Thoughts on: Why is food in Berlin (still) so bad?

Lieber auf Deutsch lesen? Klick hier: Warum ist das Essen in Berlin oft so schlecht?

If you came here expecting a rant, I* must disappoint you. I very much believe that there is a ton of great food in Berlin. Indeed, there’s always been good food in Berlin, and we’re getting more and more every day. Yet I often encounter people who come to Berlin, having read about its thriving food scene (on here or via the countless other sources), and then wonder why the average quality of food still isn’t … great. You can’t just walk into any bakery and expect a well-made loaf or roll. Just choosing a restaurant on a whim can be less than rewarding. And places in nice locations (by the water, in a park, with a view) serve subpar fare at high prices especially often. Meanwhile, you might queue at a hyped place for an hour on a Saturday night and then be surprised how average the experience was. This city sees more and more newcomers (forced to) move to neighborhoods like Spandau, Lichtenberg, or Lankwitz, who then wonder why these boroughs haven’t yet sprouted restaurants to match the high expectations of these new Berliners. So what’s going on?

Berlin is selling itself as having an energized and exciting food scene; and certainly it has one. However, this is very much a new development. The current hype is young. Markthalle Neun, for many the center of local food developments, is only seven years old.
What you don’t see is how many restaurants don’t make a cut. There is a big discrepancy between the few making good food and the big bad rest of it: the average here is usually meh. Most of the places I try don’t ever make it onto my map, and that applies to spots that have been around forever, as well as the newest brunch bunch.

This, then, is not a rant about how bad food can be in Berlin, but a post getting to the heart of why the food situation is what it is. I’m not even talking about the level (or lack) of service culture, but rather want to go into the structural reasons. Food, after all, reflects the land, its history, politics, and specifics, and you can learn a lot about a place through its culinary habits. This is why I don’t want to compare or make a point about Berlin being “worse than others”, but illustrate the current state.

First Of All: Our History

It’s been 30 years since the fall of the Wall and 29 since the BRD absorbed the GDR. This wording is important here because as necessary as the coming down of the Wall was, the events following the opening of the borders weren’t all beneficial to the people from what once was the GDR. This story falls outside the scope of this post, but if you want some more insight, check out these articles in The Guardian and the NYT. I’m mentioning it also because the recent anniversary has certainly pushed me to write this post, which has been in my head for much longer.
What I want to get to is that Berlin in its current shape is a young city. Remember: 30 years ago, there was no contact between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, no way to walk from Wedding to Mitte for dinner, or vice-versa.

It still surprises me how often new Berliners know little or nothing about this recent history, beyond the fact that there was a wall running through the city. So here’s a reminder: before the Wall came down, West-Berlin had to import most of its food, either from West Germany or—fun fact—from the GDR. Loads of the produce eaten in West Berlin was actually grown in the GDR. And there, all agricultural land was state-owned and managed according to the centrally planned economy. There was little to no space for small-scale experiments or what we now call organic farming. An exception were privately owned gardens. Many families in rural areas, mine included, grew a lot of the food they ate themselves.

In the last three decades since the Wall came down, many new organic farms and cooperatives have sprung up around Berlin. However, as agriculture takes forever, the development is still young. Not to forget, the general agricultural policy of the EU is not made for small-scale, specialised farmers, but big industrial corporations, many of them in the meat and dairy industry, either dealing with animals or producing feed for animals.
The demand for high-quality produce is directly connected to the level of gastronomy, so we still have a while to wait for the recent outburst of creativity in Berlin’s food world to really bear fruit. Even though it got loads easier to get good produce, it’s still developing and structures are being built as I write this.

And then, the land: Berlin is surrounded by Brandenburg

Food is always (or should be) a representation of the place it was produced in, so let’s talk about the Brandenburg soil for a quick sec. Because even though we can import almost anything from everywhere by now, produce is best when harvested in its prime and eaten immediately. First of all, Brandenburg’s growing potential is highly underestimated. Yes, the terroir around here is very sandy, so really quite bad at holding the little water we get. And sunny days are limited. From October to April, Brandenburg produces mostly root veggies and other sturdy vegetables like cabbage, but it’s excellent at that. Have you tried a local pointed cabbage? You’re missing out if you haven’t. Plus, in the warm seasons it can be a cornucopia with its berries, nuts, and even peaches, eggplants, and tomatoes.

However, the reason we mostly underestimate it is that its potential is often not fully realised. After privatisation of the state-owned land, much has been bought up by big corporations growing the same thing over and over again for profit. (See the history section above.) I grew up with local walnuts, but nowadays walnut trees aren’t easy to find. I know many chefs struggle to find quality local produce, which is unfortunate. But this is slowly changing, due to the hard work of very motivated, creative, and patient agricultural entrepreneurs (farmers and distributors), and you can see the results on the local markets and in our best kitchens.

