The Hamburglar lurks nearby, but he’s no match for Gorilla.
A now dusty mural of McDonald’s burger-pilfering villain is all that remains to remind pedestrians on Berlin’s busy Friedrichstrasse that there used to be a branch of the world-famous fast food chain here.
And the Hamburglar hasn't just been deserted by Ronald the clown, Mayor McCheese and their slightly disturbing purple blob of a friend Grimace. Instead of lining up for Big Macs and extra large portions of fries, people now crowd into a store next door for tasty vegetarian fare.
As Germany’s ranks of health-conscious and environmentally aware consumers continue to swell, Gorilla – as the design-hip, new organic restaurant is known – hopes to become their fast food destination of choice.
At least one German had been won over at the grand opening of the new Gorilla flagship store in central Berlin last week. Perched behind a tray full of rocket salad, fresh squeezed juice, and the house specialty – a warm salad of mixed vegetable, wholegrain pasta and savory sauce – Jan Vureng said he’d definitely be back.
"It's healthy, but it's still good," said the 30-year-old, adding he admired the stylish atmosphere of the restaurant as much as the food.
But as fundamentally different as the 100-percent vegetarian Gorilla is from 100-percent beefy McDonald’s, the company’s animated 34-year-old founder Matthias Rischau has a supersized portion of respect for Ronald’s red-and-yellow keepers for overhauling their menu in recent years to appeal to healthier lifestyles.
"McDonald's is good at reacting to trends and they are trying to become more socially responsible these days," Rischau told The Local at the grand opening on March 13.
The wiry-haired Rischau, with his passion for vegetarianism and the environment, could easily be lumped in with Germany’s legions of McDonald’s haters. The ubiquitous US burger chain, which has some 50 of restaurants in Berlin alone, faces fierce opposition from some quarters. In September 2007, the opening of a new franchise in Berlin’s alternative Kreuzberg district even sparked the creation of a protest group that called itself McWiderstand – or McResistance in English.
And Rischau, who swore off meat nine years ago, says he was resistant to letting his kids eat junk food when he came up with the idea for Gorilla. With his brood in mind, Rischau opened his first tiny Gorilla snack bar in Berlin’s western Charlottenburg district in 2005.
“At first we mostly had women customers wanting something healthy for their small children. A lot of people didn't understand what we were about," he admitted.
Rischau, who has plans to open other branches in Berlin this year, eventually wants to take Gorilla’s tasty veggie cuisine and crisp minimalist design nationwide, and said he tried to apply some of McDonald's corporate logic to his contradictory-sounding "natural fast food."
“We want to be a brand. We want to set up franchises. If an entrepreneur is putting all his effort into something it’s more likely to work,” he told The Local.
To create a recognizable brand, Rischau had young design company ett la ben create an image reflecting the simplicity of Gorilla’s food. The concept behind the food is based on what a big primate would eat in the wild: local fresh and vegetarian fare low in sugar and fat.
But in the urban jungle, finding healthy food on the go is challenging, so Rischau decided to make it easy for people who "already have enough stress in their lives." Whenever possible, ingredients for Gorilla's savory soups and crisp salads come from regional producers. Rischau stresses that this is part of why he calls the cuisine "natural," and not "organic" – since another part of playing the primate role means having a low impact on one's surroundings, according to head Gorilla Rischau.
It's an admirable idea, but the marriage between fast food and natural food could be a rocky one, according to Alexander Schramm, Director of Corporate Affairs for McDonald's in Germany. "It's not possible to convert to organic on a large scale," he told The Local.
In the last few years, McDonald's Germany has introduced products like the wildly popular Bionade natural soft drink, gourmet chicken products and organic milk in response to consumer demand for more organic food. But it can mean serious logistical problems, Schramm said, making it unlikely that McDonald's will ever be threatened by the growing natural food movement or the ambitions of restaurants like Gorilla. "We make our own goals," he said confidently.
Certainly it might never be possible to match McDonald’s ease of ordering and being served. Gorilla’s first customers in downtown Berlin did seem to be having trouble negotiating the salad bar – a food phenomenon rarely seen in meat-loving Germany – and the cashiers seemed frustrated by a cranky scale that weighed plates full of healthy fare. Another customer complained of lukewarm soup.
Emiel Hondelink, a former McDonald's executive and gastronomic consultant to Gorilla, was busily replenishing the salad bar on the restaurant's opening day. He agreed that the concept won’t usurp the fast food giant any time soon.
“Going completely vegetarian is real culinary challenge. We’re not just offering some bland tomato soup here,” said the affable Dutchman Hondelink from behind the salad bar. "But it's the right concept at the right time."