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Business

Grillwalker feeds hungry tourists and commuters in Berlin

There aren't many loopholes in Germany's bureaucratic regulations on street vending, but the inventor of Grillwalker found one. The portable gas grills are worn by vendors, so getting a permit is surprisingly easy.

Roland Dossow makes a sale

Roland Dossow sells Bratwurst on Berlin's Alexanderplatz

When Roland Dossow goes to work in the morning selling bratwurst on Berlin's Alexanderplatz, he straps himself into an unusual device.

A Grillwalker is a portable grill mounted on a harness. Dossow wears one daily as he ambles through crowds of tourists and commuters changing trains at this busy transit point.

On his back he has a tank of gas big enough to grill 450 to 500 sausages. At his belly is a grill full of his sizzling wares.

A plexiglass sneeze guard protects the sausages and some bread rolls. An umbrella jutting up from the device keeps off rain and anything the birds might drop.

Local micro-business

Essentially a franchisee, Dossow has been working as a Grillwalker for about a year now. He sports a logo and color-coordinated clothing, and says he likes the work and the amount of money he makes. The device he uses costs 4,900 euros along with a few hundred more for insurance, a business license, a portable refrigerator and a specialized washing machine.

Sausages on a Grillwalker grill

A Grillwalker can sell up to 500 bratwursts per tank of propane

"You can make good money because there are so many tourists here on Alexanderplatz," he told Deutsche Welle. "We live off the tourists; Berliners don't eat a bratwurst every day."

Even though the Grillwalker device has been patented since 1998, a number of copycats have appeared around the city. On Alexanderplatz, Dossow competes with Grill Koenig, Grill Runner and a Russian who grills from his wheelchair.

"I'm from Prenzlauer Berg, so a lot of people around here know me anyways. That's also an advantage because they'll buy from me and not the others," Dossow said. "I have a background in gastronomy, and so it's fun. You get to be around people, and you make money."

A successful Grillwalker in Germany sells sausages for 1.20 euros and can net about 1,200 euros in five days.

Idea born of unemployment

Grillwalker was patented by Bertram Rohloff, who came up with the idea during a period of unemployment and also lives in Berlin.

Initially Rohloff wanted to operate a vending cart until he could find another job, but he found it impossible to get the permit he needed. Berlin city authorities had stopped issuing new vending permits, and already-existing ones were being passed down through generations or occasionally sold for a lot of money. Talking to the street peddlers who gather around tourist attractions to sell jewelry and Cold War memorabilia, he found they had all easily obtained permits to be itinerant salespeople.

Bertram Rohloff

Bertram Rohloff patented Grillwalker in 1998

"I thought, 'that has to be possible with food vending.' I've done some backpacking on and off, so I thought, 'okay, this must be possible,'" he said.

Rohloff was right, and today there are 24 Grillwalkers in German cities including Frankfurt, Hanover and Potsdam.

Because the device is completely portable and doesn't touch the ground, operators do not need the expensive permits required for vending carts or booths in Germany.

He has also sold and shipped the devices to people in Colombia, Poland, South Africa, Japan and South Korea.

Struggles along the way

To make the device, a metalworker, a propane technician and a harness maker deliver individual components to Rohloff, who assembles them himself. He buys extra-large bratwursts from a butcher at bulk rates, and encourages other Grillwalker operators to form their own relationship with their local butcher.

Starting Grillwalker was not easy for Rohloff, as German bureaucracy has a reputation for stifling innovation. He faced plenty of opposition, and hygiene was a primary concern.

At one point work safety authorities sent him back to the drawing board because the device lacked a failsafe switch to stop the flow of propane in case the operator passes out.

A propane regulator used on Grillwalker

Grillwalker safety precautions include an automatic propane cutoff

Later on authorities regulating industrial and commercial machinery decided Grillwalker was unsafe, although it was already permitted and being used. They began to confiscate Rohloff's devices from the streets, but were eventually overruled in court.

"Maybe it made our jobs a little bit more difficult in some parts of the city, but it didn't stop us. And by now we've been doing this for 13 years here in Berlin. I never let myself be intimidated by the authorities," Rohloff said, adding that he is glad German authorities are not corrupt and normally do act in a consistent manner.

But even now, Rohloff struggles with the copycat devices which have popped up all over Berlin and says he wishes his lawyers would challenge them more quickly. He has no intention of giving up his business idea.

"I'm the type of person who keeps at things. I did have two or three moments during my Grillwalker career where I thought, 'okay there's no way forward.' But nevertheless somehow there was always a way forward," he said

"My goal was never to just make some quick money, but to build something. I wanted to be able to say 'this is mine. I'm standing by this,'" he said.

Author: Gerhard Schneibel
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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