Berlin's Most Famous Sausage Stand Fights Changing Times and Tastes

Waltraud Ziervogel sits next to the cash register at Konnopke's snack bar on an aluminum chair she has made more comfortable with faded cushions. "As far as I'm concerned," she says, "they can handcuff me and carry me away, but I'm not leaving this spot."

Cars drive by on the two-lane street in front of the sausage stand and drive a little faster on the other side, where there are three lanes. The subway rattles loudly by on green tracks towering over the stand.

"That's normal," says Ziervogel, the daughter of Max Konnopke, who started selling sausages there 80 years ago.

But what isn't normal is that there are two backhoes digging into the pavement 10 meters (33 feet) from her stand. The backhoes hiss and roar as they work on part of an €8.5 million ($11.4 million) project to renovate a busy intersection on Schönhauser Allee. The intersection lies in the city's trendy and rapidly gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, in what was once East Berlin.

Konnopke's, it would seem, is in the way. But Frau Ziervogel refuses to budge. If she can help it, the 74-year-old intends to keep selling sausages even when she's 105.

Worlds Colliding

Ziervogel's sausage stand might just be the most famous one in Germany. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was a regular here, as was actress and entertainer Liza Minnelli. Busloads of tourists are known to visit the stand.

The top of the refrigerator at her stand is lined with beer bottles surrounding an Easter bunny holding yellow paper primroses. And one of the most popular items served there is currywurst, a favorite German side-stall delicacy made by taking a sausage, chopping it up, drowning it in ketchup and sprinkling it with curry powder.

But, just a stone's throw away, you can find a completely different type of place. Take the snack bar "Filletstück," for example, whose menu advertises dishes like "Donald Russell's Irish beef, dry-aged for at least three weeks," a 400-gram (14-oz.) steak -- for €52. This snack bar represents a new kind of world, one teeming with latte-macchiato bars, spotless health-food stores and restaurants serving all sorts of novelties.

The Good Ol' Days

A supplier unloads four sacks of potatoes onto the pavement, each of which weighs 25 kilograms. "Hold on," Ziervogel says to an employee. "Give me a minute, and I'll help you carry them down to the cellar."

It's a blue-skied spring morning. Ziervogel gets up from her aluminum chair to sit down in another chair and smoke a Marlboro in what she calls her shaded "little garden." Here, there are four yellow tables walled in on three sides and covered with a green awning separating it from the underside of the subway tracks. "I don't want to say that East Germany was a great place," she says, "but at least they let you work in peace."

In this case, the people disturbing her peace are officials from Berlin's transportation authority and a bothersome city council member from the Green Party.

It all started in 1987, when city officials preparing for festivities marking Berlin's 750th anniversary asked Ziervogel for her thoughts on how to clean up the neighborhood. "With a little snack bar garden," she told them. And suddenly, within no time, there it was.

"We were always busy," Ziervogel says, "and we always had enough sausage. Those higher-ups knew that if Konnopke's stopped selling sausages, and just sold potato pancakes instead, it would be the end of East Germany."

Part 2: The Birth of a Legend

Not much has survived intact from those East German days. But Konnopke sausages have. And, according to Ziervogel, they still taste the same as they did in East Germany 40 years ago.

She attributes this continuity to tradition, recounting a story of how her father brought the first currywust from West Berlin to East Berlin in 1960. Everyone was impressed, she says, but there was still one problem: You couldn't get ketchup in East Germany. So, Konnopke went back to the West to see what he could get his hands on.

A year later, after the Wall went up, the family experimented in the kitchen until they got it right. "Tomato paste from Russia, paprika powder from Hungary and lots of other things," says Ziervogel. The result was Konnopke Ketchup. Based on a secret family recipe, the condiment is as legendary in East Berlin as the recipe for Coca-Cola is in the United States.

These days, there are plenty of people who would shun Ziervogel's stand. But there are also plenty of people who encourage her not to lose heart, people who write glowing emails from far-off corners of Germany, people who want Konnopke's and its sausages to stay the way they've always been. They are the customers who have come to appreciate the typically East German and non-bureaucratic will to improvise that Konnopke's embodies, customers who are still a little proud of the way Konnopke's is. When she starts the grills at Konnopke's at 5 a.m, these are the people Ziervogel thinks of.

Threats and Salvations

Ziervogel lights another Marlboro. The stand -- which her father, Max, opened 80 years ago with a folding table and an awning -- has survived a great deal, including Hitler's Third Reich and the East German dictatorship. The current enemy it has to face is the growing number of politically correct Prenzlauer Berg inhabitants.

City planners have offered to replace Ziervogel's 40-year-old stand made of East German steel-reinforced aluminum with a new, modern snack bar a few hundred meters farther north. But she is standing her ground. "Konnopke's isn't moving," she says, nor does she even want to look at the proposed location. "It's pitch-dark, inaccessible to pedestrians and just plain dead," she adds.

In fact, Ziervogel's stubbornness has convinced the city's urban redevelopment officials to enclose her stand like a museum exhibit. They will also spend €50,000 to outfit it with a high-pressure device to keep toxic fumes caused by the sandblasting of the subway supports from getting into the kitchen.

Other city officials just want to tear the stand down. As the city council member from the Green Party sees it, the whole affair is just "complete nonsense." But Ziervogel doesn't seem to care what he thinks.

A fire truck rushes by, and its sirens drown out all other noises, including the roar of the backhoes. Ziervogel inhales deeply and relaxes. For a few seconds there, everything was normal.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan