Wurst warriors

They are as familiar to us as the Berliner Dom and the TV Tower – grill walkers, sausage soldiers, whatever you may call them. But for Berlin’s walking bratwurst salesmen, sausage is a matter of survival.

Image for Wurst warriors
Photo by Marta Dominguez

For Berlin’s walking bratwurst salesmen, sausage is a matter of survival.

It’s a late winter morning in Berlin and temperatures have sunk to a frosty -5 degrees. Stepping out of your apartment, you urge your body forth into the stinging cold, knowing that the warm shelter of work awaits. But just imagine for a moment that warmth and sanctuary isn’t what will greet you at the end of your journey. It’s out in the elements – in fact, on a stretch of Berlin pavement – where you’ll be making your living for the day. And you’ll have to carry your office around your neck.

“We’re the sausage soldiers of Berlin,” one Grillrunner salesman quips, describing himself and his colleagues. Providing quick and convenient solutions when hunger strikes, the itinerant grilling men and womenfolk patrolling the streets around Alexanderplatz have become as much a part of the Berlin landscape as the nearby Berliner Dom and TV Tower, viewed as figures of trust by visitors in the otherwise intimidating and alien world that is ‘abroad’. As one salesman explains, “They see we don’t represent any danger, so they feel more comfortable approaching us. If we got €1 for every bit of tourist information we give, we’d be rich from that alone.”

The first day on the job, it kills you.

Working in teams of two, the mobile sausage salesperson’s day runs in two-hour stints of face-to-face selling followed by two-hour obligatory, unpaid spells of re-stocking their mobile shop with bratwurst, bread rolls, napkins and the requisite Senf and ketchup. As they tempt passersby with the wafting smell of roasting ‘wurst for €1.35, offering a cheeky smile, click of their tongs and a “Bitte schön”, the trade of selling Bratwurst on two legs may perhaps appear a lighthearted affair. But take a closer look at the men and women strapped to the grills – weighing in at 30kg when fully loaded – and you’ll see their smiles barely concealing dogged grimaces at the wear and tear of fighting daily just to stay upright.

The concept of the mobile sausage salesperson has, from its inception, been entrenched in a story of survival. After receiving a shock dismissal as front desk clerk at a Berlin hotel in 1997, Berlin-bred entrepreneur Bertram Rohloff made the decision to become self-reliant. His decision was indicative of the miserable economic climate in the capital, where unemployment had reached 17.4 percent.

Initially hitting numerous bureaucratic walls in attempts to obtain permits for fixed Imbiss stands and failing, Rohloff entered ‘intensive deliberations’. “You couldn’t get a permit for an A-1 location like Alexanderplatz for all the money in the world,” he recalls. But then he deciphered a loophole in Bezirksamt regulations: mobile vendors are not obliged to obtain the same expensive permits of fixed stands. And so the idea of the original Grillwalker was born.

Naturally, the simplicity of Rohloff’s concept led to copycats.

Just two years later, former Grillwalker salesman Gennadi Fjodorov emerged with Grillfahrer, which had the added support of the State and Senate as an integrationist venture designed to create jobs for the disabled. And electrician Rocco Schulz also recognised this golden opportunity to become his own boss, founding Grillrunners in 2008.

Since then, the heat of competition has only increased. The local press was quick to emphasise and poke fun at the situation; even American publications joined in, dubbing it the “War of the Wursts”. Schulz quickly dismisses the relevance of altercations or tensions between his employees and those of the other companies, saying, “Just as taxi drivers may sometimes fight among each other, it ultimately comes down to the single individual.”

But can these reports of explosive struggles be so easily downplayed by employers who consciously create cut-throat conditions in which their employees’ survival is entirely at the mercy of their sausage sales? The impossibility of the headlock the workers are in hardly smacks of the camaraderie that Schulz attempts to convey.

On one icy Monday morning on Alexanderplatz, signs of the silent and potentially violent turf battles surface with Grillwalkers, Grillfahrers and Grillrunners not surrendering their ground; signs that are evident to all those except their hurried customers. As they click-click their tongs at the same shoppers walking into and out of Galeria Kaufhof, Alexa, Saturn and the various U-Bahn entrances, shifting the weight of their loaded grills from foot to foot, exchanges of words are rare; a brief nod of the head is about as far as pleasantries extend. This is a fight for survival, after all, and how much you win or lose is quite literally in your hands.

Alexej* is a handicapped Grillfahrer and 48-year-old Russian immigrant. His skin weather-beaten and his health visibly declining, Alexej has worked half days as a Grillfahrer for four years. Pointing to the four other salesmen selling the same product at the same price within a 20-metre vicinity, he says, “I’m disabled. For me, this is too much competition.” In the low winter season, he sells an average of 100 sausages over a full 8-hour day. At 30 cents per sausage, his take-home pay is only €30.

Vencel*, a 31-year-old from Budapest, echoes similar concerns: “I’ve been doing this job almost five years now. There was a lot less competition back when I started, but it’s increased a lot in the past two to three years, meaning that we take less home at the end of each day.” In Europe’s most powerful country, the lack of a national minimum wage only works to push the most vulnerable further into poverty.

It is no coincidence that this random selection of sausage salesmen earning rough salaries of €30 per day – before tax – for such physically-tasking work comes predominantly from countries where the Iron Curtain once reigned. Unlike other EU citizens, Romanians and Bulgarians must face a long and difficult process to obtain a permit to work in Germany – even a temporary one.

Petru*, a 28-year-old Grillrunner from Romania, says, “The first time [on the job], it kills you. Literally. And I thought: what the hell am I doing? But I got used to it.” A graduate from Bucharest University with a degree in management, he left Romania two years ago in the search for better opportunities. And though officially an EU citizen, Petru’s experiences have taught him that beyond his homeland, he is forever destined to a life of work unbefitting his qualifications: “In Germany, it’s almost impossible to get something else. First of all, because I don’t speak German. Though I could learn, that’s not the main point. The main reason is that I am from Romania.”

Winter months have a habit of shedding light on urban inequalities. And in the wintry light of today, it is the icy distance between those legislating and those pushed further into the depths of urban poverty, both as a result of their nationality and the lack of protective measures like a minimum wage, that can’t be shielded by smiles or flourishes of political rhetoric.

Standing directly opposite his Grillrunner competitor, Wladislaw*, 28, from Posznan, Vencel notes that tensions have recently died down. The two sticking to a comfortable five-metre distance from each other outside Galeria Kaufhof, it appears that an unwritten code of conduct is managing to keep the peace. In this moment, the cloud of anger and frustration slips away enough to reveal that they are all in the same boat, barely keeping afloat.

* Names have been changed.