The Berliner Döner Kebab serves Turkish-style street food sold in Germany, similar to Greek gyros that are widely popular in the U.S. A “döner” is commonly served on fladenbröt (literally “flat bread” in German) and comes with slices of lamb or chicken, vegetables, and yogurt sauce.
From a visual standpoint, the döner may look very similar to a gyro, but with different types of meat and bread, although the meats are cooked in the same fashion as a gyro. A döner uses the same type of spices found in Mediterranean or Greek food, but gyros typically use tzatziki sauce.
The döner kebab was brought to Germany from the first wave of Turkish immigrant workers in the 1960s. Although the country has been traditionally known for their sausages, döner kebabs have grown to become the quintessential street food found in Germany and major fast food joints in Europe. The döner kebab is currently a $4.5 billion industry in Germany alone and is served in train stations, market squares, corner stands, sit-down restaurants and more.
One can draw a parallel from döner kebabs in Germany to pizza and tacos in America, dishes that were once foreign but assimilated to American culture. “Germans embrace the döner as if it was a German food when it’s reallyTurkish,” said Victor Twu, owner of The Berliner.
Although he found one of the few döner kebab shops in the U.S, Twu is fairly new to döner kebabs himself. The 35-year-old Chinese American from Federal Way previously owned and operated franchise restaurant for six years and made the decision to quit for financial reasons.
In the fall of 2009, Twu traveled alone to Thailand for a vacation, where he met his current wife Jeanette, a young woman also traveling alone from Berlin. After the vacation ended and the two went back home, Twu traveled to Berlin in the winter of 2009 to visit her. While in Germany, Twu would explore the city and eat German street food, many of which were döner kebabs.
After eating at a stand in Berlin called Mustafa’s Gemuse Kebab, Twu was reminded of one of his favorite places in Seattle, Paseo’s, which serves Carribean style pork sandwiches. At that moment, Twu was inspired by the fresh food, the mint tossed on and the unique bread and the slow-cooked taste. “I thought, ‘I could do something like that. That’s fresh, and people in this town like stuff like that,’” said Twu. “If I could figure out how to do that, then I think I have a chance [of making it in Seattle].”
After closing down the previous franchise he owned, Twu got that chance. But it didn’t start off so easy. Along with the usual difficulties of owning a restaurant, selling something new and unfamiliar can add other troubles, and a restaurant with a German name and Turkish menu can cause some confusion.
“Imagine if you opened the first pizza shop in the U.S. and nobody knew what a pizza was,” explained Twu. “Imagine every customer walking in and going, ‘How do you pronounce that? Is it pie-za? Pee-za?’ Then you have to explain that it’s a pizza — that it’s a doughy flat thing that you spread out. Imagine if you had to do that to every potential customer. I mean, that’s exhausting.”
Fortunately, many customers walking in were curious enough to stay and try out the new food. The Berliner has since become more established with two restaurants, their first opening in Pioneer Square in the fall of 2010, and the other in South Lake Union in the spring of 2011, although they still receive the occasional quizzical look for not being a familiar food.
But that was what Twu was going for. After owning and closing his franchise, Twu decided to take a risk and create something unparalleled in Seattle.
Though sometimes, he thinks he could have done something with a much broader appeal.
“If I had a general message to those who don’t know what it is or haven’t tried it yet, I’d just tell them to come in. It’s döner kebab, and it’s funny the way its spelled, and you can’t really pronounce it, but it’s just tasty food,” said Twu, adding in reflection: “I do feel proud of the fact that we do have this product that no one really else has. And it’s been received well … I think that’s an accomplishment, and I’m proud of that.”