Firma Pickles just celebrated their first anniversary and we figured it was about time to let Joris Visser en Niels van Nieuwenhuizen tell the story of how and why they created the ultimate hamburger restaurant in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Below you can read the interview we did with Niels.
How did your journey begin?
We’ve both been in the food business forever. It’s where we fit and what we truly love to do. What is more fulfilling than providing a place where people feel welcome and get some beautiful food. Before Pickles we ran the fine dining restaurant Straks (roughly translated as ‘just now‘). But at one point we asked ourselves if this really was what we want to be doing for a long time. We started to think about what we really love to do and soon realized that the relaxed and spontaneous atmosphere we were after, doesn’t go together with fine dining like we would like it to go. At that point the seed was planted and a new concept steadily grew.
From this point on we took a look at what we essentially wanted to create: a restaurant where you feel welcome even before you step inside, where people would walk into a relaxed ‘living room’, have exciting and fun meals and can basically come in at any time of the day to have a drink, a quick bite or a full meal. With this in mind we also came up with the kind of food we wanted to create and serve. We we’re thinking about food that is recognizable, well known, easy to find but if made by us, is a totally new experience. We soon ended up talking about the ultimate, gastronomic hamburger.
As soon as we figured out what we wanted, we closed the restaurant for two weeks and worked our asses off to get everything done. We completely redesigned the restaurant and did the entire build ourselves – murals included – of course with the help of some close friends. Because we did it ourselves, not everything worked out like would’ve wanted to. It adds to the charm though and it was immensely satisfying building it from scratch.
What makes Pickles, Burgers & Wines so special?
Everybody knows what a burger looks like and most of all, everybody knows what a burger should taste like. The keyword for what makes our burgers special is quality. Like I said before, we have a background in fine dining and that’s where we can make a difference. The trick was, to keep the burger a burger. Nothing fancy in terms of looks, because that wouldn’t work. But our chefs are proper chefs and are used to cook high-standard food in our previous fine dining restaurant. We applied their skills and knowledge to our gastroburgers.
We use the best organic meat and, depending on the type of burger, we top it of with just a few very special toppings. We also use the best bread we can find to match and compliment the burger. Actually, we often have people coming in, saying they have an even better ingredient to go with the burger. Say, a better hamburger bun. We then give them the opportunity to convince us. And if it really is better, we’ll see how we can work together to improve our product. That’s how we always up the ante. Always strive for better. But with a clear goal in mind: the hamburger has center stage with a home grown pickle as icing on the cake.
Last but not least, you a need a good drink to go with that burger and we have something special with that as well. We have an extended wine menu with over 30 wines per glass. Besides that, we have a few special wines that can be ordered per bottle. This way, you can arrange your burger experience just the way you want. But we’re happy to help out with recommending a glass that suits your meal and your wishes.
Is it a fine dine burger?
No. It’s a “regular burger” made with the best quality components. So the meat is from a local, organic butcher, the rosemary sprinkled fries are home made from local potatoes (Vaartsche Rijn Bonkies) and the bread is made by a 7th generation baker. These aspects alone bring quality to the table. You’ll find the fine dining part in the extra’s, in the side dishes and toppings. We try to keep the burger basic and add additional toppings, only to compliment the burger to take it to another level. So if we would serve a duck burger we would create, for instance, a red wine syrup to go with it. Just like we would do in our previous restaurant. If the guest wants, there’s a variety of toppings he could add to the burger in addition to what’s already on the plate.
And how did your chefs react to the change of concept?
We took a risk when we made the change. Our chefs are very experienced chefs and their work changed with the transition from fine dining to “burger joint”. Luckily they all stayed and we managed to find a way to create a menu where we can still challenge their creativity. At first we tried to have a bunch of creative burgers on the menu. This really didn’t work. People still want to have a selection of regular burgers. What we did was come up with a weekly specialty burger. This is where they can go all out. Well, almost haha. But then again, because it’s a weekly special, there’s more than enough room for experimenting and creating delicious burgers you wouldn’t expect.
