This article originally appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and has been translated into English below.
Can you get döner kebabs in New York, a German of Turkish origin who had moved there wanted to know? The answer? No, unfortunately you can't. This prompted the young man and a partner to try their hand at opening their own döner kebab shop.
More and more German restaurants are popping up in New York. The latest to join the ranks of establishments like "Zum Schneider," "Loreley" and "Lederhosen" is called "Studio Kraut." These restaurants attract Germans who live in New York and miss German cooking, as well as many Americans. They all have similar menus, with most offering schnitzel, bratwurst and pretzels, the sort of culinary fare we generally associate with Germany. Erkan Emre and Michael Stark are now taking a somewhat different route to introduce New Yorkers to German gastronomy. A few months ago, they opened a food cart in the borough of Brooklyn, where they sell what they call "Berlin street food." At first glance, the food they sell probably wouldn't strike many Americans as typically German. That’s because Emre, 39, and Stark, 49, aren't serving up bratwurst and pretzels, but döner kebab.
Their food cart looks a lot like any of the thousands of kebab shops in Germany, with rotating skewers to grill the meat, containers with other ingredients, like tomatoes, red cabbage and sheep's milk cheese, and plastic bottles containing various sauces. They also sell a German soft drink called Spezi, along with apple spritzers. The New York döner men have named their business Kotti, after the Kottbuser Tor subway station in Berlin, not far from where Emre grew up.
Döner may not be a quintessentially German dish. But the flatbread filled with meat is one of the most popular fast foods in Germany, where it's a business worth billions. According to Emre, Turkish döner kebab is very different from the German version. In Turkey, he explains, they don't use sauces and many other ingredients, like red cabbage, and döner is served with a type of white bread similar to baguette.
He just missed kebabs
While Emre's parents are from eastern Turkey, he grew up in Germany's döner kebab capital Berlin, so he was used to the German version. Those were the döner kebabs he missed when he moved to New York in 1997. There were similar dishes, like gyros and shawarma, but they were not the döner he was used to. He eventually went online in search of a döner kebab shop in New York, but all he found were other frustrated döner lovers who bemoaned the fact that the dish couldn’t be found in New York.
Emre didn’t start out in the food business. After arriving in the United States, he went to school for architecture and spent a few years working for renowned architect Peter Eisenman. He later shifted his focus to the development and financing of construction projects, and took a job with a real estate company in Brooklyn. About three years ago, he decided to start a döner kebab business, and he managed to convince Michael Stark to join him as his business partner. Stark, who comes from Heilbronn in southwestern Germany, is a trained cook with a long career in food service and hotel industry. He has worked on a luxury cruise ship, as a private chef for a wealthy resident of Tahiti and at New York's Tribeca Grill, whose owners include actor Robert De Niro. Since 2000, he has been working for Fresh Direct, a very popular online grocer in New York. Stark had never heard of döner when Emre pitched the idea to him. To educate him, Emre took him to Germany on a tasting trip, where they tried seven different versions of döner kebab. It was enough to convince Stark that the idea could work in New York.
Emre and Stark began developing a recipe for their own döner. That included putting together the spice mixture in which the meat is marinated for 24 hours. The two men also thought about what other ingredients should go into their döner. In addition to salads, they decided to include grilled vegetables like zucchini and eggplant as fillings. They also decided to use chicken in their döner instead of beef or veal, which is often used in Germany, because they felt that it would be more popular in New York.
The tester's verdict: "This is authentic"
One of the most important questions was where to sell their döner kebabs. Emre and Stark were looking for an option that wouldn't require too much of an investment. They estimated that opening their own döner kebab shop could cost them up to $300,000. Instead, they hit upon the idea of trying their luck first at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, a market with about 100 food stands, which is extremely popular with locals and tourists and is open on weekends from April to November. Smorgasburg is a popular platform for New York food service entrepreneurs who don't want to invest in their own restaurant just yet.
Because there are so many of these startups, it's tough to garner a spot in the market. Emre says that only about two dozen new vendors were approved this year, and Kotti was one of 1,500 applicants. It didn't hurt that the wife of one of the Smorgasburg vendors is from Berlin and happened to be attending a test meal that applicants are required to serve. Her assessment was clear: "This is authentic." After that, there was nothing to prevent Emre and Stark from participating in the market, and they were able to limit their investments in the new business to $50,000 each. Since April Emre and Stark, who still have their day jobs, have been spending their weekends as döner vendors. Their döner kebab goes for $13, which isn't cheap like it is in Germany, where vendors often sell the dish at predatory prices. They even plan to raise the price to $14 soon, now that they are satisfied with the initial response. On a good day they sell up to 400 döner kebabs, which gives them hope of opening a döner shop one day, or maybe even turning it into a nationwide chain.