With her Wienachtsdorf and Heiliger Bimbam! design market, Vania Kukleta has managed to make Christmas markets hip again. She also co-founded the Zurich Street Food Festival, co-owns the popular café Z am Park and has worked as both a copywriter and a DJ. In short, she has influenced much more in Zurich in recent years than any Instagrammer. We asked her how she got here, what makes Zurich special and, of course, she also reveals her favourite restaurants and bars.Vania, you founded Zurich’s street food festival, run a Christmas and design market, co-own a café and you’ve also been a DJ and a copywriter, to name a few of your professions. How would you describe yourself?
It took me a while before I realised what I actually am, but today, I call myself a creative entrepreneur. I was a so-called ‘slash professional’ and worked as a DJ slash graphic designer slash writer slash... Someone actually had to tell me that what I was doing was really entrepreneurship in a creative way.
What does your work look like and what do you like best about being an entrepreneur?
For me being an entrepreneur is also being sort of an activist. I can use my own ideas, develop them, be active and try to make them work. That’s also why I wouldn’t want to work for someone else. It’s great to be able to do the things that truly suit me and develop events that I can recommend to my friends with all my heart. Being an entrepreneur also means taking certain financial risks and not always knowing what’s next. But this thrill makes the job fascinating and increases the satisfaction when something works. But honestly, a lot is office work that isn’t always that exciting.
So you still work alone?
I am very happy to have partners and even employees, so I can work in teams nowadays. It was a super time when I did it all by myself, but teamwork clearly has its advantages, too. For example, being able to discuss things with others. I work with a whole network of people that is different for each project.
Since 2015 you’ve organised the new Christmas market at Bellevue, which, with its designer products and food stalls from around the world, became an instant success. How does one become a Christmas market organiser?
10 years ago we started to organise small design markets that turned into bigger festivals such as markets in old industrial halls, but they were always a platform for local micro producers and designers. Then in 2014 the city began looking for operators of a new Christmas market and we decided to apply and to use our experience and our network of small creative producers and traders. On the one hand, the concept is to give small regional designers and producers a platform. For example, producers can rent the stall for just a short time, like one week, because for many micro companies it’s simply not possible to run a stall for 4 or 5 weeks. On the other hand, we try to create en event where people meet up and create that special year-end or Christmas spirit. Anyway, our concept was chosen and it works!
Your other equally successful venture is the annual Street Food Festival. How did you become the promoter of street food in Zurich?
Well, every event needs some food, so we always collaborated with caterers for our design markets and that’s how I became connected with the food scene. In 2014, the idea to create a street food festival like those in other foreign cities was born and we realised it in only 12 weeks. It became a huge success, so it was obvious that we should continue it. This sort of festival and street food as such was new to Switzerland, so it was difficult to find innovative vendors, but only one year later we had 580 applications.
Do you try to actively scout new trends early on as business opportunities?
No, not really. I’ve studied style and design and trend research was a subject there, but honestly, the street food festival was created more out of circumstance and with a certain spontaneity. And it’s actually a good example of how I work. I don’t plan things for many years to come and I don’t sit down to try to figure out what could be the next big thing. I usually have a certain idea, then start to work on it and develop it with partners.
Is Zurich a good place for a creative entrepreneur like you?
Yes. In Switzerland, Zurich is certainly the hottest place, but compared with other cities abroad it’s still a small city and too small for certain niche products. But, of course, Zurich has many advantages. The risks for entrepreneurs, for example, are manageable. Some may say there are too many regulations and that bureaucracy is limiting, but I always say that at least the limits and rules are clear and don’t change along the way. And of course, people do have money here. Swiss people love to travel and many are open minded, so they like to try new things. And the small size of the city makes it easier to generate a network and get to know the right people. So, all in all, I think Zurich has been a really good place for me and my ideas.
What is the first thing you miss when you’re not in Zurich?
The water! For us it seems natural that tap water is always drinking water, that one can swim in Lake Zurich or the River Limmat. But in most places this isn’t so. It makes me proud when I can tell people that you could even drink the water we use to flush the toilet. Another thing that I miss in other cities is that I can go everywhere by bike. And, Zurich is my native city, so I simply miss home when I’m not here.
Is there anything that annoys you about Zurich?
That certain stubbornness and bigotry that some people have around here. Especially in winter, Zürcher can at least appear to anger easily. They tend to forget how good we have it here and lack that certain relaxed attitude or a sense of humour. I think that’s what happens when everybody runs around all day trying to earn as much money as possible.
Why should someone visit Zurich?
Zurich has a really interesting creative scene, there are many young, innovative people who try out interesting concepts here, be it in gastronomy or art and culture in general. For a city of its size, the culture offering is huge. And unlike a real metropolis, getting from one place to another is easy and fast. Zurich has both highbrow activities like those at the opera house as well as the urban including the slightly shabby nightlife culture around Langstrasse. The clash between those two can be exciting. And then, of course, there is the lake, the parks, the nature… Zurich is definitely much more than banks, chocolate and Swiss pocket knives.
You live in District 3. What do you like best about it?
The diversity of the inhabitants make the district special to me. There are old and young of many different nationalities and they all live peacefully together. Take the Fritschiwiese Park on a nice summer evening, for example. The Tamils play volleyball, you can hear the salsa music of the Cubans, locals play some Kubb. There are families with kids and everyone fits in somewhere. This makes the district very lively. I love it. And there are so many good restaurants in the district.
Speaking of restaurants, what are your favourites in town?
Currently I have two favourites and one of them is Afghan Anar. Host Akram Sattary knows how to show a different image of Afghanistan than the one we know from the news. The food is excellent and the place is charmingly decorated with old photos, lamps and the like. Another one I really like is Huusbeiz where they have a small Swiss-style menu and Nicolas Baumann is a host with so much passion. It’s adorable.
And do you have a favourite café?
I hang around a lot in our own café Z am Park, but I also love to check out other places. The next one on my list is the rather new Campo at Helvetiaplatz. It’s run by the same crew as La Stanza and they usually don’t make any compromises on quality.
And where do you go for an apéro?
I love going to Sacchi Bar at Lochergut for an after-work drink. This small, lovely bar is run by owner Claudio Sacchi himself. I always find it very positive when the owner also works in his place. It gives venues a personal touch. And no matter how busy a night gets, Claudio never loses his cool.
What’s your favourite place in the city?
I love going to Friedhof Sihlfeld for walks, alone or with a friend. It’s a cemetery, but also has a park-like area. Not far from very lively Badenerstrasse, it’s a very quiet and inspiring place.
Where do you go to party?
Well, the night belongs to the young. It’s their time for excess and drunkenness and clubs should make sure they keep it that way. There’s no need for middle-aged people like me to be everywhere. So the only party I really still go to is the one I co-founded with my life partner, John Doe at Gonzo Club. I still like the music and the vibe there. But when it gets late I leave, because it starts to annoy me. But that’s fine. When I think it’s too loud, too smoky or that there are too many kids, it’s simply time to go home for me. There’s no need for nightlife to adjust to me.