Head to Lausanne’s Place de la Riponne on any given week day (apart from market day on Wednesday) and you’ll find a burgeoning street food scene that until just last year, was alien to the cathedral city.
From gourmet burgers to Japanese ramen, from Argentinian empanadas to Indian curries, the varied fare offered by the square’s clutch of stalls is indicative of a culture change in Swiss dining.
Eating freshly cooked food from stalls or mobile trucks on the streets is a hugely popular trend from London to Berlin to Cape Town, but until recently quality street food was rare in Switzerland.
“I never thought they would do something like this here, ever,” says Emma Schwab, who runs Street Kitchen, a popular Riponne stall serving tacos, salads and subs drawing on international flavours. "So I was a little surprised."
The South African expat and her Swiss husband Toni set up the stall after answering a newspaper advert placed by Lausanne city authorities calling for street food businesses for a new venture.
Launched in May 2014, it formed part of a wider summer project aimed at revitalizing the Place de la Riponne, a vast square with an insalubrious reputation that the city wants to change.
Initially launched for six months, the venture has proved a success a year on, with stalls attracting around 50 to 60 customers each on an average day’s trade.
“It was a bit slow in the beginning,” says Schwab.
“The expats came running but the Swiss took a while. They’d walk by and ask a few questions, then they come by again and look a bit more, and then the third time they’d order something.”
Now Street Kitchen has both Swiss and expat customers, with many regulars who are “looking for something a bit different,” says Schwab.
The initiative fills a niche between sit-down dining and traditional takeaway. Most stalls price dishes at no more than 15 francs, cheaper than a restaurant. But the range of food on offer goes beyond standard takeaway fare, as the authorities “are quite strict” about whom they select, says Schwab.
Indeed, Florence Nicollier, head of commercial policy for the city of Lausanne, told The Local that stalls are chosen “for their originality and the variety of products offered”.
Lausanne isn’t the only Swiss city picking up the street food trend. In September 2014, Geneva authorities followed suit, designating six public places where half a dozen carefully selected food trucks could trade, rotating between the six locations each day.
The pilot scheme met an increasing demand for street food, says Sebastian Graf, a US-raised Swiss who runs the Elsalad truck with German expat Elsa Eggens.
“What it’s about is being served quality food quickly at a reasonable price," Graf tells The Local. "In the restaurant scene there were a few players like that. As soon as the food truck scene opened out that just welcomed even more people.”
And there are plenty of customers to go around. “We were extremely surprised with the success even throughout the winter period,” says Graf.
The future of the scheme won’t be decided until the end of this summer, but a spokesman for the city of Geneva told The Local: “We will see if the initiative will be renewed or develop. At this stage, anything is possible.”
The positive involvement of local authorities has had a big part to play in Switzerland’s burgeoning street food scene Vania Kukleta believes. The Zurich native set up a street food festival in her home city last year with fellow events organizer Katja Weber, originally from Germany.
“I think the trend was there before but in Switzerland we have a big issue with the legal conditions so it’s hard to find a spot where you are allowed to sell your stuff, that’s why we don’t have more trucks on a regular basis,” Kukleta says.
“I think this is changing now. As far as I can see the city is trying to be more open towards this trend.”
Zurich's Street Food Festival. Photo: Tobias Stahel
The pair’s inaugural festival in August 2014 had 40 stalls. Less than a year later its third edition will boast 150 stalls at Zurich’s Dolder Sports complex from May 29th-31st.
“Last year if you Googled food trucks or mobile food [in Zurich] you couldn’t find anyone,” Kukleta tells The Local.
“That’s why we started looking all over Switzerland and even abroad – we had ten people coming from Berlin last year.”
But since then many more food trucks and stalls have sprung up.
“After the first festival so many people came to talk to us and said ‘I want to have a truck too, are you doing another festival?’” says Kukleta.
Among them are many expats, she says, describing how two visitors to the first festival – one from Afghanistan and another from Brazil – were inspired to start stalls in time for the second edition.
“It’s a good opportunity for expats to get involved with people here, to show where they come from and to pass the passion for their own country to other people,” says Kukleta.
“Also I expect most of them know the tradition of eating on the street. We have a lot of people writing to us – ‘oh wow, finally we have something in Zurich!’”
The trend may have been slow to arrive in Switzerland but it’s certainly gathering speed now.
In April, Bern hosted its first food truck festival, and on May 28th Lausanne will stage its own as part of the annual gastronomic initiative Lausanne à Table.
“Back home [the trend] went very fast,” says Street Kitchen’s Schwab of her native South Africa.
“Whereas here everything takes a lot more time. But it is coming now. I hope it grows more.”