Garage Du Pont Combines Café With Carburetors In Potsdam
Photography courtesy of Stefan Anker & Jürgen Sendel
In 2012, Kai Desinger opened up Garage du Pont—an automotive themed restaurant built in a restored prewar petrol station just across the street from Glienicke Bridge. While not a particularly remarkable bridge by design, it is the historical home to one of the most tensioned moments of the Cold War. Recently it played stage to Tom Hanks in the period drama Bridge of Spies.
The former petrol station has played home to a number of gearhead enterprises over the years, and now it is in the hands of Francophile petrolhead and longtime Le Mans fan, Mr. Kai Desinger. In short order the Garage Du Pont has become a beacon for auto enthusiasts from the entire Potsdam/Berlin region, so much so that he now hosts an annual event “Les 24 Tours Du Pont” to celebrate the classic community in the area. Here’s the story on how Mr. Designer started building his dream.
Andrew Golseth: You weren’t always in the Automotive Garage/Cafe business, were you Kai?
Kai Desinger: By trade, I’m a mechanical engineer. I started two medical device companies, one in Irvine California and later the other in Berlin, which both proved to be quite successful. One I sold to an US enterprise, the German one to a Japanese blue chip company.
After being in that business for almost 12 years, I decided to step out of the big business arena. Not for retirement, as I was only 42 at the time, but to find some freedom to develop new ideas.
But then, sort of by accident, I came across this little property. It was an old shabby gas station on the east side of the Glienicke Bridge. On the left side there was an old prewar gas station, which during the Cold War still operated as a gas station. It was a Minol fuel station (Minol was the only petrochemical enterprise in the Ex GDR).
After reunification, there was a guy named Christian Timmermann and he rented this old gas station to work on and sell Indian Motorcycles. He imported a lot of nice motorbikes to Germany and became one of the biggest European Indian bike supplier. So, it was kind of a bike shop and little café. It was always a nice place to meet.
And then, after 15 years, it was taken over by another guy who worked on Harley Davidsons. When the owner decided to sell it, it just so happened to be about around the same time as my “early retirement.” A friend of mine said, “Instead of starting another startup medical company, maybe you should do something completely different?”
That’s when I heard this nice prewar gas station was for sale, which was built in 1937. It was really rough, in bad shape, but I made an offer and a deal was struck. With the help of my architect, I restored the building, and converted it into a French-style motorhead restaurant and event location with a little car museum attached to it.
AG: Why the French connection?
KD: Well, I have some historical ties to France. In my early days, when I was 18, I bought a Citroën DS. Ever since, I’ve been quite attached to French cars and French racing history, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So, instead of another high tech medical business, I started a second career in the restaurant industry to burn my money with style. (laughs)
We restored the building and opened this little restaurant and event location. Of course it had to have a nice name, so I decided on “Garage Du Pont,” which in French means “garage at the bridge.”
So we had a French restaurant with a little car museum flair. Because of its great location, I started to consider making more of it. Like the guys in England, the Bentley Boys, I saw a report about these guys having a nice dinner between all their Bentley drives in black tie, and I thought, “Well, that would be a great idea for all the motorheads in the area to have a nice spot to come in, have some food, and meet up.”
AG: When did you open up shop?
KD: In May 2012, we opened. Since then it’s been a very nice development, I mean restaurant-wise, but also as a kind of headquarters for regional motorheads. We have cars and coffee and a lot of visitors who visit the museum and restaurant.
And more and more, it’s getting popular. We’ve even gotten coverage on some Scandinavian television channels. So, when people see reports on TV about our garage, they come over and have a currywurst or steak fries when they’re in the Berlin area like your Editor Ted Gushue who came over from California for a currywurst. (laughs) You know, some French style food but easy-going, not some high-end restaurant.
You could be equally comfortable in a black tie as you’d be in jeans and t-shirt. And the interior, it’s very historical with nice patina, with old racing images of automobiles. It’s quite cozy and people seem to really enjoy it. On a summer weekend, we get a lot of motorheads who show up in their prewar cars, racing cars, etcetera. They stop in and have a coffee and some food.
