Wanna know who offers our favourite burrito in Berlin (with an option to have rice & beans exchanged for a lighter quinoa & lentils)? It’s of course Chupenga who have two slick and speedy lunch restaurants based in the more touristic part of town, but don’t let that fool you, the food here is PACKED full of flavour and fresh ingredients, which explains why the restaurants are always packed too! We sent a few questions to owners Anna Vinarsky and Ferdinand von Kalm to learn how it all came to be, and why their fast Mexican food restaurants aren’t that Mexican at all…
First of all, we’ve tasted a LOT of burritos, and honestly think yours are certainly the best in Berlin, and dare we say it, whilst different in style actually (in our opinion) rival many in San Francisco’s burrito-legendary Mission district. What is your secret to making them taste so good?
Thank you so much, we are really glad that you like it.
Truth be told, we don’t really have a secret ingredient – we just try to make great honest food by applying a high standard to all our ingredients. We have deliberately decided to keep our menu simple, which allows us to pay maximum attention to each item on the menu.
For instance we squeeze boxes of fresh lime every day for the seasoning because you just taste the difference. And we continuously work on refining our recipes.
Believe it or not, we still eat at Chupenga every single day, and we talk a lot about how we can improve the food further. It is an ongoing process, more creative than you would think and lots of fun. We call it the Japanese way of doing things (inspired by the movie “Jiro dreams of Sushi”).
You let customers customise their chosen meats & flavours to burritos, tacos or salads, which allows for a speedy service and flexibility. What’s the most popular combo?
It’s a tie between a classic chicken burritos with lime-rice and black beans and a bowl with veggies, quinoa and lentils. However, our top bestseller is guacamole – by a clear margin.
One of the things we adore (…or admittedly are slightly addicted to) are your alternative, healthy fillings – for example our favourite combo of quinoa, lentils, chicken and salsa verde. This challenges what most people assume a burrito should be, and its healthiness. Was launching Chupenga with a wide choice of healthy options a deliberate strategy to widen your audience and increase lunch trade, when many would usually opt for a salad or sandwich and how much demand have you experienced for it?
Before starting Chupenga we have spent some time figuring out for ourselves what it means to have a healthy diet. It’s actually a very difficult question to answer and the more you read about it the more confused you get.
So it is not for us to decide if it should be vegan, paleo, with or without gluten. But it better be a balanced one with lots of proteins, legumes and veggies. And Mexican food offers all that. You have the classic rice & beans combo that builds a complete protein and is a staple throughout Latin America. On top it comes with fresh veggies like avocados, tomatoes, peppers and lime – really good for a start.
We never aspired to offer authentic Mexican food – this is not our story to tell.
Taking a rather liberal approach is very liberating. Who says that quinoa doesn’t belong in a burrito when it tastes great. So why not try and see if others like it too. And yes, the customers seem to side with us. We are always amazed about the wide range of people coming in – from a group of muscular guys from the gym next door ordering double proteins to lawyers in suits going for a lighter salad.
You’re both German – how did you find the ideas and inspiration for Chupenga?
It is funny that you consider us German. Ferdi was born and raised in Brazil while I was born in the former Soviet Union, but grew up in Berlin. For most parts of our adult live we studied and worked abroad. And this is also where we started to collect ideas.
Like many other stories, Chupenga’s started with a gap year. In 2014, Ferdi and I quit our city jobs and went travelling. Before the trip, operating a restaurant had never crossed our minds but we came back with the conceptual draft for Chupenga in our pockets.
We had a lot of time at hand to think about our perfect lunch spot drawing from all the places that we loved. For us it meant three things:
1) it has to be really good food,
2) it should offer the opportunity to pick and choose what you like
3) service should be as convenient as possible with minimal waiting time.
What did you both do before opening Chupenga and how is your life different now?
Ferdi and I met at business school and pursued what you would call a traditional path for business graduates. Ferdi joined a big food company and worked around the globe living out of a suitcase. Later on he joined Rocket Internet and moved to Berlin. I worked in finance in Zurich and London.
Our life is very different from what it used to be. It is almost like having kids. You definitely have less time for yourself, less sleep and lots of responsibility.
You have these days when you come in and the dishwasher is broken and you have to figure out how to get it fixed while helping the people in the kitchen to cope with it in the meantime.
But there are also these days where you come in and your amazing chef has prepared five different versions of guacamole and you end up tasting it with your team and discussing the pros and cons. And those are the moments where you feel like you wouldn’t want to switch places with anyone else in the world.
We admire your location strategy in the busy office part of Mitte (next to Gendarmenmarkt) and another on the border of Kreuzberg. Did you always have your eyes on these areas?
