A fast-expanding German restaurant chain has taken fresh Italian food and blended it with American-style self-service and franchise-savvy to become one of Europe's up and coming food brands.
Vapiano cooks prepare customers' meals to order
Very little about Vapiano is actually German - except for some of its managers and the fact that its headquarters are located in Bonn's former government district.
Instead of serving schnitzel, dumplings and sauerkraut, the "casual dining" restaurant chain specializes in freshly prepared pizza, pasta and salads. Guests order their meals at food stations and pick them up themselves when they are ready.
Each item is charged to an electronic chip card that allows guests to pay their individual bills at a checkout when they leave the restaurant. That means no more 15-minute battles to get the attention of surly waiters who roll their eyes at the request of a split bill and still expect to be tipped.
The young set likes Vapiano, not only because of the food and service, but also because of the prices. Most of them leave the place happily full for just over 10 euros. But don't be surprised to find plenty of businesspeople looking for good food served quickly, or "gray panthers" fond of Italian cooking and a lively atmosphere.
Customers order their meals and pick them up from food stations
Capturing the zeitgeist
"Vapiano has perfectly captured the zeitgeist in today's gastronomy with its selection of Italian dishes prepared fresh and fast at attractive prices," franchise consultant Reinhard Wingral told Deutsche Welle.
Vapiano hasn't stopped growing since it opened its first restaurant in Hamburg nearly a decade ago. Today, the Bonn-based company operates 41 branches in Germany, accounting for 123 million euros in revenue. It operates another 70 restaurants in 21 countries, generating about 180 million euros in sales. The goal is to double the number of restaurants by 2014, according to the company.
That shouldn't be a problem, according to Felix Peckert, a Bonn-based franchising consultant. "I see potential for 200 restaurants in Germany alone," he said.
The expansion strategy in Germany will include further restaurants in the big million-plus cities, where the company already has a footprint, as well as a move to smaller cities.
France and the United Kingdom are important markets outside Germany, Vapiano said in an e-mail response. The German company has already set up shop in the United States and plans soon to open its first restaurant in Mexico. Expansion in Australia and Asia is also in the pipeline.
Vapiano attracts plenty of businesspeople at lunch and a mixed crowd in the evenings
A mix of models
Vapiano CEO Mirko Silz recently told German media the group sees huge potential in Eastern Europe as well.
Peckert expects Vapiano to continue using a mix of operating models, consisting of company-owned restaurants, franchises with company financing and fully franchised operations. "This is a modern approach," he said. "It's a good concept."
By the look of things, Vapiano plans to grow mainly by increasing its number of restaurants - not its prices.
Nor does the restaurant chain intend to stray away from its focus on Mediterranean cooking to attract new customers. "It's popular worldwide," the company said in the e-mail. "We aim to stick to this winning recipe in the future."
Consultant Wingral agrees. "Vapiano should keep loyal to itself," he said. "I don't see any reason why the company should change its strategy."
That strategy is the product of several clever minds, including two of the company's founders, Kent Hahne and Klaus Rader. Both men learned the franchise business at McDonald's early in their careers before moving on to launch eating establishments of their own.
And who knows, if Vapiano keeps growing the way it is, McDonald's may be hungry enough someday to gobble up its successful upscale rival.
Author: John Blau
Editor: Sam Edmonds