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Camper Steps Out in Barcelona | Casa Camper and FoodBall

Quirky shoe company Camper knows that food and shelter, like clothing, are basic needs. Now it's satisfying all three with a new restaurant and hotel in Barcelona.

It takes a daring shoe company to design a pair of mismatched sandals. It takes an ingenious one to convince millions of people around the world to buy its eccentric creations. Camper (which operates more than 130 stores worldwide and sells to everyone from Nicole Kidman to the president of China) has managed to become Spain's most popular shoe company and an international success story by producing shoes that aren't just comfortable, stylish and sturdily built, but also adorned with odd flourishes. Some pairs have three flowers on the left shoe and only two on the right, for instance; others have poems imprinted on the soles.

Last year, Camper did something even bolder: It went into both the restaurant and the hotel business, launching the fast-food chain FoodBall and a boutique hotel called Casa Camper in Barcelona. The company plans to open five to 10 more FoodBall branches over the next three years, mostly in Spain; it also intends to open FoodBall's first international outpost, in Berlin. And the second Casa Camper, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, will open in Mallorca in less than two years.

"We didn't want to diversify in the normal way," says Miguel Fluxá, Camper's 29-year-old head of business development. "While I'm sure we could successfully put the Camper name on watches and sunglasses, we wanted to do something that we, and our customers, would appreciate as useful. Food and shelter, like shoes, are a basic need."

Fluxá's father, who is Camper's president, began thinking about opening hotels and restaurants more than 10 years ago at Camper's headquarters on the Spanish island of Mallorca, in a building near the one where Fluxá's great-grandfather opened the family's first shoe factory in 1877. As quirky as Camper's shoes are, they're designed primarily as walking shoes—inspired by Mallorcan peasant espadrilles—and Fluxá's vision for FoodBall and Casa Camper is to maintain that same mix of iconoclasm and utilitarianism. "The word camper means peasant in Catalan," Fluxá explains, "and we still believe that everything we do should be connected to the land." In fact, two years ago, while working on plans for FoodBall and Casa Camper, Camper opened a think tank in Mallorca to develop and spread its back-to-basics philosophy, attracting the likes of Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, to its first brainstorming session.

Casa Camper, a 25-room hotel in Barcelona's up-and-coming El Raval neighborhood, is in a 19th-century gray stone building, but the interior is ultramodern. The hotel was designed by Fernando Amat—the Terence Conran of Spain and the owner of the Barcelona design shop Vinçon—who created the interior for Camper's first shoe store in Barcelona.

"The name is Casa Camper because the idea is that the guests use the hotel in the same way they would use their house," Amat explains. "I started out with a list of hotel mistakes and clichés. For example, I personally hate minibars. Here, when guests are hungry, they can go to the downstairs lounge and grab a juice or a sandwich." Amat also finds that most hotel rooms don't offer enough space to hang clothes, so in each of the bedrooms at Casa Camper, there's a row of hanger pegs along an entire wall. Each guest receives a key that opens two doors, one to the bedroom and bathroom, and the other to a "minilounge" across the hall.The lounge has a flat-screen TV, a pull-out couch and a Mexican hammock. Most of the furniture in the bedrooms and lounges comes from Vinçon.

Camper has gone to great expense to make the hotel aggressively eco-conscious. There are solar panels on the roof, which heat water, and a water-recycling system in each of the rooms; Casa Camper is the first hotel in the world to install such a system. "We're not cluttering up our bathrooms with boxes and bottles of unnecessary products," Fluxá adds. "There will be shampoo and soap. Anything else is available upon request or can be bought in the lobby."

FoodBall, Camper's nine-month-old fast-food restaurant, is next door to Casa Camper. The company hired Martí Guixé, who has designed most of Camper's shops around the world, to create the space. (Guixé also came up with the concept for much of Camper's packaging, including the signature shopping bags, which bear the phrase "If you don't need it, don't buy it.") Guixé divided the FoodBall space into two rooms that connect in the middle and painted childlike illustrations and diagrams on the walls. Guests place their orders in one room—the menu, written in funky lettering, is hand-painted on the wall behind the counter—then take their trays into the bright, green dining room to eat. There are no tables or chairs in the restaurant. Instead, the seating area consists of huge concrete steps that stretch in three levels across an entire wall. Diners can look out onto the street through giant picture windows. The design is meant to create the feeling of eating on a stoop.

The company's commitment to environmental issues is in evidence here too. FoodBall's plates and cups, made of sugarcane and corn, are all biodegradable. One wall of the dining room has a flat-screen TV that plays ecologically themed videos; on one afternoon, it was footage of endangered Mallorcan donkeys.

FoodBall's most radical gesture is its menu: The restaurant specializes in rice balls, a concept devised by consulting chef Paco Guzmán, owner of Barcelona's innovative Santa Maria restaurant. (Guzmán got the idea after a cooking stint in Japan.) These rice balls—handmade on the premises by full-time chef Javier Bonet—are intended as a healthy, environmentally sound spin on fast food. Made with whole-grain organic rice from the Murcia region, they come with seven choices of fillings, all organic: seaweed and tofu, chickpeas, vegetables such as grated beet root and carrots, kidney beans, anchovies and artichokes, chicken, mushrooms and Swiss chard. The balls can be dipped in three sauces: tangy coconut-curry, white miso or soy and ginger. On paper, FoodBall's menu concept sounds almost too weird, but the rice balls are surprisingly delicious, fresh-tasting and light.

Camper's decision to launch FoodBall and Casa Camper in El Raval, a neighborhood west of Las Ramblas that's traditionally the poorest quarter of historic Barcelona, is itself a pioneering choice. "We wanted to show guests another part of Barcelona that is not so obvious," Fluxá says. FoodBall and Casa Camper are in the more gentrified northern part of El Raval; the southern section, with mazelike alleys that resemble streets in a Moroccan medina, is still somewhat rough. Near FoodBall and Casa Camper, little music stores and restaurants have opened next to older Pakistani mom-and-pop shops and local landmarks, like the seafood restaurant Casa Leopoldo, favored by intellectuals and writers, and Escribà, an Art Deco pâtisserie and café specializing in avant-garde chocolate desserts. The all-white, Richard Meier-designed MACBA building (housing Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art) opened in El Raval 10 years ago.

As the neighborhood changes, "we hope many of the old places will manage to hang around," Fluxá says. Camper commissioned a photographer to take pictures of many of El Raval's dusty old shops and facades, images that decorate Casa Camper's walls. "We think that our impact on the neighborhood will be a good one," Fluxá adds. "This part of Barcelona has been forgotten for decades, but it would also be a pity for the Raval to grow too quickly and lose its personality. To find that perfect balance is never easy." So far, Camper seems to be succeeding.

Gisela Williams has written for Wallpaper, Elle, Departures and Travel + Leisure.

Published February 2005
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