Can you open a new bar and restaurant during corona?

Melissa und Christian Günther operate Kreuzberg's newest neighborhood bar. Their California cook finally arrived. But so did corona.

Christian and Melissa. They'd rather be 86ing daily specials. 
Christian and Melissa. They'd rather be 86ing daily specials. Volkmar Otto

Berlin-A Friday morning in Kreuzberg. The sun is shining, cyclists cruise along Möckernstraße near Gleisdreieckpark. The cold inches its way into your clothes.

We're meeting a young, binational couple that has made the misguided, but not entirely voluntary, decision to open a gastro-pub during a pandemic – in a still undiscovered spot of Kreuzberg on the border to Schöneberg – in the newly designed Möckernkiez, where new apartment blocks are attracting a young, urban clientele looking for something to do in the evening.

That something could be The Neighborhood Berlin, a gastro-pub. Except for this damn pandemic. Melissa and Christian Günther wanted to open a hip bar that gave neighbors a place to meet in the evening for a sophisticated cocktail and get to know each other and then, when hunger strikes, share a few chicken wings or Californian sliders (American for 'mini burger').

But: Life. They opened the bar, anyway, under the most difficult conditions. Now Melissa and Christian have to be creative to survive their first winter. The cornerstone of their survival strategy is called: "Take away". 

Albany or Kreuzberg? Hard call.
Albany or Kreuzberg? Hard call.Volkmar Otto
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The bar has glossy green tiles. The walls are bare. The stucco has been sensitively restored. Drip coffee warms in the corner. Feels like the East Coast, US – even though we just sought shelter from the cold in the freshly renovated rooms at Möckernstrasse 91. A long bar made of heavy wood, shelves filled with the finest tequila from Mexico. Excellent whiskey from the US.

There's a reason it feels like this way: Melissa, 39, is a native of Albany, New York. She speaks as quickly as the New York cliche. Her husband Christian, 33, comes from Potsdam. The pair met five years ago when Christian, completing an internship as part of his studies, met Melissa in Down the Hatch, a bar in the West Village.

"My shift just ended," Melissa says. "I was talking with a friend. Then Christian came in and, well, we got to talking."

Christian had to return to Germany a month later. 

When the couple finally decided on Berlin, Melissa wasn't convinced, even though she was the one who chose Germany: "Everything was so dirty and so disorganised. And I say that as a New Yorker! I liked Potsdam much better."

The Günthers decided to realise a dream and, in December 2019, signed a lease for The Neigborhood Berlin. High-quality drinks. Creative bar food beyond burgers and fries.

"We'are not interested in making a quick buck," Christian says. "Our goal was to create a place that is a feel-good zone for the neighbourhood. You can meet your friends here in the evening, enjoy a few good drinks – and if you get hungry, there's always something good to eat."

American gastro-pub, halt.

Melissa. Christian. <em>Hund</em>.&nbsp;
Melissa. Christian. Hund. Volkmar Otto

"Bars in New York work in a similar way," says Melissa. "You can go to a bar all by yourself, eat or drink something without feeling lonely or strange."

Germans still need to be taught this cultural technique, she says, labeling Germans "coconuts": hard on the outside, soft on the inside. They need time to warm up.

We're here for breakfast, a The Neighborhood specialty presented as finger food. The breakfast burrito, an American delicacy relatively unknown in Germany – a tortilla with egg, bacon, potatoes and cheese. We can add home-made Pico de Gallo or Salsa Roja, prepared according to an original Mexican recipe, with all those authentic spices that are hard to get in Europe.

The first bite tastes like America – we could be at a diner in New York or San Diego.

California sliders (with Hühnchen (<em>chicken</em>)).&nbsp;
California sliders (with Hühnchen (chicken)). Meike Bergmann

Christian sets another plate with small breakfast sliders on the table, sometimes topped with chopped sausage meat from a Nuremberg butcher, sometimes with bacon and sometimes with hash browns, each served in a brioche from a Portuguese baker. Lovely. 

Everything would be perfect were it not for this pandemic. Melissa and Christian have put a lot of work and all their money into the bar over the past 10 months. When the pandemic came to Europe, there was no going back – the lease was signed.

"We knew we had to open and make the best of it," Christian says. 

At first they thought that the pandemic would soon pass. But as the virus remained, the problems grew.

Politicians aren't listening

Construction workers also had to social distance, delaying the opening by weeks. A normal debut was clearly impossible. Refinance? Right. The grand opening in July included just drinks.

"We imagined it very differently. Our bar lives on its atmosphere. Take-away can't be a substitute for a restaurant visit. It's all so frustrating. We cry. We scream. We're angry. But there is no one we can turn our anger against," Melissa says.

"In the beginning, we were still relaxed," Christian says. "But then, when the travel ban came and our cook from San Diego was unable to enter, we got nervous. We didn't want to start with poor quality. So we had no choice but to open the bar first – without a kitchen."

They added food in the fall once their California cook could monitor the quality and authenticity of the dishes. Everything's supposed to taste like back home.

Despite the challenges, the pair remembers the summer fondly. They improvised, organised drink tastings and served outside. Neighbours and new customers were delighted.

Then came the autumn and the Lockdown Light. The Günthers enthusiasm for the discussion wanes.

The Günthers aren't ashamed to admit they're struggling financially. Although current aid programs are tied to sales in November 2019, The Neighborhood was just an idea then. Officials have instead allowed them to use their summer sales as a basis, but it's not like business was booming then either.

"There was a curfew in October, so even in the summer we didn't earn as much as we wanted – because of the protective measures against Corona," says Christian Günther. "Of course we're happy about any support."

Would be a nice patio if it wasn't closed.
Would be a nice patio if it wasn't closed.Volkmar Otto

Still, the aid is just a drop in the proverbial bucket.

"I have the impression that the federal government wants to set an example with the catering and entertainment industry. The government wants to show the people that it's doing something. But the problem is: it's not working. The whole lockdown light is irrational. We're are being used as a fig leaf," Christian says.

Discount shops and departments stores are open – as well as other potential sites of infection.

"If the politicians say a lockdown is necessary, then the country should go into a lockdown. Just closing the restaurants and theaters – that simply does not help. We feel left alone. As if we mean nothing to politics," he says.

Kreuzberg nights are long, Berlin winters longer

He's a member of Dehoga, a lobbying organisation for bars, hotels and restaurants. But Christian feels like his protests are not being heard and that Berlin is ignoring the central role its hotels, clubs and restaurants play.

Even before corona, the renovation would have had to adhere to endless guidelines and mind-numbing bureaucracy. That got worse with the pandemic.

He and his wife met all the requirements: "And now? Nobody is listening to us."

The Günthers would like to sit down with politicians – maybe at The Neighborhood's rarely used bar – and explain to them what the Lockdown Light is doing to this city's most important industry. They hope for a solution but they can't hold out much longer.

Berlin winters are long. And a tougher lockdown is looming.

The Neighborhood Berlin, Möckernstraße 91, 10963 Berlin, Wed-Fri 12pm-8pm, Sat + Sun 12pm-3pm + 5pm-8pm Uhr.

This article was translated from the original German about The Neighborhood Berlin restaurant by Andrew Bulkeley.