Streetfood Festival in Cologne. Photo: © Paul Gaertner
Streetfood Festival in Cologne. Photo: © Paul Gaertner

Street food and local spirit: a success story made in Cologne

The food trade is in Till Riekenbrauk’s DNA. In Cologne, he’s considered an “incubator”, a never-ending source of ideas and visions for food and hospitality trends. A local lad, he’s always got his finger on the pulse of what’s happening on his home city’s gastro scene. But he’s also constantly on the look-out for new and exciting ventures that allow him to indulge the pioneer within. In 2014, he launched Germany’s first street-food festival in Cologne. The inspiration came from Berlin’s Markthalle 9, whose Tuesday street-food evenings had lent the term “fast food” a new, multinational image.

Till took the concept a step further. Since 2014, he’s been touring Germany’s cities, staging 30 events per year and notching up 220 in total. “The festivals gave solo food vendors a platform to present themselves to a broad audience – without a great deal of effort or cost. Visitors got high-quality food from around the world. That led to the establishment of good fast food restaurants, quality takeaway restaurants and organic burger bars,” the entrepreneur explains. Street food is booming. Colourful stalls serving authentic cuisine can be found at almost every fair or flea market. Having said that, excessive use of the term in the past meant people often associated it with poor quality à la fast food, which tarnished its image. Today, however, people are much better at telling the difference.

Where Till Riekenbrauk is involved, the finest culinary creations are served. Photo: Luisa Zeltner
Wherever Till Riekenbrauk is involved, the finest culinary creations are served. Photo: Luisa Zeltner

Germany’s first “permanent pop-up”

At the same time, the festivals served as a testing ground for Till. After a year, he and his partner Vincent Schmidt gave the concept a new twist. “A lot of the stall owners had brilliant ideas but no realistic business plan. So we developed the concept a step further,” says Till. The two partners, food entrepreneurs through and through, founded Germany’s first “permanent pop-up”, Laden ein, based on the idea of restaurant-sharing. Laden ein was a platform that gave inexperienced restaurateurs an opportunity to run their own, temporary, restaurant for two weeks. The idea caught on. In a period of more than five years, they hosted exactly 100 budding food businesses. For the young entrepreneurs behind them, it was a true test of whether they had what it takes to make it.

At Laden ein, the restaurateurs in the making also learned a lot about communication, effective staff management and good roster planning – essential aspects of the hospitality trade. They go on to become an integral part of an eatery’s image – both in customers’ and employees’ eyes, Till tells us. “Even though we closed Laden ein in 2020, I’m still in touch with most of the participants. I’ve been to nearly all of their restaurants and many of them are well established now,” he says. As in so many other areas, politics had a role to play, he adds, stressing that a concept of this nature can only survive if it’s supported by, for example, the chamber of commerce. “There’s no more realistic form of preparation. It’s better than any seminar,” he says.

“The future is bleak for places that don’t stand out from the crowd”

Despite all the obstacles, Till encourages young food entrepreneurs to carry on opening new restaurants. It is tough but the prospects are good, he says, if you have a good helping of optimism and the right support. That’s why he and Vincent set up their Newfood Love consultancy ten years ago. In his work as a consultant, the culinary pioneer draws on his wealth of experience to offer conceptual support in the areas of catering, events and interior design for food start-ups and established restaurateurs. Food entrepreneurs should plan realistically, he feels, but, more importantly, they should identify with what they do. “We love applying our brainpower to help places that have a soul, that impress us tastewise but are also places where communities can come together. Guests will reward concepts that are creative and have flair but especially concepts that offer quality. The future is bleak for ready-made convenience food and places that don’t stand out from the crowd,” he explains.

Concepts that value food and the planet

Till is also a member of the board of IG – Kölner Gastro e.V., a group formed in 2020 to represent the interests of Cologne’s pubs and restaurants in dealings with the city council. Another aspect today is that guests have very different requirements in terms of sustainability. The new generation of restaurant patrons are prepared to pay for quality and craftsmanship – the opposite of convenience – he tells us. And regional products with information about where they’re from are standard at modern eateries. Till is convinced, “It’s crucial to value the products. Everything – even convenience food – is becoming more expensive. In the long term, there’ll be fewer SMEs.” In his role with the interest group, his hope is to raise awareness of these issues.

