What's it like when a network television show comes to town and does a program about you?
That was the plot of "Bye Bye Birdie," but it happened in real life to Cindy Kahl, co-owner of Speisekammer, a restaurant in Alameda that serves authentic German food and beer with authentic Bavarian gemütlichkeit.
In the 12 years since it opened on Lincoln Avenue, Speisekammer -- the name means "pantry" -- has become an Alameda fixture and a home-away-from-home for the East Bay's sizable German community, including the mechanics at the local German auto dealerships; a Bavarian dance troupe that meets there every week; and a stammtisch, a group of men (plus a few women) who have a reserved table every Wednesday night where they can hang out and speak German together.
Right now, the place is packed with soccer fans who watch the World Cup on huge television screens that have been set up (cheering for the German team, of course).
But last fall, Cindy and her business partner started hearing rumors that the "Dirndl Girls" -- who had been hired to liven up the atmosphere during Oktoberfest -- were behaving improperly with the customers.
Enter Charles Stiles, an international security expert, and his reality show on the Food Network, "Mystery Diners." He set up an elaborate sting operation, with four cameras in the dining room, three more in the bar, one in the kitchen and one in the front patio where a temporary beer garden had been set up for Oktoberfest.
He also sent two undercover "mystery diners" (hence the show's name) to infiltrate the place, one as a waiter-in-training and the other posing as a customer. Then Cindy, her partner and Stiles sat in a control room next door and observed the goings-on in real time on 11 different screens.
They watched in amazement as it turned out to be even worse than they thought. Two of the Dirndl Girls were drinking on the job, charging customers for shots that they should have been giving away (and pocketing the money), rigging contests in favor of their own friends and even stealing tips from the waiters. And as a bonus, they also discovered that one of the waiters was playing the two owners against each other to leave work early.
Naturally, it was "auf wiedersehen" for the Dirndl Girls. (The waiter got off with a reprimand.) So what was the upshot? A public relations disaster.
Reason: over Cindy's protests, the show said Speisekammer is in Oakland instead of Alameda, and Alamedans are very particular about not living in Oakland's shadow.
"People were furious!" says Cindy. "I got hate mail. People assumed it was our fault and said they'd never come here again."
But please don't blame her, folks. She tried to warn Stiles, and she thought her message got across. So she was as shocked as everyone else when the program finally aired, using the dreaded O-word.
"We love Alameda!" she says. "That's why we moved here. We wanted to live here, and we still do."
Besides, how can you pass up the most authentic German food this side of Munich? The wiener schnitzel, the sauerbraten, the schweinebraten -- oh mein Gott! If you want to see this episode, you can watch it at Comcast On Demand under the title "Oktobertheft."
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.