You could be forgiven for never having heard of döner kebap. After all, Germany's most popular fast food dish hasn't made much headway in the United States, where Americans are far more familiar with its alternate incarnations: Greek gyros, Lebanese shawarma, or Mexican al pastor. But if Verts owners Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein have their way, the döner kebap will eventually be as popular here as the ubiquitous burrito.
"Chipotle is our model," Heyne told me this afternoon, on the first day of operations at the very first Houston location of Verts. The fast-casual restaurant specializes in döner kebap—a Turkish-style sandwich of rotisserie beef and lamb that's more popular in Heyne's home country of Germany than any other fast food—and true to the Chipotle model of operations, allows patrons to customize their sandwich with a short menu of options. The dining room—designed by Michael Hsu, the same man responsible for restaurants such as Uchi—is airy, modern, and dressed in Scandinavian wood tones and clean, white tile. It feels nothing like a fast food restaurant, and that's the way Heyne and Stein planned it all along.
The first location of Verts opened in Austin on the University of Texas campus in 2011 after Heyne and Stein—both working on their MBAs at the time—were surprised to find they couldn't get the German-Turkish kebap they'd grown up on back home here in Texas. "We were so unimpressed with the fast-food options," Heyne added, "and wanted to create something nicer." The tiny on-campus restaurant went over so well, it wasn't long before additional Verts opened in other parts of the city. The team now have seven locations in Austin and are expanding into Houston and Dallas for a grand total of 20 Verts across the state.
"That makes us the second-largest döner kebap chain in the world," laughed Heyne. Even back in Berlin, Heyne said, döner chains are unheard of. "They're family-run operations. They don't worry about atmosphere or making things look nice. You go for the food." Verts has already turned that model on its ear with an emphasis on both taste and aesthetics, as well as another surprising feature: döner is diet-friendly. None of the sandwiches, wraps, or salads on Verts's menu is over 550 calories.
Verts, which takes its name from the vertical rotisserie that sports a blend of lamb and beef brisket, piles on more fresh vegetables into its sandwiches than it does meat—this isn't a complaint, mind you—and tops it all of with yogurt-based sauces and vinaigrettes as opposed to fattier condiments. But Heyne doesn't want Verts to be known as a health food restaurant; he wants people to enjoy the sandwiches based on flavor first and foremost, with the nutritional angle as an added bonus. In keeping with this philosophy, Verts offers vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, as well as döner-style chicken, flavored with the same Turkish spices as the more traditional beef and lamb blend.
In many ways, the rapid growth of the Verts chain has mimicked the growth in popularity of the döner kebap itself. Introduced to Germany by Turkish immigrant labor in the 1970s, the dish quickly became as iconic in Berlin as hamburgers or sausage. Heyne, who also completed part of his education at SMU in Dallas, compares the food to Tex-Mex, in which two cultures brought their own signatures to the table.
"Germany has a strong baking culture," said Heyne, referring to the pide-style bread into which the kebap meat is piled. Verts bakes its own bread for its kebap, which—in keeping with Berlin tradition—is a cross between the fluffy Turkish pide and soft yet sturdy deutsches Weißbrot (white bread). It was also Germans who added the flourish of yogurt and/ or hot sauces, as well as the filling of chopped lettuce, cabbage, onions, cucumber, and tomatoes. "You can always tell when a Turkish person comes in, because they ask for just tomatoes and onions," laughed Heyne.
For the most part, however, it's neither Turkish nor German ex-pats that make up the majority of Verts's clientele. Texans seem to have taken to the kebap concept as easily as they did to gyros and shawarma. Good thing too, as Heyne and Stein expand rapidly into their new markets: four locations are planned in Dallas and five in Houston, beginning with the first spot at 107 Yale. A River Oaks location on West Gray is scheduled to open in two weeks, with more planned for Cypress, Spring, and west Houston.
For those who may still require convincing, Verts is hosting a grand opening party this weekend at the Yale location. The festivities run from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and features live music, craft beer, plus one free döner kebap per person.