Who is your competition?
We don’t really look at competition. Of course if a new burger restaurant opens up, you have a look and have a taste of what’s cookin’. But that’s more out of curiosity and hoping to be inspired than sizing up the competition. Collaborating on the other hand is something we really enjoy. We actually are collaborating with the other restaurants in this alley. We already are located in the city center, but our street is still considered to be a street you walk trough to get closer to the canals. We [the restaurants in the street] agreed to open our terraces at the same time, early in the afternoon. This way, we create a lively street instantly and no restaurant is left behind. It’s the small things, but it sure matters. And it pays of. People tend to hang around longer instead of passing through and the street is pretty booming at the moment.
Part of collaboration is just keeping your eyes open for something new. And I don’t mean something hip. Gin is hip at the moment but we’re in it for the long haul and, most importantly, it’s not our expertise. So we stay away from it. What I mean is, look for people who are pushing the envelope on whatever they’re doing. Take the range of limoncello we’re serving. It’s made by these crazy cats from Natwerk. They’re a creative agency. Not a company producing limoncello. But somehow they created a fun project which resulted in this awesome drink. And they’re passionate about their product, it shows, and that’s what you want in a collaboration. The same goes fort Fritz-Kola. Just a couple of blokes who decided to make their own cola. Sure why not! I can only encourage this way of thinking.
Niels jumps out of his chair and runs behind the counter and comes back with a bottle, a small dish and two tea spoons. All fired up, he pours this transparent liquid in the dish, hands me a spoon and, raising his voice because of his excitement: taste this!! It was the weirdest sensation. It tasted just like ketchup, but it wasn’t, because it didn’t look like ketchup. Actually it was, as Niels explained. He discovered a pop-up shop just around the corner were somebody was growing tomatoes and making al sorts of products with them, including tomato ketchup. One major difference: no added color and flavors. Just pure tomato.
How do you hope people perceive Pickles?
I want people to feel at home, relaxed and not rushed. For instance, you can’t make reservations. We don’t really believe in reservations. You can’t always plan when you want to eat. And if you make a reservation you have to stick to that. Part of the spontaneousness of eating out is missing and we don’t want that. Soon after we opened, people started queuing up to get a table. And the beautiful thing was, they were willing to wait. While waiting they can have a drink at the bar with a cheese platter or charcuterie and it’s all good. This really enhanced the ambiance of the restaurant. It really made the place welcoming and created the feeling that you can come in and relax. If you don’t want to wait for your table, you don’t have to; there are a lot of beautiful restaurants in this little street and in the city center. And we’ll be here for a while.
So where should we go for a best bite to eat?
Really depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. I’m not a big fan of regular restaurants any more, because I don’t often get surprised. That’s a pity! It seems like the creativity is lost a bit with the restaurants in Utrecht. I like the smaller, quirky places a lot more. Take Cerveceria Boulevard for example. They really created something in Utrecht unlike anything I’ve seen so far. They don’t serve complete meals, but instead created a bar with a lot of smaller dishes, Pintxos. Not a tapas bar though! More as in the Spanish small snacks, typically eaten in bars in traditional, northern Basque country. You order your beer or wine with a few of those and you’re guaranteed to have a wonderful evening.
Any life lessons you’d like to share?
Be creative. Create with the conviction that anything is possible.
Final thoughts from the author.
The tomato ketchup moment of surprise I had, is exactly what Niels and Joris are looking for with every project they start. Whether they’re working in fine dining, organizing guerrilla dining with Circus Citroen, driving through the country with their food truck grilling more burgers or running their other restaurant. It’s always about surprising the guests, being creative, pulling people away from their regular lives, like when you go to an amusement park. There are some new projects coming up and Niels was pretty anxious to tell me about them, but he was able to keep his lips sealed. Let’s hope I’ll be talking with these guy’s again soon and they’re able to tell me a little bit more.