- 3 Sep 2015 9:00 AM
What’s more, Zeller’s also proved that this is all possible without a central location... I asked Anna Kopócsy and Péter Fölföldi, owners of Zeller Bistro, about the secret behind Budapest’s top rated restaurant (on TripAdvisor).
When and how did you start Zeller?
Anna: A friend of mine, Judit was running a place here called Bistro 181. When she moved to Spain she asked me to help out in the bistro. In March 2013, after a couple of months, Judit made the decision of closing down the bistro and so we had one week to decide whether we wanted to take over the place.
We had already thought about having our own café or a small restaurant and we also knew that we couldn’t afford opening up a completely new place. So we decided to go for it.
We painted the walls on a Sunday, we moved back Judit’s furniture and her bistro was still open for another week. The following Saturday was the last day when Bistro 181 was open, so on Sunday a big truck came to pick up Judit’s stuff and then another truck came with our things.
Our families helped us tremendously in the beginning. Peti’s parents and my parents came and while I was in the kitchen with my mom and Peti’s mom, the guys were fixing up the place so that we could open the following Tuesday. I still remember when the phone rang for the first time on Tuesday; we all were ecstatic.
Did you have any kind of experience working in a restaurant?
Anna: Both Peti and I worked in several restaurants before, and actually we met at MÁK Bistro where we both worked for one and a half years.
We also gained some experience abroad; Peti worked in Vienna and I was Münich, London, and I even sold hot dogs at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta when I was 17. But our parents’ backgrounds also helped us a lot as Peti’s parents run a guesthouse and also have a vineyard and my mom works in a hotel.
How was the beginning and what kind of challenges did you have to overcome?
Peti: For us, the culinary part was a real challenge. We knew that we would be great with the guests, but at Mák for instance, we saw things and techniques that we knew we couldn’t provide at Zeller.
Also since we were employees before, we didn’t have any experience about how to run our own place. When we opened, I was still working at Kadarka on Király Street in the evenings and two days every week, and I was here during the other five days. Anna was here all the time, seven days a week.
Anna: In the beginning we didn’t want to give anything to our guests that wasn’t as perfect as we wanted it to be. And it’s amazing, but if you really want something then you put the extra effort in it and you get up at 3 in the morning to make tiramisu.
How did you put together the menu?
Anna: Zeller is a Hungarian restaurant in the sense that we use Hungarian ingredients, but we don’t have traditional Hungarian dishes such as goulash soup. We wanted to create a menu with dishes that we like, so the food at Zeller sort of represents what we like.
Peti: A good portion of the ingredients come from my family, such as the ham, the sausages, and the small fish. The wines are from the family vineyard; we have several types of white wines and cordials, and Zeller also has its own beer from Tapolca, from a friend’s brewery. The elderflower champagne, also made by my family, is now our trademark and we serve it to all of our guests.
How many people worked at Zeller in the beginning and how big is the team now?
Peti: In the beginning, we didn’t have money to hire professionals so Anna had to work in the kitchen for the first five months, which was a very difficult period.
Anna: So far, we’ve managed to bring in very enthusiastic people who are not necessarily that experienced but who are good team players and who are willing to learn. In the beginning, we had only three people: one waiter, me, both waiting tables and being in the kitchen, and the chef from Bistro 181. Then we had a friend who was studying to become a chef so he asked us if he could join the team. We said of course.
Then he brought along another friend, originally a graphic designer, who’s been here for a year now. He is the one who manages the whole kitchen and always tries to bring in something new from purple beetroot to different herbs. But we still don’t have a permanent chef, although we do now have two professionals from Csalogány 26.
We are now 15 and the whole team is extremely enthusiastic. Once we came in with Peti on Sunday, which is a day that we’re closed, and everybody was here arranging things and mopping the floor.
Zeller is often mentioned as the number one restaurant on Tripadvisor. When was the breakthrough?
Anna: It was on May 7, 2013. I remember the exact date because we were here celebrating my sister’s birthday and having champagne.
When we opened, my mom wrote the first Tripadvisor review so that we would be in the system. Back then Peti was still working at Kadarka where he met a very nice American couple and told them about Zeller. The couple came, the restaurant was almost empty and of course I did my best to make them happy. So they also wrote a very good review.
Then there were other guests, still not many, but those who wrote a review, all wrote something very nice. So basically within a short period of time, we got only good reviews and Tripadvisor put us on the top of the list.
Peti: What happened next was very tough; we were working non-stop and it was absolutely crazy. And you know it’s one thing to be first place on Tripadvisor but it’s another thing to stay on top.
One thing we know is that we worked a lot and during the first couple of months, we never got more than 3 to 5 hours of sleep. And we’ve been open for one and a half years now but still we are both here all the time working 16-17 hours everyday.
What is the ratio between Hungarian and foreign guests?
Peti: In the beginning, 90% of our guests were foreigners. Now it’s about half and half. Saturday lunchtime is very popular among Hungarian families so we have a lot of children here, too. Usually Hungarians prefer to have dinner earlier and they come between 6 pm and 9 pm. It’s also typical that Italian and Spanish guests come after 10 pm.
Why do you think Zeller has become so successful? There are lots of places in Budapest with a more central location and yet many of them are almost empty.
Anna: There are a lot of new and cool places in Budapest, but I think there are still too many of those that are targeting the masses and only care about the profit. At Zeller, it is very important for us that people have a great time and I think they can feel that we put our hearts in it.
We know that our success is dependent on our guests. And we not only want to serve them but we also want to welcome them and give them a special experience. This is something that people notice and appreciate. For example, we have a returning guest who once came in and then put on the apron and started waiting tables for the evening.
When you’re not at Zeller, where do you spend your time in Budapest?
Peti: We’ve made a lot of sacrifices since we started Zeller. We are both here all the time working 16-17 hours everyday, so we have practically no time to go out or to travel. So a lot of our friends come to visit us at Zeller because they know that otherwise we couldn’t see them. If I had more time now I would go sailing on Lake Balaton, or would spend more time outdoors.
Anna: In Budapest, we really like Bambi because it’s very laid back and we can bring our dog along. We also like Két Szerecsen. If I had more time, I would love to go to Római part to just relax, ride my bike and eat fried fish. I also love Dorothea, a cute little café in Szentendre.
Useful information about Zeller Bistro:
Address: 36-38 Izabelle Street, 1077 Budapest
Reservations: +36 30 651 0880
12pm–3pm & 6pm–11pm Tue–Sat
closed on Sun–Mon
Source: Budapest Local
Republished with permission