In the Spotlight: Timo Winkel

Mar 4, 2016

Our monthly Spotlight Series highlights Germans, German-Americans and Americans with a German connection who have made a difference in their communities or have an interesting story to tell.

Döner Bistro Enlarge image (© Germany.info / Nicole Glass) In the heart of Adams Morgan - a culturally diverse neighborhood in Washington, D.C. - stands a small restaurant called Döner Bistro. Stepping inside is like going through a portal to Germany; inside, customers find themselves surrounded by German music, beer, flags and the familiar taste and smell of Germany's beloved Döner Kebabs - a Turkish-German dish made of meat cooked on a rotisserie.

The restaurant chain is owned by Timo and Nicole Winkel - a German couple from Hamburg that moved to the United States in 2006 to start their business. To date, Döner Bistro is the only Döner restaurant on the East Coast. And even in the west, there are no stores that produce Döner Kebabs exactly as they are made in Germany, Winkel says. Spanish-Turkish Döners, for example, are produced differently than German-Turkish Döners, he explains. As a result, the District's restaurant has garned a loyal following of customers who have lived in or been to Germany and seek a little piece of home in the US. Feelings of nostalgia continue to bring them back, making Döner Bistro a hub for the German-American community.

Enlarge image And it was a craving for Döner that ignited the launch of the business in 2006. Back then, Nicole Winkel was studying in the US. Her husband, Timo, came to visit her and asked her where he could find a Döner.

"We had a craving for Döner and she said 'there's nothing around here,'" he says. "I could not believe this - it's the biggest fast food product in Germany and you can't find it in the biggest fast food market in the world - the United States."

The young couple had always thought about starting a business together, but didn't know what sort of business. Suddenly, it hit them: they would open a Döner food truck. In the months that followed, Timo quit his job in Germany and the couple wrote a business plan and submitted it to the US Embassy to obtain a visa. Both Timo and Nicole were 25 years old and ready to start something new.

"We were nervous but we said 'if we don't do it now, we'll never do it, because later we might have kids and a house and more responsibilities.'"

The couple took a leap of faith, moving into a small apartment on a farm outside of Berryville, Va. They bought a used truck and remodeled it, installing a kitchen that would allow them to make Döners on the spot. But making Döner Kebabs the traditional way is no easy task, so the couple contacted family friends in Germany who worked in the Döner industry and asked for help. Timo and Nicole learned how to make meat cones themselves - a skill that is not found too often, even in Germany.

food truck Enlarge image (© Timo Winkel) "In Germany today you can buy ready-made meat cones from factories," Timo explains. "So we were really fortunate that we learned the traditional way."

For the first two years, Timo and Nicole sold Döner Kebabs from their food truck, which they frequently stationed in a shopping center in Leesburg, Va. They also brought the truck to county fairs, festivals and local events. The outside of the truck was painted with the words Hamburg Döner. This was before the "food truck wave" came to the area, Timo says.

After two years, Timo and Nicole were offered a permanent restaurant location in Leesburg. And Döner Bistro became so popular that the couple opened two more locations - one in Washington, D.C. in 2012 and one in Frederick, Md. in 2013. Today, the couple hopes to grow Döner Bistro into a franchise to give others the opportunity to open Döner stores anywhere in the US.

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But even though the company has expanded, the couple makes sure to produce its Döner meat the old-fashioned way. The meat cones are produced in Frederick and all meats are locally purchased from farms in Maryland.

"My wife is sometimes the one making the cones herself or training employees to make them," Timo says. 

And as a result, the restaurant continues to bring in German-Americans, Americans who were stationed in Germany and Turkish people searching for a taste of home.

Timo and Nicole Winkel Enlarge image (© Timo Winkel) "They all miss Döner and currywurst and with the beer selection here they're happy as can be," Timo says.

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

© Germany.info
Timo Winkel