Many will remember the joy of getting toy trains as children and watching them zoom down the electric track. Now, somewhat unusually, that innocent excitement can now be relived at a popular Czech restaurant. Located in Brno, Prague and elsewhere, Výtopna is a venue like no other where toy engines – not waiters – deliver drinks to your table. For a country not big on theme-restaurants it has become surprisingly popular: a big hit especially for families with young kids.
Parent: “It’s cool isn’t it?”
Little boy: “Yeah!”
Parent: “Have you ever seen a restaurant like this?”
Little boy: “No. Not one with tracks and locomotives!”
For families with young children, Výtopna is immediately compelling: kids are drawn to hundreds of metres of track which run the length of the venue, where they’ll spot miniature stations, underpasses and bridges, while parents can talk. All look out for what’s coming next: will it be a 19th century steam engine, a passenger super train or a friendly well-known chugger who comes down the track?
“Thomas! Thomas the tank engine!”
The kids watch wide-eyed especially if it’s their first time here. The idea of having a restaurant using hobby trains was businessman Petr Fridrich’s. He told me more when we met recently at Prague’s Výtopna on Wenceslas Square:
“I myself am a collector of old model trains and so you could say it was my hobby. Certainly this idea was something different: you have to consider there’s already a lot of competition on the market. If you can come up with something new it really helps. In the services industry you want to attract attention.”
That includes, in the very near future, upgrading again to set his venue even more apart. It’s all about convenience and choice.
“In the future visitors will be able to even order through an automated system by using iPads that will be found at every table. I think that will add another measure of comfort and there’s no denying that electronics will play a greater and greater role in the restaurant business in the coming years.”
The only drawback for kids (or their parents) is that at Výtopna the trains only stop specifically at your table when you order more drinks! So you may find yourself ordering an extra water or coffee just to see a train arrive. Other than that, no complaints: Výtopna has proven extremely popular not only with Czechs and Slovaks but also with tourists from further abroad. One British couple I spoke to said they found out about Výtopna on the Internet; they said they had wanted to try something novel or unique:
“It really is very different.”
“We have a friend back home who works in the train industry and he would love this!”
Others wholeheartedly agree. This older couple from Slovakia brought their grandson Michal, who is seven:
“It’s our first time here but we planned to come for a long time. Our grandson knows all about trains and steam engines and knows what a boiler room is so he was excited.”
“It really is an unusual place. It’s unique and real and the kids’ eyes are like saucers when they see it. It’s a wonderful experience.”
“We have a train set at our cottage and he plays with it all the time!”
Petr Fridrich estimates that up to 50 percent of clientele are foreigners and certainly the day we visited, Czech was far from the only language being spoken. German, English, Slovak, Italian were all heard, and probably a few more I’ve forgotten. The trains are truly a big draw.
As for the engines that make the rounds, they are produced by a classic model maker and not surprisingly there is plenty of memorabilia merchandise is on sale, including conductor’s whistles, t-shirts, caps and other items for your little engineer. Petr Fridrich says that many Czech dads and sons especially (although we saw lots of little girls having just as much fun) have a soft spot for model trains. Mr Fridrich says the tradition here goes back years.
“I think that everyone has seen or had an electric train collection at one time or another. There are a lot of such hobbyists in Bohemia and electric trains have a tradition here. And compared to some toys, trains are very pleasant.”
Off-hand one would be hard-pressed to name another establishment in Prague like this one. Výtopna now operates as a franchise and is looking to open in at least three more Czech cities.
“We are able to offer any one in getting into the franchise all of the necessary knowhow and support, including guidelines and regulations for the renovation of sites to accommodate the rails. Other support includes bolstering the brand name, providing new menus twice per year, helping support the identity of the restaurant and so on.
“Franchising is still relatively new in the Czech Republic: there are some, for example, that already exist that I don’t think were planned all that well and I don’t think will last. We’ve done everything to build up our restaurant and from the very beginning relied on the services of a professional advisor to help with concrete plans.”
“Výtopna is ready to expand abroad and can. We just registered our trademark in the Europe Union and we believe the franchise has a lot of potential abroad. To be honest, we would not be able to say we are the only railway restaurant in some countries, but from what I know similar venues abroad are usually unique establishments put together by a collector but lacking a broader framework. We have worked through the details on a franchise basis and I think gone further in that respect than anyone else.”