected – and who nonetheless scored more points in the evaluation with his concept than the owners of the venerable Schottenhammel tent.

Some felt that something odd was going on. The Munich rumor mill began to turn. Suddenly there was talk of Mr. Able’s excellent connections, some of them personal, to politicians in the center-left Social Democratic Party. The current mayor of the city, Dieter Reiter, is a member of the SPD. Georg Schlagbauer, a city council member with the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), cried foul.

“It certainly would be nice if you could use your connections in the SPD to garner a permanent spot on the Wiesn,” says Mr. Able. “Of course I know politicians, including the mayor and city council members.” But, he adds, the city most certainly didn’t base its decision on him but on the application instead. “It’s because we simply earned the concession.”

In fact, the Able family has been submitting an extensive list of items to campaign for a big tent for the last three years. Many criteria play a role in the decision, including environmental issues. Mr. Able scored points with a vegan dish on his menu, along with the biofuel he uses to power his forklifts and the solar panels on the roof. All of this was carefully packaged as part of Mr. Able’s bid for the concession. Those who merely submitted the completed application form were quickly out of the running.

Mr. Able, on the other hand, has won the jackpot. He has invested more than €3 million ($3.9 million) in his tent, all of it “under my own steam,” as he says. He expects the investment to pay for itself within five years. “If we break even at that point and the tent lasts for 15 years, we’ll be able to call it a pretty good investment.”

And if his Wiesn premier is a success, relations with the other tent owners will likely improve. “Sure, there were two or three remarks that I thought were excessive. It created some bad blood,” says Mr. Able. “But we’re doing our job now, and we’ll be pleased if the other owners decide they want to accept us.” There’s that modesty again, but with some self-confidence mixed in.

Lederhosn1_DPA
Traditional “lederhosesn” or leather trousers, seen on the Oktoberfest. Source: DPA

 

Almost as important as picking the right tent at Oktoberfest is picking the right traditional lederhosen, the leather trousers worn traditionally in Bavaria.

Visitors to the Wiesn have their choice of both high-end and low-end outfits. Clothing discounter Kik sells a 100-percent polyester version of the traditional garb, with adjustable suspenders and imitation stag horn buttons, for €39.95. High-end traditional retailer Meindl sells an outfit consisting of top-quality lederhosen with elaborate embroidery for €1,549. It’s expensive, but it’ll last for generations.

From cheap knockoffs of traditional fare to the original upper Bavarian outfits, everyone is trying to cash in on the current popularity of traditional clothing. Just a few years ago, younger people viewed the traditional costumes as conservative and bourgeois, but they’re practically obligatory at the Oktoberfest today. In her book “Phänomen Wiesntracht” (The Traditional Oktoberfest Outfit Phenomenon), Ethnologist Simone Egge attributes the shift to the yearning for a sense of home in a globalized world. “Society is getting more mobile and flexible all the time, and there is growing uncertainty. The desire for home, tradition and a sense of belonging is getting noticeably more important.”

Simon Book is a business reporter at Handelsblatt. He studied journalism at Munich, the city at the heart of Oktoberfest. Contact him at: book@handelsblatt.com

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