There’s a lot less money than you might think

Looking at the history of the city also explains something else: Berlin isn’t rich. Berliners aren’t rich. So not rich, in fact, that a former mayor made a tagline out of it, calling this city arm, aber sexy, poor but sexy. We could debate how help- or harmful this was, but it serves as a reminder that money has only been flowing into the city for a couple of years. Most inhabitants, especially the OG Berliners, weren’t born with deep pockets, and they just never had the money to splurge on food—and often they still don’t.

And while the rents are rising fast, the wages in former East Germany are lower than in the former West. Even though Berlin ranks high in salaries compared to other parts of former East Germany, it still sits well below most of the former West. This applies to many jobs in the creative industries as well. You’d earn more at a start-up operating from Munich than here. This fact is often, if not always, overlooked when we discuss how to improve the local food culture and the only argument thrown around is how “people need to spend more money on food”. For many people it’s not a question of not wanting to pay the higher price, because they simply can’t.

Berlin is in Northern Germany.

You probably know that already, but Berlin is very, believe me, very different from other parts of Germany. And that’s a good thing. However, we’re still German, so we carry with us all the great but also all the not so great stereotypes. What’s more, Berlin is in former Prussia, so just look up the so-called Preussische Tugenden (rooted in the least fun of all religions, protestantism, and, of course, the military) and you’ll understand the city much better. We don’t appreciate splendid extravagances, nor innovative crazes. In fact, we shy away from trends, from any superficial and temporary fads only designed to squeeze more money out of us. Often, we’re actually scared to be judged superficial by our peers if they should see us subscribing to the latest fashions.

We’re not experimental: we like what we like, because that’s what we’ve always liked. And this is mirrored in the local gastronomy – most people stop developing a concept once they open their shop; menus often lack playfulness; and chefs shy away from trying what is considered a momentary trend, terrified of scaring off much-needed customers. So no wonder we’re mostly five years behind international culinary movements (but still about three years ahead from the rest of Germany). Wondering why you see every third place serving their food in bowls now? Because after more than five years, the bowl-trend finally has enough “history” to no longer be deemed fashionable but somehow innovative. (I recently spotted a Käsespätzle-bowl on a menu. WHY.)
You could imagine that to counterbalance this trend-phobia we’d treasure our food culture and its history, but nah.

Berlin Is In Germany

And white Germany is xenophobic. Germany was never purely white (even though everyone knows how hard our foreparents tried to make it so). Obviously immigration happened, and the German state owes a lot of its current wealth to the millions of underpaid workers who came here after WWII, and this isn’t limited to the West. However, white Germans have an incredibly hard time accepting that a non-white person can really, fully, and without exception be German. And while we appreciate the cheap labour, Germans struggle to appreciate the actual people, let alone their cultures. From all “newcomers,” we usually demand integration in our way of life instead of any exchange or development. This includes food from other regions of the world, which we only accept on our own terms. Though the döner kebab sandwich is now accepted fast food in most parts of the country, many white Germans probably still wouldn’t consider it part of German food culture, let alone quality food. There’s a ton of stereotypes around non-German, specifically non-white, foods, that make it hard for non-white food entrepreneurs to succeed beyond the Imbiss.

One of the most harmful stereotypes is that anything “non-white”, say Chinese or Thai, should be cheap. Not only because we consider it less valuable, but also because of a dangerous connection between price and authenticity: First of all, we throw the ambiguous term “authentic” around as if anything has any one single incontrovertible origin. Second, we often deem less expensive, hole-in-the-wall, family-run businesses more authentic because this concept meets our own faulty and very limited ideas of authenticity.
This focus on low prices devalues the skill and hours going into a cuisine. And by that we limit its reach and development. How can there be an active worship of Thai food when all you are willing to shell out for is a €4,50 Pad Thai, aber bitte kein Koriander?

Another factor is that while Germany has a large number of people with what we call a Migrationshintergrund, or some history of migration (their own or their parents), it’s not big on diversity. Most of these people are from Poland and the former Soviet Union, or, as the largest non-white group, Turkey. You might be craving Mexican food, but there are only about 17.000 registered Mexican nationals in Germany. Same story with Indians, of which there are around 150.000.

And, to return to my former argument, Germans are xenophobic, so up until a couple years ago, there just wasn’t a market for non-Germanized (aka non-bland) Indian food. Which the Indian community isn’t at all responsible for, they just had to get creative to make a living in a country that doesn’t appreciate the full spectrum of subcontinental cuisines. It is ironic, then, that now white guys sweep in and take on the role of expert, explaining to us how there’s been “no good Indian food in the city” (before they showed up). Watch out for those. They are benefiting from a void created by their fellow white people.

Germans Love Bureaucracy

Enough racial politics. Let’s get to another hurdle in the struggle to create a diverse and creative food scene in Berlin: bureaucracy. In a nutshell: opening a food place is not easy in Germany. For example, have you ever wondered why food trucks aren’t really a thing here? That’s because you won’t get a permit to sell from a truck on a public street: you have to find a privately owned lot. Before events like Markthalle Neun’s Street Food Thursday (started only six years ago!), there was very little opportunity to develop your food business without investing a lot of money upfront.

