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Food and Drink

Cutting edge robots at Germany's first doner kebab fair

It goes by the uninspiring name "FFDR-V1004", but Ahmet Kalyoncu is convinced his meat-cutting robot will transform the doner kebab industry, which held its first conference in Berlin this weekend.

"It's going to change the market," said the 34-year-old Cypriot, while crowds gathered around the machine as it sliced the meat off a huge doner kebab spit, at tremendous speed, and, as he put it, "without ever getting bored."

The robot has a digital camera to sense the changing thickness of the meat, producing a perfect, tasty, wafer-thin slice every time. FFDR-V1004 is also phenomenally efficient, creating as many as 120 portions of kebab in an hour.

"I got the idea from my cousin who is an engineer," said Kalyoncu, the European sales manager for the "Doner-Robotu" company, who now lives in Vienna and spent his formative years slicing kebabs in south London after school.

"It's the first kebab robot anywhere in the world," he told AFP, speaking English with a strong cockney accent.

As well as the speed, the main advantage of the robot is hygiene, he said.

"Doner kebab slicers, when they are cutting the meat, get very sweaty because they are close to the grill. We take that problem out, so it's better in the end for the customer."

But is Kalyoncu not worried his robot could put kebab shop owners out of work?

"At the end of the day, you still need people to stay there. What we're saying is: it's more hygienic and it's easier. Why not just let the machine do the work?"

Judging by the interest around his machine, many of Germany's army of kebab shop owners may soon be doing exactly that.

- Born in Berlin -

Although many people assume the doner kebab - the staple snack of students and drunken late-night revellers the world over - is a Turkish delicacy, in fact the world's first doner was sliced in Berlin in 1971.

Doner folklore has it that a Turkish immigrant in Berlin, Mahmut Aygun, first put his wafer-thin strips of meat in an open pitta bread, added salad and lashings of sauce and hey presto, the doner kebab was born.

And nearly 40 years later, Germany is the snack's undisputed home.

"There are more than 15,000 kebab shops in Germany, employing some 74,000 people," said Tarkan Tasyumruk, president of the Association of Turkish Doner Producers in Europe (ATDID), as he opened the fair.

"Annual sales in Germany amount to 2.5 billion euros (3.3 billion dollars). That shows we are one of the biggest fast-foods in Germany," he added to a packed audience including Turkey's vice-consul.

According to ATDID figures, every day, more than 400 tonnes of doner kebab meat is produced in Germany by around 350 firms. "There are more producers in Germany than the rest of Europe put together," said Tasyumruk.

The doner kebab has become at least as popular a fast-food snack in Germany as the home-grown currywurst (sausage sprinkled with curry powder) or frankfurters, driven mainly by the largest Turkish population outside Turkey.

Priced at between 2.50 and four euros, an estimated 400 million doners are gobbled up every year in Germany, working out at five for every person.

"I would say we are the most successful fast food in the country," added Tasyumruk.

At the fair, representatives of every possible facet of doner kebab making crowded into two small rooms at a conference centre in central Berlin.

Firms making kebab shop clothes, grills, meat refrigerators and the shrink wrap needed to transport the enormous doners mingled with dozens of journalists from all over the world, talking doner in a mix of English, Turkish and German.

And demonstrating how important the industry is in the country, German motoring giant Mercedes-Benz and insurance group Allianz had also set up shop at the fair, keen to have a presence in such an influential market.

No prizes for guessing what was served for lunch as attendees shunned the far too healthy fruit salad and yoghurt in the cafeteria in favour of a steaming hot doner, fresh from the spit.

Sliced, of course, by FFDR-V1004.