Success with an ‘X’ in Madrid
An Aussie expat introduces hip and healthy cuisine to the capital by opening two cafes in six years.
Every weekday in a day-glo green cafe, businessmen in pinstriped suits carry trays loaded with toasted sandwiches and slices of quiche, manoeuvring past businesswomen seated in front of fresh salads and brightly-coloured glasses of juice.
The scene looks like it could be set in a hip Manhattan eatery, but in actuality it’s in the heart of Spain’s economic centre. It’s bright and bustling and, most notably, healthy.
It’s 2pm at Xanacuk, and these Aussie-owned eateries are changing the way Madrid eats lunch.
The first Xanacuk restaurant opened in April 2003 as the brainchild of 35-year-old Sydney native Nick Lucie-Smith and his Spanish wife, Maria de Salas.
“We saw the need for light, healthy food that people could eat while maintaining the crazy, hectic lifestyle we all have,” explained Lucie. “We saw the trend of people looking after themselves health-wise.”
How it all started
The couple met several years prior while studying hotel and restaurant management at the Hotel Institute Montreux in Switzerland, but Lucie’s experience in the food industry goes back even further.
He started out as a busboy in his parents’ Sydney coffee shop, waiting tables and learning the tricks of the trade. From there, he worked his way up from waiter at a pizzeria to assistant banquet manager of Sydney’s prestigious Hotel InterContinental, supervising a team of wait staff through the tourist rush of the 2000 Olympic Games. At the end of 2000, he followed Maria to her native Madrid.
“About a year into our time here, we decided to mount an establishment,” recalled Lucie.
The first Xanacuk restaurant opened on calle Orense, a prime location near where the Windsor Building once stood. “We defined a raw product base, and Maria is the person behind all the recipes.”
The menu features paninis with names derived straight from the neighbourhood’s nearby streets and buildings: the Torre Picasso features aubergine, courgette, roasted peppers, red onion, feta cheese and spinach on a mollete roll; the Azca is stuffed with turkey, cranberry sauce, avocado, alfalfa sprouts and melted cheese.
“Maria is constantly trying new products,” said Lucie. “We’re the guinea pigs at home. It’s good fun.”
Xanacuk’s menu is loaded with inventive combinations of fresh ingredients; from the tandoori chicken wrap with mango chutney to the selection of herb-laced quiches and the Marakech-influenced cous cous salad studded with garbanzos and chunks of pumpkin.
“We bring out new products based on what we think and on what people are asking for,” the owner explained, stressing that they use no preservatives and that nearly everything is made same-day, on-site – quite an alternative to the local bares de toda la vida with prawn heads scattered on the floor.
So where did they get that kooky name? ‘Xana’ comes from sana – ‘healthy’ in Spanish, and ‘cuk’ is simply ‘cook’, to form this entrepreneurial expatriate’s term for ‘healthy cooking’.
“It’s a play on words thought up by Maria’s cousin. The logo and product imagery were designed by a friend; the chalkboard menus are drawn up by a cousin,” Lucie laughed. “We keep it all in the family.”
It may have started as a small family idea, but it has gained quite a following. Shortly after the Orense restaurant opened, plans were drawn up for a second location in the central Malasaña barrio. Lucie helped to build the first two restaurants with his own two hands, and he is currently planning the opening of a third location, which will be the largest Xanacuk yet, boasting two storeys and an even bigger business lunch crowd.
Meanwhile, the Malasaña establishment caters to the residents of this historic party neighbourhood, serving take-away items – “lots of hot dishes and kitchen shortcuts” – an idea that Lucie would like to expand upon.
“It could be the future of Xanacuk,” he explained. “We want to expand our name and our product line. In a future moment, it could become a franchise, but not at this point in time.”
For now, he said: “We want to open more locations under our own esteem.”
Building a successful business abroad brings certain challenges for a non-native. “First was learning the language,” he remembers. “I did three months of classes and then just picked up a lot through working, talking with builders and customers.”
However, the biggest challenge overall is paperwork. “Red tape – there’s a lot. Things aren’t always as clear as they’re made out to be. You can end up wasting a lot of time.”
Time is not something that Lucie has a lot of these days, as word spreads throughout the capital about Xanacuk’s flavourful, original menu items where an average meal costs between EUR10 and 15.
“We make a point in all our shops of not having the typical Spanish food,” he explained. “Even though some of the typical things are fantastic, we identify another level. The acceptance has been good.”
The professional crowd – women especially – caught on first, happy to have something healthy and easy to take away.
For example, the restaurant’s popular prescriptive juices, featuring whole carrots, apples, oranges and more, have names like ‘energético’ and ‘inmune’, denoting what kind of health benefits the particular combination brings.
Now, Lucie is starting to see Xanacuk’s style infiltrate Malasaña.
“All of a sudden, we see that every restaurant on the street now has a juice menu,” he said.
If an expat can exert that much influence over a legendary Spanish neighbourhood, it’s fair to say: he’s arrived.
Kristen Bernardi / Expatica
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