Did the US Army leave its “foodprint” in Mannheim? by Norbert Baumgartner
This short seminar paper is dedicated to give a brief introduction about the availability of the American fast food in Mannheim, BW, Germany. Considering that this city has “hosted” the US army for 66 years1, I was trying to find the “culinary footprint” of the US soldiers, who left the city in the year 2011. Mapping all the restaurants which are primarily selling American fast food, led my research to a half success. The “Benjamin’s American Diner” owned by Mannheimer residents, used to be one of the favorite restaurants of the “GIs”. It is still attracting customers with its classical American flair ambient and a big diversity of American tastes.
1Albrecht, A., Blatt, S. (2015). Die US-Armee ist weg-Was tun Mannheim und Heidelberg. Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung. Retrieved from https://www.rnz.de
2Official webportal of Mannheim: https://www.mannheim.de/de/stadt-gestalten/daten-und-fakten/bevoelkerung
3 meinestadt.de: http://home.meinestadt.de/mannheim/restaurant
4 Official webportal of Mannheim: https://www.mannheim.de/de/kultur-erleben/kulturelle-vielfalt/interkulturelle-kulturarbeit/praeambel
Mannheim has slightly more than 300.000 inhabitants2 and therefore it counts as a big city in Germany. After Stuttgart it is the second biggest city in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. Having a big population means many potential customers and diverse business opportunities for local enterprises but it also means that globalization in different terms, can be expected to be found here. That is true for Mannheim and after a short walk in the “Quadraten”, the central area of the city, it will be evident that there are a lot of US global players represented. We can take fashion stores like Tommy Hilfiger, finance giants like Western Union or service sector players as like Best Western, it is easy to find “global players” in Mannheim, which I think is a good business indicator. But because my point of interest in this paper is the American fast food I would like to summarize what kind of global player restaurant chains are currently operating in this city.
Thanks to its multiculturalism, Mannheim has to offer a huge diversity of ethnic “foodways”. The online portal meinestadt.de counts 473 places3, from the small Döner shops to the hotels, eateries where you can enjoy ethnic cuisines provided by more than 170 nations4. It is self-evident that American fast food also has its place in this diversity and therefore I investigated 29 restaurants of this type. I have found six American restaurant chain giants, with a total number of 17 eateries, which is four less compared to Karlsruhe, another big city in Baden-Württemberg a couple of thousand “Food and society in the American City”
inhabitants smaller than Mannheim5. The six US fast food global players represented in Mannheim are the following: with 6 restaurants McDonald’s has the first place amongst the US chains, followed by the Subway, with 4 addresses. The third place is occupied by the Domino’s Pizza with 3 pizzerias. On rang four stays the Burger King with 2 establishments and the last place is shared between Kentucky Fried Chicken and the other pizza giant Pizza Hut, with one representation each.
5 Official webportal of Karlsruhe: https://www.karlsruhe.de/b4/stadtentwicklung/statistik.de
Under non-chain American fast food restaurant I define classical American diners but also the burger restaurants where typical American fast food items are available and American food dominates. 12 fast food restaurants are operating sovereign in Mannheim and that makes more than 1/3 of the total number of 29. This proportion is smaller in Karlsruhe because it has “only” 8 non-chain restaurants, which is around 1/4 of the entire number of 31.
Map 1 American Fast Food in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
As it can be observed on the adjusted map, the majority of the fast food restaurants is located in the downtown area, the center of the urban life. Another grouping exists outside of downtown, in the “Neckarau” district. A common thing what we can observe “Food and society in the American City” Seminar Paper – Norbert Baumgartner
on the map is that McDonald’s and Burger King also operate restaurants close to highway enters/exits and on main roads, in our case in North and North-East Mannheim close to the A6 and in the South, on a main road the Neckarauer Straße. It’s also easy to recognize, that non-chain fast food restaurants better prefer the central area than those who belong to a chain. One reason is probably that through the central location they can attract more customers as if they would run their businesses in the outskirts. But there are a few exceptions about that, like the Benjamin’s Diner, which is interestingly pretty much outside of the city center. Why is this restaurant located at the end of the city? I had no answer first but then I just suddenly remembered my only visit there until now. The location is in the same area where the US army had its military bases until they left in 2011. I have found this fact really suspicious and to find out, if there is a connection between the American Diner and the US army, I displayed the former military base areas on my map (Map 2). Yes, it matches and I have started to believe that it isn’t just a coincidence and that I found a culinary establishment, a heritage of the “GIs”. But is it actually true? I’m going to reveal this in the following short chapter.
Map 2 The Location of the Benjamin's American Diner related to the former US military areas.
Benjamin’s American Diner
After I’ve got the permission to make a personal interview, I took the opportunity and went to the diner on a Friday morning. As I stepped in, the first thing that impressed me were the delicious breakfast smells. I could divide three smells what I really like, the morning coffee, the omelet and the pancakes. During the time I was waiting for my interview partner, more and more guests arrived. I was counting 12 new arrivals within about 20 minutes, which is not bad considering that the location is not central at all. The ambient is imitating an old fashioned US railroad dining wagon, mixed with a little bit of 60’s retro style. Warm colors, woody and leather surfaces are making the atmosphere very comfortable and friendly. Commodity also comes from the warm lights and the music, running chilling oldies from the 50s and 60s.
Based on the discussions with Vensa Djurdjevic, the operating manager of the diner I’d like to briefly present the restaurants history as well. The diner has been opened eleven years ago, in the year 2006 as the first establishment of the owners of this kind. They already knew the concept of the classical diner from the USA and it seemed to them as the right way to do their business. The owners also knew the area because they operate a pizza delivery service here since longer and as they got the opportunity to cheaply rent a bigger building they established the American diner restaurant. The proximity of the US military bases also played an important role, because due to the delivery service the owners used to have connections to the US soldiers. According to Mrs. Djurdjevic, in the years until the US army left Mannheim, 60-70% of the restaurant guests were coming from the surrounded barracks. After 2011 switched the clientele to about 80% of domestic guests, which are totally mixed up in age, gender and occupation. Surprisingly there are still a lot of Americans coming here to eat, especially to celebrate bigger American national holidays like Thanksgiving. The business philosophy of the Benjamin’s is loyal to the original concept of a diner, in fact to attract customers, first of all families and working class people with a not too expensive but good quality American (fast) food. They also serve special guest needs by taking individualized orders and those who don’t like meat won’t be disappointed neither.
Thus it wasn’t only dedicated for the US soldiers and their hunger even if they were the dominant customer group, the Benjamin’s American Diner in Mannheim can’t be called as “culinary footprint of the GIs”. The “true representative of the American (fast) food” would be a better designation. “Food and society in the American City” Seminar Paper – Norbert Baumgartner
For searching after American fast food restaurants in Mannheim and Karlsruhe I used the German version of the prominent US restaurant rating and review portal the Yelp. The two keywords I used were “amerikanisch” and “burger”. Then I selected only the relevant matches for my survey, and copied their names and addresses into an excel table where a new attribute was added to them. I differentiated two categories, those who belong to a US restaurant chain and who not. I used the open source Quantum GIS to geocode and visualize the addresses on the map. To visualize the former US military base areas, I used the georeferenced shape files provided on the official website of the Mannheimer conversion areas6.
6 Conversion website of Mannheim: http://www.konversion-mannheim.de/flaechen
As diverse as the people of Mannheim are, so divers are the eateries here as well. American fast food is not an exception about that! However the big chains like McDonald’s dominate Mannheims fast food landscape, there are numerous other non-chain restaurants who provide a good alternative to the global players. The downtown is a favored area where the majority of the American fast food eateries can be found but we can discover some exceptions, like the presented Benjamins American Diner operating in the outskirts. Considering that this restaurant is located right next to the former US military bases, my question was if there is a significant connection between those two and therefore maybe it is a “culinary heritage” left by the US army in Mannheim. After interviewing the restaurants operations manager Vensa Djurdjevic, it turned out that the restaurant wasn’t just opened for the US soldiers but because they used to be the restaurants biggest and most important consumer group, a lot of memories with the “GIs” have been left there. Future investigations on this theme could be made for example by interviewing US soldiers who stationed in the neighboring barracks about how the American diner influenced their eating habits and everyday life.