Dina Dobkin is co-owner and Head of Brand at Fort Point Beer Company.
Photography by Derek Yarra
Fabi Wiest and his German restaurant and beer hall, Suppenküche, are SF institutions. 30 years ago Fabi came to SF from Bavaria to open a simple yet idyllic “Gasthaus” – just like the ones back home. Over the past several decades Suppenküche has become a beloved spot for connecting with neighbors and friends, and of course, German beer & food. To celebrate our newly released collab beer, Tunzenbier, it only felt appropriate for our co-owner Dina to sit down with Fabi for a KSA.
I know that your story actually begins pretty far from San Francisco…can you tell me about where you grew up?
Fabi: I was born in Baden-Württemberg in Germany, and then I moved when I was one year old to my Grandfather’s estate – my family had been there for 400 years. And so we grew up in a very small town called Tunzenberg.
I had never heard of Tunzenberg, but it’s definitely become a place that’s filled my imagination since we started working on our collab beer.
Exactly. Our beer is going to be named after Tunzenberg. My grandfather had a brewery in an area called Niederbieber which is known for its beer – a lot of established beers come from there, the whole area is like prime beer country.
His little brewery was called Tunzenberg Schloss and they brewed beers for places like this - like Suppenküche - maybe for 17 other little beer places. And these were places which were very simple, just like here. With little beer gardens where you can eat schnitzel or pork roast.
Every Sunday people would go after church. The men would go into the beer hall and drink their beer, and the women went home and prepared their meal – it was a very old fashioned way of life, because there was nothing else to do in the countryside besides ride your bicycle and be outside in nature.
Sometimes we would go hunting, sometimes there were parties at night, and once a year we had our own little Oktoberfest with a beer tent. It was simple, but it was a beautiful place to grow up.
That sounds like another world. What made you break away? How did you end up in San Francisco?
I always liked the states, and I went to New York by myself for the first time when I was 15. I visited a friend of a friend and was, of course, flabbergasted, you know. Like, wow. I opened my eyes and there's this big city with so much to do, so many interesting places. I went to Studio 54, did all kinds of things.
Immediately when I got to California I just felt this was the place for me. It has so much to do, you’re free to do what you want.
You went to Studio 54 when you were 15?
Not when I was 15, I came back the following year when I was 16 and went though – on the same trip I went to California for the first time. I remember I got off the plane and just thought, “it’s so bright.”
Yeah, California. You might relate to this…growing up in Europe it was always dark and rainy. And then you come here and it’s bright, with so much space. I was 16, so 40 years ago, and immediately when I got to California I just felt this was the place for me. It has so much to do, you’re free to do what you want.
How did you go from falling in love with California to opening Suppenkuche?
It was in the early nineties when I opened Suppenkuche. I used to be a graphic designer in Munich, and I worked for a guy in the middle of the city on fashion related things and one day I forgot my key so I ended up chatting with my neighbor and the neighbor had the idea to come to California and open a little beer hall. His wife and kid were in San Francisco…he had been to SF a couple of times and cooked for people here, and they always loved the food, and there was nothing like a German beer hall here.
So I said okay, let’s go and do that. So we modeled Suppenküche a little bit after this famous place in Munich called the German Oak.
Was that your original partner?
Yeah, Thomas Klausmann. We rented an apartment at Haight and Cole, in Cole Valley. And across the street, there was a place called Gulf Spray – maybe some people remember that? It was a fish place. And we saw them go out of business, and so we thought maybe we'll start our business there and just make soup and salads. That's why it's called Suppenkuche. Because we thought Americans like soup and salad.
Interesting, was the soup and salad concept trending at the time?
No it was just, like, soup and salad is the American classic!
But once we went into the building where the old fish place was, my god it was so stinky. And it was very hard to get that smell gone.
I don't even know what they did, but I mean, all the walls, everything was infested with this smell. So we were like, we need to look for something else. So we kind of took a tour all around the city looking for places to start Suppenküche. Eventually we found Hayes Valley.
