Austrian-born Friedrich Jahn is Europe’s answer to Howard Johnson, or maybe Colonel Sanders. Through his chicken-lickin’ Wienerwald restaurants, which have spread across Europe and into the U.S., he works to satisfy a hungry middle class. The chain grossed $115 million last year and should do at least 10% better this year. Last month Jahn opened new outposts in Vienna and Nuremberg; he plans others in Scandinavia, Britain and South Africa. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he says, “if one day there is a Wienerwald in Nigeria or Kenya.”
In 1955, with $3,000 in savings, Jahn leased a run-down Munich tavern, dressed it up with Vienna woods decor and a resoundingly fowl menu. He figured that hearty-eating Germans—who considered barbecued chicken quite a delicacy and were willing to pay $3 to $4 for a whole one at a festival like Munich’s frothy Oktoberfest—would buy it every day if it were cheaper. To keep his own costs down, Jahn bicycled to the Munich poultry market every morning, haggled for bargains, pedaled back to the restaurant with a load of chicken. His specialty: half a roast chicken for 85¢. The first Wienerwald restaurant was an overnight hit, and Jahn began expanding.
With his chain growing at the rate of three new restaurants a month, Jahn has built three small factories to produce “Viennese interiors” and another to manufacture automatic spits. He also started a six-story chick hatchery in Bavaria. (But he still buys most of his birds from the U.S., which supplies Germany with $30 million worth of frozen chicken a year.) Jahn has opened Wienerwald restaurants in Belgium, Austria and The Netherlands, will soon branch into Switzerland.
Part of Jahn’s rise to eminence as Europe’s biggest chain restaurateur is the result of using American methods of mass purchasing and strict cost controls. Another ingredient is a deft instinct for customers’ inner needs. His restaurants are gemütlich, the food is solid, and the prices are 10% to 20% lower than almost anywhere else—precisely what he would want for himself, despite his success. A chief deputy, Rolf Schielein, says of Jahn: “Basically, he has retained his waiter’s mind.”
Idea from Oktoberfest. “My grandfather in Austria was an innkeeper, and so was my father,” Jahn says. By the time Friedrich was five, he was serving pretzels in the family tavern in Linz. After World War II, he became headwaiter in Munich’s Intermezzo, a strip joint that for some reason also served food. In 1955, he invested his savings of $3,000 to acquire a nearby winehouse. Refurbishing and a hearty, inexpensive menu kept the eatery full. Jahn’s real breakthrough came after a slightly tipsy customer suggested that he feature the kind of roast chicken sold during Munich’s Oktoberfest. To cook the birds, Jahn invented a special rotating spit and sold half a chicken for only 65¢.
When Jahn opened his second restaurant in Stuttgart, he wanted a suitable name, redolent of Austria. From Johann Strauss’s Tales from the Vienna Woods, inspiration struck. Jahn traveled to the U.S. “to learn the system”—and then added a thick Germanic accent.
The restaurants have standardized décor, which, despite the chain’s name, is ersatz Tyrolean rather than Viennese. Each unit combines such decorations as gingham curtains, fake wooden beams, simulated carriage lamps, leatherette settees and plastic flowers. The menu has remained basically fowl, emphasizing chicken in several forms, with a few excursions into wurst and schnitzel. The birds are heavily laced with salt and paprika, which tends to give customers a powerful thirst. Jahn’s cash registers thus tinkle along with sales of wine and beer.
On to America. Jahn has now opened nine restaurants in New York City. He talks of soon buying and redecorating a chain of 350 restaurants across the U.S. Another new venture is a string of four hotels in Europe.
Now 48, Jahn rules the roost as chairman, president and sole stockholder of his Zurich-based Wienerwald Share Corp. Estimates of his fortune start at $70 million. He is completely debt free. “I’ve always operated with my own means, independent of banks,” he says. Jahn travels constantly, spending six days a month in the U.S. For short trips he favors one of his five chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz 300s. For longer hops he uses one of his three aircraft. Once aloft, the millionaire ex-headwaiter, often in shirtsleeves and with blue eyes gleaming, serves sandwiches and coffee to his executives.
My aim,” says roly-poly Friedrich Jahn, 39, “is to become the European Howard Johnson.” He is well on the way. Only seven years ago, Austrian-born Jahn was a waiter in a Munich striptease nightclub. Today he runs a money-clinking chain of 111 “Wienerwald” restaurants that serve up spit-roasted chicken, Viennese wine, and recorded zither music to 100,000 customers a day in 58 German cities. Partly because of Jahn’s promotional abilities, German consumption of chicken has increased nearly fourfold since 1955 (to last year’s average 13 Ibs. per person), and West Germany has become the world’s largest importer of poultry.[2
I met Mr Jahn in Burlington, Vt when he visited our Lums franchise. He was a very interesting man, always talking about his restaurants and telling us how to improve our sales of Wienerwald chicken. We had seven Lums restaurants at the time and we were using a lot of chickens. One problem we ran into was when we were out we we out! The chickens had to be prepped and seasoned one day ahead of time and took about one hour to cook on the rotisserie. Another problem was we served half of a 2 1/2 lb chicken and at the end of thr night if you cooked to many, they had to be prepped into chicken salad at Lums because we didn’t have the knowledgeable personal to make other chicken items with the left over wienerwald chicken. The Wienerwald chicken were a main item especially for dinner at our restaurants. It became a signature item with the Ollieburger.