Till Riekenbrauk smiling in Brauhaus Johann Schäfer, Cologne, wearing a blue shirt against a brick wall
Till Riekenbrauk is a prominent figure in the Cologne culinary scene. Photo: Johann Schäfer

Till is particularly proud of the online Green Gastro Guide, which was funded by Cologne City Council. It provides information for German hospitality businesses on all aspects of environmental, economic and social sustainability. It’s divided into seven sections, dealing with energy, water, waste, take-aways, food & drink, communication and, illustrating that this is yet another area affected by digitalisation and AI, smart hospitality. The guide is really leading the way for green gastro business. On top of that, visionary and father of two Till is campaigning to get nutrition put on the school curriculum.

Johann Schäfer – a brewery pub full of local spirit

Till has also applied his extensive experience to his own eatery concept, setting up a brewery pub, Johann Schäfer, in 2017. The pub takes a modern “looking forwards and backwards” approach, reflected in its setting in his favourite district, Südstadt. A traditional, typically Cologne neighbourhood, it wasn’t until ten years ago that Südstadt began to become a place for dining and going out. The location has proved perfect for Johann Schäfer and the pub is a huge hit. It also has a café next door and a beer garden down by the Rhine between the Rheinauhafen harbour district and Südbrücke bridge. “We’re the only ones on the pretty built-up and touristy riverbank. The only other option there is to grab a beer from a kiosk,” he says. Right next door to the beer garden is his taqueria, which has an al fresco dining area and is run by the guys from Los Carnales, one of his first street-food pop-ups.

Illuminated 'Brauhaus Johann Schäfer' sign above the entrance of a historic brick building at night
At Johann Schäfer, the traditional Cologne brewery atmosphere meets modern culinary creations. Photo: Johann Schäfer

According to Till, “People need to be together again. They need friendly places with local spirit and a community character. There are brewery pubs in the Südstadt district that have been there over a hundred years and tend to serve more traditional food. We made the conscious decision to put our brewery pub in a 1920s haulage firm building where there wasn’t a food business tradition. Having international cuisine and fusion places nearby can be interesting but many stories have already been told.”

At Johann Schäfer, Till and chef Sven Kloppenburg place the emphasis on craftsmanship and regionality – served up with oodles of vegetables. Many of the options are vegetarian and vegan instead of the classic, predictable meat and two veg fare that’s standard in brewery pubs. Demand for vegetarian and vegan food has increased significantly since they opened, he adds. “We make everything ourselves – from the ketchup to spice blends, bread and tartare made of meat we cure ourselves. We have a good regional supplier network so we can buy very locally.” The vegetables and meat are provided by local farmers who put animal welfare first. As well as excellent quality, the menu offers new takes on typical brewery pub dishes. The signature Bierbratwurst sausage, famous throughout the city, is even marinated in their own Südstadtpils beer. Initially, these pseudo-traditionalists brewed the pils themselves, in small batches, but it’s now brewed in the nearby Eifel region and has been joined by a bottom-fermented, unfiltered and subtly cold-hopped lager. Both are massive hits. And the nice thing, according to Till, is that the centenarians are following suit! Once again, he’s driving and pioneering change.

With his knack of finding the right location and the food trade in his DNA, Till Riekenbrauk brings new food trends and old Cologne districts together in a modern, creative way. His trademark can be seen in each of his restaurants, food concepts and projects and it’s much more than just good food. Whatever he turns his hand to, you can be certain it’ll enhance the profile of Cologne’s culinary culture.

Johann Schäfer Brauhaus
Elsaßstraße 6
50677 Cologne
Tel.: (+49) 0221 16860975

Johann Schäfer Brauhaus
Mon – Fri 12 noon – 10pm
Sat & Sun 10am – 10pm
Tables can be reserved until 8pm
Kitchen open until 9.30pm

Johann Schäfer Café
The Brauhaus menu is served every day from 5pm
Tables can be reserved until 9pm
Kitchen open until 9.30pm

Biergarten Johann Schäfer
Mon – Fri: from 3pm
Sat & Sun: from 12 noon

TAQUERÍA Los Carnales
Agrippinawerft 30
50678 Cologne
Opening hours: from 12 noon, daily

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