To start any food business means obeying the strict rules of the public health department, which requires you to join several costly classes (more expensive if you want to do them in English). Then the Finanzamt awaits with more requirements, like a certified cash register. And when you finally go brick and mortar, the building department has a list of demands for your spot (ever heard of a Fettabscheider?). One of the biggest issues for food entrepreneurs right now is to find real estate, which is due to the hype and the crazy rents (more on that below). It’s additionally tricky because you need a permit to run a gastronomy business in a building. And those are not handed out easily: if your chosen space is even eligible for gastronomy, it will also have to fulfil a bunch of requirements, especially if you want a full kitchen (most spaces only have a permit for a “cold kitchen” for which you at least won’t need a Fettabscheider). Ever experienced a new business having to push their opening date again and again? It’s mostly because the facilities aren’t fully satisfying the inspectors.

I’m not an expert on all the ins and outs, but even I know how painful any journey to running your business entirely by the rules is. Since I’m German, I consider most of these rules necessary, but it is an issue that none of these Amts makes a difference whether you’re a small business just starting out or a gigantic corporation serving food to thousands every day. You’re basically treated the same.

Here’s another point: as many of you have probably experienced, we Germans love things to be organised (though not necessarily efficiently). One of these organisations are the guilds – associations to protect and support certain trades. There’s a strict trade and crafts code in place, secured by the Handwerkskammer, the crafts council, which regulates who can open a business and how. Initially and commendably, this was installed to protect the quality and skills of a craft. Many crafts have a so-called Meisterzwang, which means that in order to start a business, you need to either be or employ someone with a Meistertitel, a title only awarded by the Handwerkskammer after an extended education. It doesn’t apply to restaurateurs, but to other food crafts like bakers and pastry chefs. Which means everyone who wants to run a baking business, even if it’s just baking a bunch of cookies, will need to either hold the Meistertitel or employ someone who does. Fortunately, there are exceptions to this rule, but it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to understand those and then meet their requirements. So what used to be a label of quality, today rather benefits big corporations and often stalls innovation.

And Last, The Hype.

Currently, Berlin is enthralled by a food hype, as you’ve probably noticed. I myself have contributed a fair share, also because it’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately, this hype causes people to overestimate the potential food has as a profit-making business. Investors and landlords assume you can earn a lot of money with food in Berlin these days. Unfortunately, our local government is failing to come up with a concept to support small gastronomy (the ones who are actually attracting the audience), but rather still believes in the profit-promises of the local start-up industry. Hence all the food-related start-ups, food-related start-up-hubs, food-related start-up marketing events, awards etc. etc. A corporate spirit permeates the air, veiling how hard it is to scale anything food-related. Here’s a simple example: say you work with a farm to provide high-quality walnuts for your recently funded protein-bar start-up. You could ask them to deliver three times as many next year, because you know, things are going well for you. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, since trees don’t grow on trees—at least not within a year..

Still, capitalism demands boundless optimism from everyone. And currently, landlords seem to be the most optimistic of all: rents for gastronomic spaces have gone legit crazy. I’ve seen mediocre café locations that only allow to serve lunch on the market for almost 30 Euro per square meter. Nowadays, many places ask for a one-off payment, allegedly for appliances and furniture, that can go up to 300.000 Euro – most times this is actually key money to get a lease for a gastro space and you will have to invest more. Considering how high prices for interior, appliances, staff, produce etc is, €2000 rent alone on a place can be tough.

Newly developed properties often only feature big spaces from 200m2 and up, certainly not suited for a food business just starting out. Very little gastro real estate even reaches the public market, most of it is traded behind closed doors. Luckily for us, often between the people in the Kiez. However if you don’t have these connections, it’s gonna be hard.

Plus, commercial rent contracts are hardly protected by any legislation. Rents can be as high as the owners wants them to be, and on top of that, unlimited contracts can be cancelled at any time. We know the result of this real estate development from other major cities, but we still don’t really care.

It’s getting better.

Surprising everybody, there are enough people in Berlin who want to make it work against all these odds. Thanks to their unbridled enthusiasm we get to enjoy food that’s creative, innovative, sustainable and high quality. A really spicy Chinese pop-up and a delicious Pakistani street food biz managed to find locations for themselves and have just opened up shop. One of the few Michelin starred Thai restaurant outside of Thailand is located just off Potsdamer Straße. We got one of the best ice cream parlors in the world. And excellent bread and bakes. Palestine and Israelis have joined to make the bestest hummus. And so much more – I’ll never run out of places to put on the map.
I wish to protect the tender seedlings of what could be a rewarding, sustainable, and just food scene in the center of Europe. If we are patient and careful it’ll only get better.

* I didn’t include it in the article at first thinking it was not necessary, but since this text spread way beyond the usual audience, here’s a quick disclaimer: I, the author of this text, was born in rural GDR in 1982, came to Berlin in 2003, and have been working in and around the local food scene for almost 10 years.