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Coffee notes from Berlin
Our European coffee correspondent, Edward Jobson, gives us a taste of post-lockdown life from Berlin and a glimpse of what could be in store for cafés and coffee lovers back in the UK.
Remember Europe? Well don’t worry, it’s still there, across the Channel. I should know, because I’m writing these notes from Berlin, in my flat in the post-hipster neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. I say post-hipster because I am reliably informed that all of the hipsters have now moved south of the Spree to Kreuzberg. In any case, they left behind some great coffee places. And vintage bike shops. And yoga studios. You get the idea. To introduce myself a little, I am a retail consultant by day and a coffee enthusiast by – well, also by day. And as such, I have been focusing my attention recently on what retailers could and should be doing to safeguard their businesses during the Covid crisis. Cafés have been hit particularly hard by the lockdown, usually relying on high footfall and high volume to turn a profit. It’s been a tough couple of months, but with the German government slowly beginning to ease restrictions, locals are starting to get an impression of what the new post-lockdown reality could look like for Prenzlauer Berg’s many cafés, bars, restaurants, Imbisse, Gaststätten, Wirtshäuser und Kneipen (nb. Germans have lots of different words for essentially the same thing). But first, let’s remind ourselves of the situation back in the UK.

Stay Alert. Well that seems pretty straightforward to me. The UK government is clearly instructing Brits to drink more coffee. A fine bit of practical advice, indeed. There was to follow however, a less encouraging announcement; that prohibitive lockdown measures for the hospitality industry are set to remain in place, meaning that the nation’s cafés – including Lancaster’s beloved Atkinson’s – are facing the continued prospect of running limited operations (takeaway and online) until at least July 1st. Disappointing news for business owners and coffee lovers alike, but at least there is finally a glimmer of light at the end of the lockdown tunnel.

Alright then, you may say, what’s another 6 weeks without a flawlessly brewed filter from the Hall? You’re prepared. You just picked up that kilo of Red Bourbon Honey from the shop. Your Wilfa CCM-1500S is humming away in the corner of your kitchen. And when you run out of homebrew, you can always pop down to the Castle for a takeaway latte – preferably mid-exercise, the Lancashire Constabulary would like me to add. Good, well that’s the spirit, and after all, 6 weeks is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Or at least it didn’t use to be. Times have certainly changed. The support of the government’s furlough system has been warmly welcomed, but businesses are nevertheless facing a battle to get through this unprecedented period of disruption. And even when restrictions are lifted, things may not quite look or feel the same as they were before Covid.

Back in Berlin, I set off on a stroll through the leafy streets and squares of Prenzlauer Berg. Face mask in one jacket pocket, hand sanitiser in the other. I’d like to see for myself how local cafés and businesses are faring following the further lifting of restrictions this week. For weeks, the streets have been eerily quiet, but recently the hum of activity has returned, with more and more shops rolling up the shutters, and Berliners out and about in greater numbers. Since Frau Merkel announced national lockdown measures back in mid-March, cafés have been reduced to offering takeaway food and drink only, while others remain closed altogether. The latter category includes Café Kraft on Schivelbeiner Strasse, one of my local favourites. The super hip barista staff usually serve up a cracking flat white, but it’s quite a compact place and apparently they haven’t found a way to open that adheres to the current social distancing guidelines. The shutters are down and someone’s sprayed “STAY AT HOME” in blue and green paint on the pavement outside. On closer inspection however, it appears that they have converted the kitchen and back room into a takeaway pizza setup. I’m impressed by the quick repurposing of space and the clearly marked pick-up points signifying a link up with one of the many home delivery apps based in Berlin.
Fig. 1 - Your author popping back to Café Kraft for a pizza later that evening.

Round the corner from Café Kraft, overlooking the S-Bahn tracks is Unser Café
, in normal times a popular spot for breakfast or brunch. There is a short, orderly line leading out of the front door and people are sat on benches outside, sipping coffee from takeaway cups and nibbling pastel de natas from the excellent in-house Portuguese bakery. Every other bench is cordoned off with red tape and there are markings on the floor to indicate the 1.5m Abstand distance for those in the queue, but otherwise it feels like an encouragingly familiar scene.

I cross the footbridge over the S-Bahn tracks and walk through Mauerpark, pausing briefly to observe the denouement of a particularly competitive game of pétanque. Passing sunbathers, joggers and buskers, I reach the top of Oderberger Strasse and am met by the delightful scent of roasting coffee gently wafting its way towards me from Bonanza Coffee Heroes. From the exterior, the café looks a hive of activity. The main entrance is closed, but a table is set up outside the kitchen window, from which steam is emanating and masked baristas are busily serving up coffees. Neatly arranged benches and additional outdoor seating are attracting a decent crowd to a nice little sun spot out front. Joining the queue, I notice that a stack of 500g and 1kg bags of coffee beans are also on sale; a smart ploy to move excess stock. I order, and waiting for my cortado, I glance over at the PAR ice cream parlour next door, which seems to be open for business as usual, with another socially distanced line snaking out of the front door and down the street. PAR has some signage on the window instructing customers on the new ordering procedure. Nothing unusual here, Germans are fond of rules of the best of times, but the signs make for interesting reading. Entry only with a facemask, keep 1.5m Abstand at all times, follow the marked one-way system, and card payment only. I find this last rule the most striking – Germany still has a very cash-based economy, with card payment adoption rates among the lowest in Europe; businesses limiting themselves to only accepting card payment is quite a big deal in cash-loving Berlin.
Fig. 2 – Entry only for customers wearing masks at PAR ice creamery.