At the time Hayes Valley was very, very underdeveloped. It was a fun neighborhood with a lot of little shops, second hand clothing, little cafes and so on. Suppenkuche’s building had been closed for three years. But we saw it and thought, huh, that might be the right location.
So we got started. We had the tables built, and honestly we were kind of the first to have 6 seater tables. People could sit all together on benches and it was sort of this novelty, communal seating…people weren’t used to that. And they always asked me, “do we have to sit with these other people,” and I said, “Yeah, yeah, you have to, because that's the way we do it. It’s family style.”
In the end it was actually quite nice because people really came together - conservative people hanging out with liberals, having a good time.
We were not trying to invent something new, just trying to stay very close to the original. How it used to taste at home.
What was Hayes Valley like in the early 90s?
We were right by the projects so sometimes people were a little scared to come in this area – there was a lot of prostitution and all kinds of craziness happening here. And also all the people in city hall – on their breaks they would come down here to Hayes Valley and have their little affairs here because this was a scandalous district.
But it was also good because there was a diversity of people here, very creative, very fun young people who had all kinds of agendas. And it was a really fun neighborhood, you know? As soon as we opened here, it became this sort of hidden treasure.
We had Marlena’s, this fantastic little drag bar, down the street where we would hang out after work. There was Powells, this fried chicken place, and they had big windows you could look inside and one room was painted pink with a big chandelier, kind of like Louisiana in a way. The whole neighborhood was kind of our little apartment.
The Hayes Valley community, our waitresses, it was a bunch of individuals who really connected with each other, and that was a great feeling. I was just 28, 29 or so, fresh off the boat, I was here with a blank slate, an open mind. And that helped me meet a lot of people and just have a lot of fun.
And my first partner was an excellent chef. The food was fantastic. And the beer. We started with two beers, then we had eight beers, and then the list grew to 20. We were especially excited to bring German beers here, beers I grew up with, that no one really knew about. We were not trying to invent something new, just trying to stay very close to the original. How it used to taste at home.
Does Suppenkuche feel like a place that you would have gone to in your childhood?
Very much so. All the places of my childhood were like this – simple. No fancy decorations, simple benches and tables.
It’s the people who create the atmosphere, not the decorations around you. You know, you might know that yourself from other places – Czechoslovakia, Austria, Bavaria. The classic places are very simple because they kind of started in the Middle Age. People could rest their horses there before traveling further, rest, sit and eat something, drink something. The monks would brew beer.
That was like their business, you know, how they made money. And out of that came this kind of look and feel that you get at Suppenküche, this desire to embrace simplicity in the food and the beer.
Did your family ever visit from Bavaria?
Yes, of course. My mom and my dad, they both visited but they didn’t fit into America at all. There are some funny stories. One time my mom was here from Germany and she was helping at the restaurant, she went to the forest to pick flowers. She loved to pick flowers. She comes back with this big pile she’s foraged, and she puts them in the vases at all the tables.
Then I see her and she looked like Joe Louis after the 36, you know, all swollen up. It turns out she picked poison oak. The waitress saw and was like, “Oh my God.” It was like 5 minutes before we opened.
Oh no! I mean poison oak is pretty beautiful…she just didn’t know…haha! Hopefully, she still felt very much at home when she was here, especially with a beer in hand. What do you think makes German beer so special?
I think it's the long, long tradition of how to do it, where to get the ingredients, what kind of soils, what kind of water to use. Water definitely, because the water is very important to the end result with beer. And German beers follow “Reinheitsgebot” which means something like “purity law.”
It’s all about simple ingredients, and each little town had its own little beer supplier where they had fresh beer.
What's a beer that you find yourself coming back to again and again throughout your life?
