When Vaness Vu moved to Seattle from the Czech Republic 11 years ago, she wasn’t able to find authentic a German-style Doner kebab, a German street food with spitted meat, fresh vegetables, and flatbread.
With a background in hospitality and a passion to start a business in Seattle, Vaness took it upon herself to introduce her new home to classic food from her old home with the help of her sister-in-law and business partner, Mai Dzip.
She found a spot in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood and knew it would be a great fit. Doner Box opened in November 2019, operated by Vaness and Mai’s family. Vaness takes pride in running a woman-owned, minority-owned business.
“I’ve been going home to the Czech Republic every year. I eat Doners everywhere, and I felt like it was just such a great idea to bring it here,” Vaness said. “I was lucky enough to have two mentors who own their doner kebab shops in Germany and Czech Republic. They taught me everything that they know, and I was able to bring that here.”
Doner kebabs started in Germany, influenced by the large Turkish population, and is popular all over Europe, Australia, and Asia. However, Seattle is currently home to one other restaurant serving German-style kebab in Seattle, and Vaness said many people don’t know what Doner is.
“People who have been to Europe or tried it in Germany absolutely know what it is,” Vaness said. “For people that have never tried it before, it’s a German twist on Turkish cuisine… . I would call it a fusion.”
Vaness explained that many customers ask for pita and hummus they are used to getting at a Mediterranean or Turkish restaurant.
“People will come in and say, ‘These are not the kebabs we know in Turkish restaurants.’” Vaness said. “Well, it’s not. It’s the German Doner.”
Doner Box has different sauces made in house instead of hummus, chicken marinated in house, spice imported from Germany, and German fladenbrot, or flatbread, made fresh by a local bakery instead of pita. Absolutely everything is made from scratch.
One similarity between the kebabs? The delicious lamb and beef mix.
“Essentially the concept is the same, but we have different twists to it,” Vaness said. “If you’re looking for authentic Turkish food, we’re not it.”
One personal favorite dish for Vaness are Doner Box’s fries. The restaurant offers a fry plate with your choice of protein that are loaded with Doner Box’s house-made sauces and onions with fresh vegetables on the side. Vaness recommends the garlic sauce or the spicy cilantro sauce.
“I love our fries. So, I’ve eaten them like twice a week for the past two years,” Vaness said with a laugh.
According to Vaness, many customers who walk up are also confused when they see the business is Asian-run.
“My business is mostly family operated, so when [customers] come in, they see we are all Asian looking, and we are selling a Turkish cuisine, and then we add a German word to it.”
To Vaness there’s nothing to be confused about. She was born and raised in the Czech Republic, so she decided to serve the food she’s been eating all her life — food that was missing from Seattle’s culinary scene.
For the past two years, Doner Box has been serving Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, and Vaness said she loves the spot they are in. They are in the middle of the city’s action but are still part of a close-knit community of business owners and residents.
“I love Belltown. You can walk 15 minutes to Pike Place, 15 minutes to the Space Needle, but it still feels like a neighborhood,” she said.
Doner Box opened months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of small-businesses. Vaness said the residents living above and around the neighborhood stepped up and replaced the usual crowd of office workers.
“We are so grateful for all the support that we’ve gotten in the past year,” Vaness said. “We probably wouldn’t have survived without it because it was our first year in the business.”
Vaness also expressed her gratitude towards the employees at Doner Box. The restaurant is mostly family run, so when Vaness’ entire family got COVID-19 in March, one employee stepped up to cover every single one of their shifts.
“It’s just the dedication of the people who work for us and with us, and it’s just amazing,” she said.
Now that the restaurant has more stability, Vaness is thinking of expanding into Capitol Hill or the surrounding areas so, keep an eye out for a Doner Box food truck! She is sure their customizable menu has something for everyone, whether they’re gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian (including house-made falafel). She also encourages people who may not like traditional kebabs to try Doner.
“The word that I’m trying to get out there… is the difference in our Doner-style German kebab so people understand we are not just another gyro store down the street. If you look up gyro places, there’s tons in Seattle and we are not just that. Please give us a try because we are different.”
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