The thing about being an expat is, there’s a period of adjustment in the beginning unless you’re a top CEO with a staff. You might have been a big shot back in the States or Australia. Here, you have to figure stuff out on your own.
Where to stay. Where to shop. And most importantly, where to eat.
So we like to pass on our helpful hints to make your life better. First the bad news for our American friends who love juicy steaks and nice fast-casual dining: There are no Texas Roadhouses in Europe.There were supposed to be, but former CEO G.J. Hart (who – interestingly – is a Dutch expat) departed for California Pizza Kitchen. So the big international push never happened outside of a store in Dubai.
Now the good news. If you know New York City, D.C. or Chicago, you likely already know one ubiquitous European restaurant … Vapiano. Though you probably didn’t know the chain of Italian fast-casual restaurant is based in Bonn, Germany. (An Italian restaurant chain based in Germany. There is a God, and She has a wacky sense of humor.)
In Europe, there’s more of a divide between restaurants. It’s either kabob stands and American fast food, or restaurants that tend to be destinations. The upscale fast-casual sector that dominates the U.S. isn’t as prevalent here. So there aren’t exact equivalents to California Pizza Kitchen, Eataly or Palomino’s in, say, Chicago,
Except one: Vapiano.
The Vapiano concept, which has spread across Europe like wildfire since its founding in 2002, is fresh Italian food prepared in front you (see video), with food stations for pizza, pasta, salads, drinks and desserts. The food ranges from tasty to seriously delicious. What really makes it most appealing for a cheapskate like me is, Vapiano is ridiculously inexpensive considering the quality of the food and the consistency of the experience.
I’m looking at my tab from last weekend and it’s a whopping 13.40 euros, or about $15 … 9.90 euros for a Primitivo Salento pizza (shrimp and lots of pungent rocket/arugula) on a thin crust. My glass of red house wine (some sort of Chianti) was 3.50 euros. The wine was a generous pour, well over the 0.21 litre line on the glass. It was more like two glasses, so 1.75 euros per glass is a pretty good bargain.
By the way, I have to credit Ivana Avramovic, a longtime friend and Dispatches contributor, who turned me on to Vapiano last summer in Vienna. Ivana likes the concept because of the fresh food. “When you see food being prepared in front of you, I approve!” she told me this week. That and the restaurants exceed expectations wherever you go … and there are Vapianos now on every continent except Antarctica.
“The whole thing … this is supposed to be fast food, but it’s so many levels above a regular burger place,” Ivana said. “You can choose pasta … linguine that’s made fresh.” At the Eindhoven store, I watched two guys in a special glassed-in workspace blending ingredients, then cranking out miles of fresh pasta.
Each store interior is inviting and each is distinctive because we’re not talking about prototypes out on the freeway in Flyover America. In Europe, at least, Vapianos are in retrofitted buildings, generally in the center of the city. In Eindhoven, they work hard on the atmosphere. The playlist is heavy with sophisticated American alternative music. Quirky and interesting, not weird. In Vienna, I noticed they played a heavy jazz rotation. Store ambiance is a little different from place to place, “but always nice,” Ivana said, with small planters of rosemary and basil on each table.
The open area seating is a good place to grab a quick bite, or there is a cafe area where you can linger, she said.
In Eindhoven, where I live, the Vapiano has a huge, elaborate space – about 8,000 square feet and seating for maybe 150 diners on two full floors. On the ground floor, lines of 10 or 12 communal tables parallel the food stations. Upstairs, there are four distinct spaces including an outdoor deck, an events space and a funky, more intimate dining area with soft seating and huge red and white lamps.
The staff is young and energetic. As I walk through town to meetings, I sometimes see them gathered together on weekend mornings, discussing business and prepping for the day.
Another appealing aspect is that Vapiano is quick, easy and nutritious.
After a long work day during a business trip to Berlin, Ivana told me, a colleague suggested the Vapiano in the Berlin train station. At first, she was hesitant, she said. “But it was late and we were hungry. I was really exhausted. I needed to eat, but after an exhausting day, I didn’t want an elaborate restaurant experience. I just wanted to eat something. I didn’t want McDonalds. I wanted … something healthy because it had been a good, long day without nourishment.” Soup, fresh bread and salad turned out to be perfect.
If this sounds like a concept with global appeal, you’d be right. Vapiano has gone from the original store opening in Vienna in 2002 to 237 restaurants in 35 countries as of 2014! There are 90 Vapianos in Germany, alone, according to industry reports.
We’ll have a companion post about the business end of Vapiano, because if I were an expat with a couple of euros in my pocket, I’d be thinking about a franchise!
Some 2015 statistics from the Vapiano website:
Our guests chomped their way through 17.5 million pasta dishes. That’s a whopping 3150 tonnes or the equivalent of 600 elephants! This figure sees pasta top the popularity charts, closely followed by pizza. If we stacked up the 9.15 million pizzas ordered in 2015 they would be over three times as tall as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower!
A record-breaking amount of Espresso was served too. Exactly 475,398 cups were consumed last year – and this is only the Cups which were enjoyed in Germany. Just pause to think about it. And why not have another while you’re at it. We hope you savoured every single cup and here’s to smashing that record next year!