I turn back and walk down Eberswalder Strasse towards the U-Bahn station and stop outside Zeit für Brot, a popular artisan bakery chain in Berlin, well positioned on the busy intersection with Schönhauser Allee. There’s nearly always a queue outside – even pre-lockdown – and today’s no exception. The big bay windows have been turned into makeshift benches outside, but peering through the glass, I can see chairs upside down on tables and there are no customers seated inside. I promised my girlfriend I would pick up a loaf of her favourite bread, so I finish my cortado, pop on my mask and join the back of the queue.
Fig. 3 – Innovative outdoor seating and socially distanced queueing at Zeit für Brot.

A dense block of Vollkornbrot tucked under my arm, I march down Schönhauser Allee past several cafés, bakeries and restaurants. All employ similar signage to PAR; floor markings and red cordon tape are also popular features. I stop at SPRO, a café specialising in scones, a relatively unknown and exotic rarity here in Berlin. They only opened fairly recently, so I’m intrigued to see how business is going and more importantly, if they have any clotted cream in stock, as advertised by a poster next to the front door. They are operating a one-in-one-out policy, so I wait outside for the previous customer to leave, which gives me time to pick out a particularly fluffy looking hazelnut and brown sugar scone in the window. I go inside, give my order and ask the friendly Canadian owner how things are going. Business dipped during the first few weeks of lockdown, but he’s been able to remain open throughout thanks to the relatively relaxed restrictions put in place by the local government in Berlin - certainly not as stringent compared to many other parts of Europe anyway. Things have picked up a bit recently, especially with the sunny weather, but he is still making less dough and baking fewer scones each morning than he was before lockdown. And the clotted cream? Yes! They are still importing it from Cornwall, the supply chain has held firm. He pops a small jar of the stuff into a paper bag with my scone and I make way for the next customer.
Fig. 4 – SPRO bringing a taste of Cornwall to the German capital!

So there you have it, a short coffee tour of my little corner of post-lockdown Berlin. You’re welcome to visit anytime - I promise it’s worth the 14 days in quarantine! Anyway, gleaned from my wanderings, here’s a few tips for café owners looking to expand operations once restrictions loosen a little back in the UK, and a summary of what café goers can expect from the new post-Covid coffee experience.

Social Distancing is here to Stay

Outside, inside, in the queue; social distancing is the new normal. Initially, cafes should look to maximise outdoor spaces and seating, where there will be fewer restrictions and customers feel more comfortable than in enclosed spaces. And when indoor becomes an option again (in the next week or so here in Berlin), innovative seating configurations will be required to allow individuals and groups to enjoy their coffee without worrying about transgressing social distancing guidelines.

Rules, Signage and Floor Markings

Luckily, like Germans, Brits love an orderly queue, so café owners can assist by marking out 1.5m or 2m gaps in front of entrances, counters or tills. A phased lifting of restrictions means that rules will regularly change; keeping customers up to date with the latest procedures for ordering, paying and consuming will be key to ensuring an efficient transaction and a safe customer experience.
Fig. 5 – Makeshift floor markings highlighting the latest restrictions are a common sight now in Berlin.

Don’t Forget your Face Mask

As in many Far Eastern cities, face masks will likely become a common and unremarkable sight in other parts of the world hit hardest by coronavirus, including the UK. If masks become mandatory for customers in shops or cafés for any period, this will obviously curb the ability to serve food and drink inside. In addition to masks, café owners will want to kit out their staff with all the PPE required to meet government rules and make them feel safe at work. Gloves, Perspex screens, hand sanitiser stations, even contactless thermometers may all become commonplace.

Sorry, we don’t take Cash

Cash was already on the way out before the current crisis, but its departure may now be hastened by businesses unwilling to expose staff to any possible hygiene risk by handling cash. Elderly customers may require additional assistance if they are to make a reluctant transition to cashless – preferably contactless - payment.

Enhanced Online Offerings

During lockdown I’ve been ordering my beans from the excellent Berlin-based roasters Coffee Circle. They started out as an online business and it’s been interesting to watch them expand their ecommerce operations even further. Via the website, you can now order tasting packs, #stayhome boxes, sign up to regular deliveries via a subscription model, or take an online barista course. A lot of brick-and-mortar coffee sellers and cafés have had to shift a big chunk of their business online to survive the lockdown period - including Atkinson's, with considerable success - and they should continue to invest in ecommerce through enhanced online customer offers. Maintaining partnerships with home delivery platform providers will also be valuable.

Flexibility is Key

Both the UK and German governments have made it clear that any lifting of restrictions is contingent on the rate of infection (R) remaining below a certain level. If cases climb, lockdown measures may have to be reimposed, and businesses should be ready for this potential see-saw. For cafés, this means being ready to repurpose space quickly according to sudden changes in restrictions. Seating may have to make way for delivery pick-up points and serving counters may become packing stations. There will be plenty to keep everyone on their toes as café owners and café goers navigate the uncertain road out of lockdown together.

Thanks for reading and stay healthy,

Edward Jobson
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Cherry / Butterscotch / Sultana
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Santa Maria Natural
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