We didn’t. We walked the streets of Berlin for more than 4 weeks, 20km each day, trying to understand the areas and find the right spot for us.
Mohrenstrasse, our 1st location, was not on our map but when we got there we figured that we might be on to something. There were offices everywhere but not nearly enough restaurants to cater to them. Luckily, we found the right space pretty fast. It has been empty for several years before we moved in.
Our 2nd location in Kreuzberg is only 600m away from the 1st one. There are many interesting development projects happening around us so it was a bet on the future. We also fell in love with the stunning outdoor patio, that’s what ultimately moved the needle.
How do you feel restaurant-delivery services like Foodora and Deliveroo have changed the way restaurants operate?
We have been working with Foodora and Deliveroo from the start. We find that it is a great value proposition to customers having food delivered to their doorstep at almost no extra cost. For us it is a great extra business that allows us to utilize our capacity.
The share of delivery has grown over time and we have one additional person staffed over lunch to take care of all the orders coming in. However, both our stores are closed on weekends, the show time for delivery.
One aspect that we struggle with most is that we are not in full command of the entire process. Drivers may arrive late while food is waiting or there might not be enough drivers around to service incoming orders. This can compromise the quality of food and service.
We have recently launched a catering platform for business customers. They can place their order directly on our website and we take care of the delivery. Here, we can guarantee both punctuality and food quality. For now, we only have capacity to fulfill larger orders, for smaller ones we rely on delivery services.
What were the biggest challenges in launching Chupenga?
Where shall we start?
Convincing yourself and your family that you are not crazy, finding a kitchen to develop the recipes, working 24/7 in the first months after the launch…
The biggest challenge though was finding the 1st location.
We still remember the conversations with our landlord. He showed sympathy for us and wanted to give us an opportunity but had his doubts about the concept. He was like “guys, really, you are not doing yourself a favour with Mexican food. And the name Chupenga – you should really consider a new name.” He still took his chance on us and this is all that matters.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a “fast food” business in Berlin?
Get your numbers right and do your homework. It is fairly easy to estimate your top line but extremely difficult to get your costs right.
Talk to as many people as you can – some of the most insightful pieces of information we got from people who ran their own restaurant and went out of business.
But most importantly – for your own mental sanity – get yourself a partner. There are so many ups and downs – it is always good to have someone on your side for the ride. We are really lucky, there are actually three of us. Ferdi and I run the business operationally; but my sister Elena was also involved from the start and supports us on the strategic side.
What future plans do you have for Chupenga?
Our goal was always to build a great organization. One thing that really motivates us is creating a culture that we want to be part of, where people care about each other. For us it is like family.
We have a number of talented young people and we want to create opportunities for them to grow with us and assume more responsibility. This entails growth, but in a sustainable manner. Once we feel like we have a team ready to take on a new store we will try to make it happen.
For now we have one new store in planning for October this year. It is going to be a different customer mix and thus a new challenge. Also, we continue to develop our interior concept and this is very exciting for us as well.
Where do you both like to eat, drink and relax in Berlin?
We could fill pages with our favourite places. We are definitely very curious about Berlin’s food scene and try out new restaurants all the time – one of the upsides of being in the restaurant trade.
But we have a number of regular places, too. We love the coffee and atmosphere at Bonanza.
For pizza cravings, we drive all the way down to Masaniello in Hasenheide.
For Chinese food we go to Aroma on Kantstrasse.
For a night with friends visiting Berlin we would go to Beuster Bar and for a night to celebrate with family we would always fall back to Lutter & Wegner in Schlüterstrasse. The latter one is West Berlin’s best kept secret. Most people think that it’s part of the Lutter & Wegner franchise, but it ’s not. Food and service are great and the restaurant is as cozy as it gets.
Complete the following sentence: “For us, Berlin is…”
Full of contrasts.
For me it combines the memories of my childhood that seem to be so distant from the Berlin Ferdi saw when he moved here.
It is not pretty but can lure you in ways that pretty cities can’t. Life is hard for many – Berlin is far from being generous – but at the same time still accessible and open for new things.
Marlene Dietrich described it best: “ Berlin, Berlin hier lebt der Mensch gefährlich/ Und rutscht er aus, dann dreht sich keiner um/ doch haut er hin, dann ist der Beifall ehrlich/ Berlin, Berlin Du bist mein Publikum.
So, if you’re looking for a healthy and tasty lunch full of fresh ingredients then head down to one of Chupenga’s two locations or order a yummy lunch into your office very soon!
All photos ©️ 2017 Nomadic by Choice