I mean, the classic is Augustiner which is like the premier beer of Munich. Then I have Schönramer, Andechs and all of these beers. You know in Germany some places are famous for their dark beers like Andechs, other places are famous for their wheat beers like Schneider. Another one I love is Weihenstephan which is like this school for brewers with a long, long tradition of fantastic beer.
So there isn't just one.
No, because it depends on which region you are in. And if you get it really fresh. And that's part of the reason I really like the idea of partnering up with Fort Point to brew a beer. I like when the beer is also brand new and fresh, you know, and that makes it also something special.
But yeah, as I said, what we wanted to try here is to have the best German beer available and without any kind of experimentation. I also didn’t want to carry English beers, or Belgian beers because a Belgian beer, you can drink maybe two or three and then you are totally done.
Yeah, it’s overpowering in the taste. It’s not “trinken” as we say in Germany, which means drinkable. It’s a Bavarian word, it means if you can drink a bunch and still be happy and not fall asleep somewhere, then it's the right beer for you.
What has it been like to see the wave of craft beer in California in the last ten years? I mean, obviously Anchor has been here for a long, long time, but so many craft breweries opened up more recently.
Hey, I don't want to talk like a snob, but craft beer is not my kind of beer. It can be somebody else's beer. Everybody can drink what they want, you know? What I'm trying to do here is to introduce to the people the light beers, which are, in my opinion, harder to make because, yes, it’s light, but it shouldn’t taste boring. It should also have a good flavor to it. Complexity.
Yeah, exactly. So you and Justin have probably drunk a lot of beer together over the years, but what do you remember about first meeting him?
I remember meeting Justin and his brother right here at the bar – they enjoyed the place. Justin, like so many Suppenkuche customers, came here and they felt like some kind of identity here. It’s some kind of feeling I brought to the city. Now, after 30 years, we are a heritage business and we are like part of this neighborhood, part of the “San Francisco feeling” you know?
And then Fort Point, you guys opened in the Presidio, you guys have good water down there.
I think Justin created some very special beers. That’s why I was excited about this collaboration – to work with someone who grew up here, who is part of San Francisco, who knows what it means to be a San Franciscan.
Being in the same spot for 30 years, you really see how a city transforms over time.
Right, you get such a feeling for what happened to this city. What happened to the neighborhood. You just grow old in one spot, it's a blessing. I love to be here.
It's not my building, but I always love this building very much. The building was always a bar since 1880 or 1870. Before 1900 it was a grocery bar, which was a spot where the women go to shop while the man would have a beer.
A grocery bar sounds pretty good…except I’d like to be the one drinking the beer!
People are always talking about how much San Francisco is changing. What's something that you think has stayed the same while you've been here?
San Francisco, it always goes up and down. There's always some new interesting things happening. So right now, I don’t think it’s the end, it’s just down, and then we’ll go up again.
Of course the internet has changed everything – not only San Francisco but worldwide. Now instead of going to a bar to meet a friend, you meet a friend before the bar on the internet, and then they go to a bar and find out later that they don't like each other, you know?
Yeah, that’s actually a really good way of putting it.
I mean, for me, the most exciting thing is just to be with people, to have people in the restaurant and to know that they like it. I'm so old fashioned here. I love seeing the same people come here for 30 years and appreciate that it hasn’t changed, you know? Like feeling at home.
That’s the best feeling. You’ve created such a special place here. Anytime I mention Suppenkuche to anyone, they have some really personal story about an experience they’ve had here. It’s legendary! What makes you excited for the future of Suppenkuche?
You know, right now making this collaboration with Justin, I wish to do more things like that. I think only if people help each other, you know, only then we can succeed.
And then to enjoy the small things – I always want to be small here. It's really about the basic things, like you really take time to be with the customers, to take time to be with your community and not just thinking, "let’s sell this and sell that," so that's important for me. Staying simple.
Dina Dobkin is co-owner and Head of Brand at Fort Point Beer Company.
Photography by Derek Yarra
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