AG: What can you tell us about the event that you host annually, Les 24 Tours Du Pont?
KD: That all came about four years ago. One night a friend and I, with a nice bottle of wine, were wondering how we could promote the little garage. My friend worked in marketing for Bentley for years, a true motorhead. After that big bottle of wine, we had the idea, “Why not have a sort of 24 Hours of Le Mans here in Potsdam?”
Perhaps after the wine wore off, we realized that 24 hours was a little too heavy for this little gas-station-turned-restaurant and posh residential neighborhood surrounding.
So we decided instead of 24 hours, we would do 24 Tours Du Pont. Tours means “rounds” in French—so, 24 Rounds of Du Pont. You know, it sounds a little bit like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a kind of tribute to the 24 Hours.
AG: I assume politically that was much easier to get approved?
KD: No, even that was not easy. I don’t know how it is in the United States, but here in Germany, politically speaking, we are very “green” focused. More and more people don’t like these stinky, old, noisy cars. They love to see them in museums, but not so much at their front door or driving past their villa—at least that’s what I thought at first.
As it turned out, it was not so bad as I had expected. It didn’t take nearly as much time to convince most of the neighbors and politicians, the mayor and so on, because at the end of it all they were totally excited. Our first 24 Tours Du Pont was in 2012.
AG: How’d the first 24 Tours Du Pont go?
KD: Thankfully, I have good ties with Alfa Romeo (Fiat Chrysler Automotive, FCA) and they immediately said, “We’ll support you.” So, they brought out their 2800 Le Mans from the museum in Arese.
They decided to send a driver from Italy—apparently there’s only one mechanic who is allowed to drive this valuable car. It was spectacular. He drove the car in our triangle course, which was great for the press and spectators. To see such a special car make our debut event, this amazing Le Mans racecar, it was very special.
Now going into its fourth year so it’s getting more and more popular. We’re getting some incredibly special cars participating now. We like that it’s growing but, honestly, it’s okay we’re not trying to make it too big.
We want to keep it under the radar somewhat because we don’t have the space to compete with Goodwood or anything like that. Walter Röhrl praised our first event, saying the 24 Tours reminded him of the early days of Goodwood, which was quite the compliment.
We’re not charging any fees, not even entry fees, so everybody’s welcome free of charge. The drivers and the fans come from all over, too, so it’s nice to have such great diversity. I mean it was a crazy idea, two friends drinking a bottle of wine, and now it’s become this. I believe we had around 12,000 visitors show up this past year.
AG: When’s the next 24 Tours Du Pont?
KD: It’s always the last weekend of August.
AG: How many cars generally attend?
KD: Right now, we have up to 40 for the competition, from prewar up to 1977 or so. The youngest car is always 30 years old because in Germany 30 is the earliest regulation for vintage cars. We have cars broken up into different groups, and each car needs to drive 24 rounds, in tribute to the 24 hours.
However we also have approximately 150 to 160 cars in place for a Concours d’Elegance. We get all the cars parked on a big lawn on the lakeside, which is full of cars from the sponsors and collectors in attendance.
AG: So, a little bit of everything. How long is one round of the course?
KD: One round is just 1.2 kilometers, but they don’t drive all 24 rounds at once and they have to complete at least one pit stop. The heritage club is our old gas station where everyone must pit. It’s a triangular shaped course along the lake, and then in front of the garage is a big lane. All the cars have to do at least one stop and driver change.
It’s for entertainment. We want the guests and spectators to really see the cars. It’s not about racing. It’s about showing the cars moving. Nobody can win; it’s not really for race guys. It’s more for the relaxed type of motorhead who will enjoy their hobby and wants to share it with others.
Everybody is really positive and it’s very intimate. You can walk the whole course within 30 minutes. You can even walk into the driver area to see the cars up close and speak with the drivers. And if you want to see other things you can visit our vintage boat harbor, where you can see many old ships and boats like Riva, Bösch, or Chris Crafts. It really is a great time.