It’s understandable that when Gold Coast educated Will Cooke found a great idea overseas, he wanted to bring it home. Rising with McDonalds from his after-school job to Chief Operating Officer at McDonald’s Sweden, Cooke experienced Vapiano restaurants in Europe, realised the industry niche that Vapiano could fill, and secured a twelve year development agreement for the restaurant chain in Australia.
He opened the first Vapiano in Albert Lane just off the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane and the second restaurant in Soul on Cavill Avenue, Surfers Paradise last December. Future plans include an ambitious national roll-out of twenty more Vapiano restaurants.
So what makes Vapiano different to other restaurant chains?
Firstly, you get a charge card when you enter, so you can charge and pay for your own food and drinks – a real asset when dining in groups.
But the biggest clue of its difference lies in the restaurant name itself. ‘Vapiano’ is Italian for ‘go slowly’. It’s a deliberate allusion to the Slow Food Movement, (which started in Italy but also has a Gold Coast branch), and to its Italian heritage – the cultural practices of Italians themselves: preparing food from scratch using fresh local ingredients, dining in extended family groups, taking time to enjoy the pleasure of food and wine as an experience.
Cooke has taken great lengths to make Vapiano Australian, seeding his success in smart advertising and promotion. If you believe the hype, Vapiano’s Italian-Australian taste creation ‘beats them all’. Sifting through the Vapiano website, although cloyingly filled with ‘Australianisms’, there are also references to admirable food sourcing practices:
“Whenever we can, we try to source our ingredients from within 150 kilometres of our stores…Our fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs are sourced from farms in Gatton, Bundaberg, Bowen and Logan…” Delicious Vannella buffalo mozzarella from Milla Milla/Cairns (one of only two Queensland producers), olive oil from the South Burnett and eggs from the Darling Downs are used in the pizza and pasta, made fresh on site. ‘Fresh’ is a common thread in discussions about food from Vapiano, with both the pasta and pizza made as we watch and wait beside the pots of fresh basil adorning the restaurant.
So does Vapiano live up to either a Slow Food or Italian experience?
We have dined incognito at Vapiano several times, with the food experience varying greatly depending on the busyness of the restaurant and on the service staff.
On our last visit, the Con Carne pizza was perfectly and promptly cooked – a crisp base topped with a thin layer of tomato and barbeque sauce beneath a ham, pepperoni and salami topping. A modern style pizza with scant topping, it was tasty and, at the $20 mark, it would serve two if accompanied by a salad. A buzzer announced the end of the cooking process, allowing us to sit at the table and relax until the pizza had cooked.
The Gamberi pasta was also freshly cooked, but less enjoyable. There is no table service at Vapiano (a bit of a jolt at the end of a long working week), so after a ten minute wait in a line, and another five standing waiting while the staff member juggled cooking a couple of meals at once, the resulting pasta was overcooked and gluey, with undercooked prawns. All in all, the meal was decidedly bland, lacking the defining flavour of garlic, or more importantly salt. You can control measure and weights of ingredients, but human-defined skills and processes, it seems, are more difficult to quantify!
Vapiano’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. In taking elements from Italian culture and the Slow Food movement, it is neither. Italian food is woven seamlessly into Italian culture and family structure. It is generous in both nature and flavour, with both pizza and pasta providing a first course before the meat dish which follows. Slow Food ‘stands at the crossroads of ecology and gastronomy, ethics and pleasure. It opposes the standardization of taste and culture, and the unrestrained power of the food industry multinationals and industrial agriculture.’ As a multinational food company (with over 100 worldwide locations) whose profits rely on standardised portion control and speed of service, Vapiano is essentially at the crossroads of quality and quantity.
So what place does Vapiano fill?
Just as tourists come to the Gold Coast for a variety of reasons (to go to the beach, visit theme parks, or for a family holiday… to name a few), so the Gold Coast needs a variety of dining experiences.
Vapiano provides healthier than average fast food made from local sources and freshly prepared to be shared by families, workers who want to unwind in an interesting funky environment with a fantastic range of boutique wines, beers, ciders and cocktails. It’s the adaptation of a proven formula by one of our own – somewhere between fast and slow food, between Italian and Australian at a great price. So long as you know that and don’t expect it to be something else, you’ll enjoy Vapiano.