Most people can understand the yearning to feel at home, but none more so than those who have started a new life overseas. It was this yearning that led Ben Haikin and his brother, Tom, to create Kürtősh, a welcoming, comfortable, cosy and unquestioningly accepting place for all who long for home.
The name Kürtősh comes from ‘kürtőskalács’, a traditional Hungarian pastry also known as chimney cake—a blessing for those of us who cannot roll our r’s. Boasting the perfect harmony of caramelised crispy flaky outer with soft inner walls, the cylindrical yeast pastry is often sold as street snacks from carts all over Hungary, and is now the main show at Kürtősh, where it is made fresh to order in full view of diners at the brand’s latest offering in Brisbane’s very bougie West Village, West End.
In fact, you can be assured that the kürtőskalács you’re feasting on at Kürtősh are the real deal, with Ben learning the art in the streets of Hungary.
“The Kürtősh is quite unique. The texture is crunchy outside because it’s topped off with a bit of sugar before it goes into the oven where it caramelises and becomes golden-brown. Then once they’re out of the oven we top them off with different flavours according to customers’ requests—we’ve got cinnamon sugar, nuts, Nutella…,” Ben says.
“It’s something we came across overseas and just fell in love with. This lovely couple—they had a little kiosk and the wife was in the front taking orders, while her husband was at the back baking them to order.
“This is exactly what we do in the store; we keep it in the front so you can get a bit of a feel—it’s a very sensory experience. You get the visual side of it, you can smell it, and you can watch it being cooked for you and then you get to taste it fresh out of the oven, just like on the streets of Hungary.”
Despite its famous fare and name, you may be surprised to learn that Kürtősh has no single nationality, and that Ben and his family are originally from Israel. Ben says this is done purposely, in order to create the all-over welcoming environment they intended Kürtősh to be.
“There’s no real focus on a country. The name is Hungarian, but everything else is a bit of a mix of backgrounds,” Ben says.
“Coming in, we had this idea we really wanted to bring to life—more of a fantasy really. We wanted to create a place that is like a second home for the locals. A local patisserie, but it represents something a bit different—childhood memories, mum’s recipes—a place that’s super inviting, super welcoming that is for everyone.
Since opening their first store in the Sydney suburb of Randwick in 2011, the Kürtősh brand has taken off like wildfire, now loved across three states with eight stores in Sydney, Melbourne, and now, Brisbane.
“Some companies grow a lot quicker, but for us it was important to grow organically and take it step-by-step,” Ben says.
“Also, to pick locations that are suitable for us, in that gut feeling. They feel good and feel like we can deliver the same message to our customers.”
As well as being drawn in by the scent of freshly baked kürtőskalács, customers are excited by the fact the stores are open late and serving up great coffee (a special brew created specifically for Kürtősh) until 10 P.M., seven days a week.
“When we opened the first one, it was really a fantasy to bring that one to life and see how people react to it, and the reaction was very strong, people really got excited by the idea,” Ben says.
“It’s hard to get a good cup of coffee anywhere after four P.M. in Australia.”
Visually, Kürtősh’s West Village store—which opened in December—is stunning in a way that perfectly suits its surrounds, with walls of windows letting in natural light, communal dining tables and curved timber banquettes and of course, the long display cases of various cakes and pastries waiting to tempt you.
While all the stores are similar in branding, Ben says it was important to them to ensure each retained its own character.
“You walk in and you feel like you’re at Kürtősh, because you get that vibe, that feel—the music and the welcoming of the staff—but then every store holds its own character,” he says.
“We may use some different furniture, different lighting. Even different coffee cups, which are exactly the same shape but a different colour. You go into Kürtősh in Melbourne and it looks a little bit different, it’s also really beautiful and has got its charm, and is suitable for that area.
“I used to do a lot of the design with the furniture for example, and we started off with a different (design) company, but now we’ve actually got a lovely lady within the company who is an interior designer, and she puts all the stores together for us. She’s doing a really great job.”
Cakes are something else Kürtősh does a bit differently—by Australian standards at least. The cake range, with encompasses the likes of sticky apple and walnut, flourless chocolate, hazelnut truffle slab, peanut butter ganache and raspberry cheesecake, is sold by weight.
“The idea was to get the customers to become a much bigger part of the experience of buying cakes,” Ben explains.
“You can choose any size you feel like, so if you’ve come in after a big lunch or a big dinner and want something little and sweet, you can get just a little bit of cake. It opens up so many opportunities for you. You can spend as much as you like—you don’t have to be rich to come—and you can try a bit of anything that catches your eye.
“We are very patient and really want to make people feel at home. You can choose whatever size piece you feel like.
“It opens up a very different market if you have a birthday party or some sort of office gathering. For instance, if one of your guests has a gluten-free requirement, or they don’t like something, you can go for a few different options and still pay by the gram. The options are really endless.”
On top of their huge variety of cakes, they bake sweet and savoury pastries every morning, including burekas, Danishes and croissants, and focus heavily on great coffee—something Ben is particularly passionate about, feeling very much at home behind the espresso machine.
In fact, despite being the owners, Ben and his brother maintain very active, hands-on roles throughout all their stores.
“Pretty much for the 10 years we’ve been running this business, I’ve been doing operations, so that’s very involved,” Ben says.
“Opening stores, working with the guys… I’m here seven days a week giving direction, sharing our vision, cleaning tables if needed, doing dishes if needed, making coffees—the lot.
“We’re very hands on, not afraid to get our hands dirty and we just do everything that’s needed to keep it running and make it great.”
Most people have heard the warnings about mixing family and business, but it certainly doesn’t seem to apply in the Kürtősh family, with Ben saying it’s been a pleasure to work with his brother, even after a decade.
“We have a very special relationship,” he says.
“You know, you can work with many people, but with him, doing business, it has just been a really magical journey for both of us to be honest. We are very similar in the way we think and communicate. We are both very calm.
“Being brothers is one thing, but we are similar individuals in the way we behave, which is very important. A lot of partnerships can go haywire very quickly, and most of them don’t survive in small businesses.”
On that topic—survival, that is—Ben says that although the past couple of pandemic years haven’t been easy with stores spread across states and travel restricted, having passionate staff improved the situation.
“Our branch manager in the Melbourne store (Hawthorne) is a lovely lady who worked with us for four years before taking the role and actually moving to Melbourne to manage our store,” he says.
“We put a lot of love into this, into our people as well—and we get it back from them. It makes our lives easier running and maintaining a brand that people love in three states.
“[COVID-19] wasn’t an easy time, but luckily for us we could make the adjustment to make it work still. The delivery companies are a big part of the reason some businesses are still alive… if not for them, it would have been a waste of time for some to open.
“But even when things are going well, you’ve got to be hands-on.”
With eight stores and over 100 employees, including five full time pastry chefs in Kürtősh’s central preparation kitchen in Sydney, the Kürtősh train isn’t about to slow down, with two new stores—one in Eveleigh, Sydney, and another in Elsternwick, Melbourne—due to open this year.