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The entire world on an island – Reffen Street Food

By: Reading Time: 4 Minutes
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Street food is all the rage. Since Copenhagen is a gastronomic hot spot, one of the most notable examples is Reffen – Northern Europe’s largest street food market, which opened its doors here in May 2018.

Located on Refshaleøen island, which is the origin of the outdoor market’s name, more than 40 different mini restaurants and start-ups can be found here at a 10,000 square meter industrial site on the water. Thousands of locals and tourists flock here from June (due to the Covid-19 situation) to the end of October. Behind the scenes: The restaurateur Jesper Møller, who had already made a name for himself in the Danish capital with a similar project on Papiroen Island. The experience he gained there helped Møller create a thriving food stall city on Reffen. And the potential of the project does not appear to have been fully reached.

There are two ways to reach Refshaleøen Island from downtown Copenhagen. You can either go by land – the harbor islands are easily accessible thanks to the Inderhavnsbroen, the Inner Harbor Bridge – or you can take the boat. For food lovers, the overland bike tour is a great option. This takes only 15 minutes and allows you to pass by the legendary Noma and the Zero Waste Institution Amass.

Jesper Møller / Image: Rolands Varsbergs Reffen PR

Reffen lies a bit hidden behind a large climbing hall, but the pilgrimaging groups of hungry and curious street food lovers point the way. The entrance is fittingly made up of containers stacked to form a gate. On the small square Brandis Brandsdottir is waiting, a young Icelander who gives the initial tour. “We have divided Reffen into two areas,” explains the lively brunette, who has been part of the Reffen organization team led by Jesper Møller from the very start, where she works in communications. “Here at the entrance we are in what is called the “Village”, which means we are standing on the village square. “Main Street” stretches towards the water. That’s where the big containers are.”

Culinary world tour

One thing definitely became clear while walking around the Village: This food village is a world unto itself. In the rustic stands, most of which have been lovingly hand-painted, Turkish Shawarma and Italian Porchetta sandwiches await alongside Ghanaian peanut butter stew, Jamaican coconut chicken and French steak frites. In the passageways, enticing scents fill the air, each replacing the next. Between the food stands, small shops and workshops are waiting to be discovered: a sustainable T-shirt label shop, a glass factory where bottles are recycled into pretty home décor objects, a small tortilla bakery and a tattoo studio.

Food Reffen Copenhagen Street Food

Image: Rolands Varsbergs Reffen PR

“We have 40 stands here and ideas from 18 nations,” explains Brandsdottir, leading us to one of the community tables spread across the market. “One great thing is that people don’t come here just to eat, they also love to hang out and stick around for hours. No one ever hurries you along or kicks you out.” This open approach is part of the concept. Reffen is also an urban playground, experimental space, innovation hub, meeting place for like-minded people and a cultural venue. “Tonight, for example, we’ re presenting “La Bohème” in collaboration with the Copenhagen Opera. The performance will take 12 hours, in other words, until tomorrow morning!” There have also been events hosted here as part of the Cultural Harbor Festival and the Photo Festival. Jesper Møller’s goal is to contribute as much to the cultural life of the city as possible.

One for all, all for one.

There is another reason why the market has such a special atmosphere: The elaborately designed, individually decorated stands show how much heart and soul goes into each of the mini restaurants. This doesn’t mean just in terms of preparing the food. “We took a lot of time selecting our tenants,” says Brandsdottir. Of the 200 applicants who presented us with a gastronomic idea as well as a visual brand concept, we invited 80 to come in for an interview. The 60 candidates selected then took part in a cooking contest. That’s how we decided on the 40 final start-ups.”

A rather elaborate and time-consuming process. What drives Jesper Møller? “When Jesper wanted to start his own restaurant a few years ago, he had a very hard time getting any money from the bank. Although he succeeded on his own in the end, this experience inspired him to help other restaurateurs set up their businesses. And a business at a street food market is the perfect experimental environment for start-ups,” explains Brandsdottir. “We provide the containers, which include electricity and water. Since it is quite expensive to get a liquor license in Denmark, we also operate ten of our own bars on the premises, which we open whenever there is a demand. The food stall renters – often only a one-man or one-woman operation – concentrate fully on their dishes. Promotion and business consulting are also among our responsibilities.”

Outside and inside

Reffen Street Food Market Copenhagen

Image: Rolands Varsbergs Reffen PR

The lease for Reffen is limited to ten years, one and a half of which have now passed. “Our plan is to hand the stands over to new street food companies every three years. This means the operators have three years to test whether their concept is working and time to put some money aside, as well as apply for their own liquor license. If we give around 40 new projects start-up support every three years as planned, we will have helped a total of over 150 young restaurateurs. This motivates us.”

Are there any plans to expand the project? The potential is definitely there. The Reffen offices are located in the large industrial hall on the same site, where Møllerhas also rented an additional 1000 square meters. Jesper Møller and the Reffen crew have set their sights on expanding this area and using it for the market next season.

Jesper Møller
Jesper Møller ran Restaurant Julian at the Danish National Museum for many years before starting his own restaurant, Toldboden. With his organization Copenhagen Street Food, he launched the first street food market on the harbor island Papiroen. Møller opened its follow-up project Reffen in May 2018, coinciding with a second Copenhagen street food market at the Inner Harbor Bridge called The Bridge Street Kitchen. Møller operates this market together with the creators of the restaurant Noma.

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