Cynthia Barcomi
Photo: Markus Wächter

Berlin - Barcomi's on Bergmannstraße is full, almost every outside seat is occupied. Founder and manager Cynthia Barcomi seems relaxed – the hard times are behind her: she decided early on in the pandemic to shutter her deli in Mitte. What remains is the main outlet in Kreuzberg. Barcomi talks about the recent past, her plans and the uncertainty of how to face the winter season as a restaurateur in times of corona.

Berliner Zeitung: Almost three months have passed since the closure of your successful deli in the Sophie-Gips-Höfe in Mitte. You made this decision very quickly – you closed even though you weren't insolvent.

Cynthia Barcomi: I couldn't have filed for insolvency anyway because my cafés are bundled into a limited liability company [GmbH] and as long as one is running, I can't file for insolvency. In the past, the café in Bergmannstraße was a retail business and the Deli in Mitte was a GmbH, so we had to issue invoices for every delivery between the stores, which is very time-consuming and so, at some point, I combined both into a GmbH. If you have two different legal forms, then you can't even give yourself a coffee bean without this being documented. I avoided the insolvency of all my businesses by just closing the deli in Mitte.

When did you realise that you would have to close the deli?

On 16 March we were no longer allowed to open the restaurant and were only allowed to provide food for pick-up. So we opened the deli and also the Bergmannstraße location for take-away and in Mitte nothing happened all day. It was like a New Year's morning. We didn't even bring in enough money to pay the staff at the deli in Mitte.

How many employees did you have in Mitte?

Fifty-five, of which I had to give notice to one. The others had fixed-term contracts that were not renewed, and a few I took with me to Kreuzberg in Bergmannstraße. But you can't just shift people from one company to another.

Why not, they were both coffee houses.

The clientele in Mitte is completely different from that in Kreuzberg. The space was different and the menu was different. You couldn't take for granted that someone who worked at Barcomi's in Kreuzberg could also work at the deli in Mitte. That doesn't necessarily suit people.

The Mitte deli was also a place where people wanted to be seen and were seen. The café in Kreuzberg is much quieter, much more familiar. You can tell that from little things like the fact that people here in Kreuzberg don't want to have a QR code with the menu, but rather a classic menu. In Mitte, the audience was more international, so this would have worked. Many people already know the QR concept from other countries.

I quickly realised that I would have to close the deli. A restaurant business with 200 seats and 55 employees needs to be at full capacity, every day. Rental costs, operating costs, personnel costs and other expenses – we had have sales of at least €100,000 per month.

We still have the catering, but what we do is different from Sarah Wiener, for example, who offered catering for large events with many thousands of people. We don't have anything like that. We cater family celebrations and office parties. That's a different order of magnitude. But then we immediately expanded our delivery service, as early as the night from 17 to 18 March. We did this from Kreuzberg, because the deli in Mitte only had a partial kitchen. The heart of our business is Barcomi's in Kreuzberg.

Photo: Markus Wächter

Cynthia Barcomi Friedman was born in 1963 in Seattle, and came to West Berlin as a trained dancer in 1985.

After the birth of her second daughter, she founded Barcomi's Café & Kaffeerösterei in Bergmannstraße in Kreuzberg in 1994. Three years later, she opened the much larger Barcomi's Deli in Mitte. 
Cynthia Barcomi is frequently invited to appear on television shows as a baking specialist and has published eight books.

Has your plan to save the café in Bergmannstraße by closing the deli worked?

Yes, definitely. It was a difficult but necessary step for me. I don't regret it. Even the bank congratulated me (laughs). I just have too much experience in catering to wait and see what happens in such a situation – a global pandemic whose impact no one can foresee. I saw it right in front of me, like a huge black hole, and I knew: If you don't act now, everything you have will disappear into this hole. I sensed it would take a long time and would be complicated.

This all sounds very cool and focused.

No, there were sleepless nights, but I knew that if I didn't close the deli, I wouldn't be able to continue running the café in Bergmannstraße if things went wrong. I discussed it with my employees, but in the end there was no alternative, the fixed costs would have eaten us alive. On 16 March, we had €120 in sales in Mitte. It was clear there was no future in it. I also couldn't wait for support to come from somewhere, because unlike the club operators, there was no immediate aid for us caterers.

Sarah Wiener has filed for insolvency for her restaurants and catering operation in Berlin. Did she make a mistake that you avoided?

I can't judge that. We don't know each other that well. But as I said: Sarah's catering, for example, is of a completely different order of magnitude than her restaurants. That's probably her mainstay, I suppose, and since there are no longer events of the size she used to supply, insolvency was most certainly unavoidable. But that is only a guess. A small company like Barcomi's is more flexible. For example, we directly started supplying hospitals with care packages when the crisis was at its peak.

How does the future looking?

Very mixed. People can still sit outside and the weather is good. I don't know how it will be in autumn. We quickly abandoned the idea of plexiglas panels between the tables when they found out about aerosols flying all over the room. Maybe the patio heaters will make a comeback, who knows? The Ordnungsamt controls the distances and the rules, but there is no official plan for autumn. We'll try to keep going outside as long as possible. The winter will be a serious problem for us. The landlord was already very accommodating in the spring. This probably won't happen again. In the gastronomy business, there's a lot of pressure anyway, but we'll see what the autumn brings and act accordingly!

Cakes at Barcomi's in Kreuzberg
Foto: Markus Wächter

Did you receive any support from local politicians during the crisis?

(Laughs) No, absolutely not. Of course I'm disappointed that there hasn't been any offer to help us, but I think politicians have done their best here. That's my personal opinion. But that's what free enterprise is all about. I expected nothing else. I wouldn't say that the right decisions have been made everywhere, but just look at my home country, America, or Brazil. Those disastrous conditions can't be compared to anything here. My entire family in the States is still isolated.

Are you bitter?

No! I'm realistic. I've have been in this game for 26 years. I know what I'm doing and what I can expect and what I can't expect. At the end of the day, I'm solely responsible for my business and my employees. We've experienced a lot of friendly support from the neighbourhood. There is good community in Bergmannstraße.

How are you dealing with the pandemic personally?

Well – I've  been through an extremely difficult time. I only survived it psychologically and financially thanks to the support of my family, my friends and some co-workers. I'm very grateful. Everything is okay now, my eighth book has come out and I can see the sun on the horizon.

What does the future of your business look like?

My view of future of Barcomi's is very positive. Together with my team, I've been doing honest, quality work. I believe that what comes around, goes around and we'll follow this approach to the market ... I already have my eye on a new location.

Adapted for the English Edition by Andrew Bulkeley