Reto Frei was eating his greens long before Michael Pollan was adjuring us to “eat food, not much, mostly plants.” Frei is one of three brothers who jointly run tibits, an upmarket fast-food vegetarian restaurant chain born in Zurich.
“Upmarket,” “fast food” and “vegetarian” seem like unlikely bedfellows. But tibits is proof they can add up to a winning formula. The restaurant has just celebrated 10 years in existence, with branches in Zurich, Bern, Winterthur and Basel, as well as one close to Regent Street in London’s West End.
The name, tibits (no, it’s not a typo, and, yes, it’s all lowercase), was chosen partly because it sounds like “tidbits” but mainly because, as Frei explains, “We wanted a name that suggested ‘light,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘tasty.’ ” It all began when Reto (at the time a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich), together with his brothers Christian and Daniel, were the joint winners of two McKinsey-sponsored entrepreneurship awards for a business plan outlining a vegetarian fast-food, self-service operation. Knowing nothing about the restaurant business — Daniel trained as an economist, Christian as a teacher, Reto as an engineer — the brothers searched for a partner with experience in the field. Enter Rolf Hiltl of the eponymous Zurich restaurant, established in 1898 and famous for tasty vegetarian food that is resolutely un-preachy. Hiltl is now actively involved in partnership with the Frei brothers, with plenty of cross-fertilization between the Hiltl and tibits operations.
The lack of missionary zeal is central to the tibits philosophy, and doubtless contributes to the restaurant’s success. “We’re not crusaders,” comments Reto, “we’re into joy, good taste, fun. We wanted a restaurant that offered all that, plus excellent food, a place where non-vegetarians and veggies could meet and eat together.” All too often, says Frei, non-meat options are seen as terminally bland and terribly limiting (not to mention vaguely hippyish) so the fact that tibits serves neither meat nor fish is not trumpeted from the rooftops — the sign outside says simply: Restaurant, Bar, Food to Go. “Plenty of people don’t even realize we’re vegetarian,” he smiles, “and for those that do, my guess is that 90 percent of them would not describe themselves as such.”
All the restaurants are done up in distinctive Designers Guild fabrics, paints and wallpapers with funky color combinations (lots of acid green, turquoise and fuchsia at the moment), big lampshades, low-slung coffee tables and sofas, or high tables with bar stools. At the heart of each restaurant is a huge self-service food bar shaped like a boat. Customers approach from any side (no standing in line) and choose between freshly prepared salads and a range of hot dishes. Influences range from Middle Eastern to Indian, Mexican, Spanish — and, occasionally, Swiss. The offerings change seasonally, as new ideas come in from customers, the chefs — or the Frei brothers, all of whom are keen cooks.
Food is priced by weight: Plates are weighed at the bar. Tibits also serves freshly pressed juices, seriously good Swiss-style coffee, exotic teas (including a heavenly jasmine flower that blossoms in contact with hot water), creative cocktails and a range of interesting wines by the glass and local beers. Takeouts are bagged in snappy little carriers (the only place where you see the word “vegetarian” mentioned), signed with the stylish house logo underlined by a slender, sinuous green bean.
Michael Pollan’s message is finally hitting home. Most of us are prepared to acknowledge in differing degrees that eating less meat would be good — for the planet, for our health, for the animals. But for this awareness to be converted into wholesale dietary changes is a quantum leap. Vegetarianism for most people still equals bland, boring, flatulent and self-denying. How has tibits managed to make eating mostly plants sexy? By producing sassy food in a fun environment, certainly, and also by offering flexible opening hours (astonishingly rare in Switzerland). But above all they’re soft-pedaling the veggie message and tapping into the fast-food/grazing/self-service zeitgeist. Almost without anybody noticing, they’re taking vegetarianism mainstream. It’s a great trend.
Cracked Wheat Salad With Green Beans
from “tibits at home” (AT Verlag, in German only)
For the salad:
For the dressing:
- Put cracked wheat in a large saucepan, add water and 1 teaspoon sea salt, bring to a boil, stirring, and simmer for 8 minutes or until all the water is absorbed
- Tip into a bowl and allow to cool.
- Wash and halve the cherry tomatoes.
- Wash and trim the beans and cut in short lengths.
- Bring a pan of lightly salted water to a boil and cook the beans for about 10 minutes — keep tasting for doneness, they should be just tender.
- Drain beans, refresh with cold water.
- Fork up the cracked wheat and stir in the tomatoes and beans.
- For the dressing, blend together all the ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour dressing over cracked wheat and garnish with some sprouted seeds or flat-leaf parsley.
Sue Style is the author of nine books, including “A Taste of Alsace and Alsace Gastronomique.” She writes on food, wine and travel from her base in southern Alsace, close to Switzerland and Germany, and for her website www.suestyle.com
Photos from top:
Cracked wheat salad with green beans. Credit: © 2010 Sylvan Müller, AT Verlag Aarau und München.
tibits restaurant in Zurich. Credit: Sue Style