Why is the food in Berlin often so bad? Style in Berlin
Click here to read this text in English: Why is food in Berlin (still) so bad?
First time: Sorry, but this is not a rant. Because of course there is a lot of good food in Berlin. What’s more, Berlin has always had excellent restaurants and there are more every day. But I increasingly meet people, Tourist_innen as well as locals who read such great about the Berlin food scene (either on this blog or the countless other sources) and then wonder if the average quality is still more … Difficult Is. You can’t walk into any bakery and expect the buns to be good and handmade. It still works to spontaneously choose a restaurant for dinner around the corner. Especially the shops in beautiful places (on the canal, in the park, with a view) serve rather below-average food. And even if you like to get an hour in the particularly hyped places, especially on weekends, the experience is surprisingly often rather average. More and more newcomers are moving (forcedly) to districts such as Spandau, Lichtenberg or Lankwitz and are surprised that these kieze have not yet produced shops that meet their high expectations. What’s going on?
Berlin sells itself as a city with an energetic and exciting food scene, because that’s true. But it’s a very new development – the current hype is so young and the scene small. The Market Hall Nine, which for many is the center of this new foodie development, is only seven years in the current conception.
What many overlook are all the restaurants that don’t make it. There is a large gap between the few good and the many, many disappointing ones, which means that the average is usually more goes like this. Most of the places I visit don’t make it onto my menu and that’s true for those that’have been around forever, as well as the latest brunch shed.
But this is not a rant about how bad food can be in Berlin, but I want to clarify why the situation here is as it is. And I am not even concerned with the service culture (or rather, the absence of one), but with the structural reasons. Food reflects a country, its history(s), politics and idiosyncrasies, and you can learn a lot about a place if you look at culinary customs. That is precisely why I do not want to explain how much worse Berlin is in comparison, but rather to discuss the current state of affairs.
First of all: Our history
Thirty years ago the wall fell and 29 years ago the FRG absorbed the GDR. This choice of words is important to me, because as necessary as the fall of the Berlin Wall was – the people of the GDR did not only benefit from what followed. Such an observation goes beyond the purpose of this article, but I am also formulating it because the anniversary i have just celebrated has certainly inspired me to write this article, even though these thoughts have been in my mind for much longer.
What is important to me: Berlin in its present form is a young city. Thirty years ago there was no contact between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain (and no bridge), just walked from the wedding to mitte for a dinner (or vice versa) did not go.
It often surprises me how little new Berliner_innen beyond the fact that a wall ran somewhere in the middle of the city, know about the city’s recent history. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Berlin had to import most of the food, either from West Germany or, ironically, from the GDR. It was precisely the fresh products that were eaten in West Berlin that actually grew in the fields in the east. And there all agricultural land was owned by the state and was planted according to the requirements of the planned economy. There was little room for small experiments or what we now call organic and sustainable agriculture. One exception was the private gardens: many families in the countryside, including mine, produced much of their food themselves.
In the last three decades, numerous new organic farms and cooperatives have been established in the countryside around Berlin. But arable farming, as we know, lasts forever, so the development is still young. And let us not forget that the EU’s agricultural policy is not designed for small, specialised farms, but rather supports large, industrial enterprises, many of them in the meat or dairy industry.
The demand for high-quality products is directly related to the level of gastronomy, so we will have to wait a little longer for the recent outbreak of creativity in the Berlin food world to bear fruit in agriculture.. It has become much easier to get good fruit and vegetables in the city, but these structures are still under construction.
So the country: Berlin is surrounded by Brandenburg
Food is – or should – always be a representation of the place where it was produced. Berlin Essen therefore often represents the Brandenburg Earth. Although today we can of course import everything from anywhere at any time, most of it tastes best when it is harvested ripe and eaten quickly. As a rule, what can grow in Brandenburg is underestimated. Yes, the earth here is very sandy, so the little water we get can still hold very badly. And we don’t get that much sun. From October to about April, Brandenburger fields mainly produce roots and other robust vegetables, but they are really good at this. Have you ever tried a locally grown kale? Otherwise you will miss something! In the warm months, the country turns into a paradise that can produce lots of berries and nuts, and even peaches, eggplant and tomatoes.
The reason why Brandenburg is so often underestimated is that the potential is often not exhausted. In the course of the privatization of the former state land after the reunification, many land was bought up by large companies, which now let the same grow again and again for the highest profit. I grew up with lots of walnut trees, but today you rarely find them in the region. I know many Köch_innen who find it difficult to find high-quality local products, which is a real pity. This is changing thanks to the hard work of many very motivated, creative and patient Landwirt_innen and Distributor_innen fortunately slowly, and you can see the result in the markets and in the best kitchens.
There’s a lot less money than you might think
If you look at the history of the city, something else becomes clear: Berlin is not rich. Berliner_innen are not rich. So little rich that a former mayor even made a marketing slogan out of it. We can now discuss for a long time how helpful or detrimental this was, but it makes it clear that the money has only been coming to this city for a very short time. Most Bewohner_innen, especially the original Berliner_innen, were not born with the golden spoon in their mouths, and simply never had enough money to spend it with their hands full on food – and often still don’t have it.
While rents are rising rapidly, wages in the former east of Germany are still lower than in the former West. Although Berlin is high in the ranking of salaries compared to the rest of the former Eastern countries, it ranks quite far below the majority of the former West. This also applies to the jobs in the new creative industries. In every start-up in Munich you earn more than here. This is often overlooked when we discuss how we can improve the local food scene. For most people, the only reason to think is that “people here finally have to spend more on food.” For many here, this is not a question of will, but of skill.
Berlin is in northern Germany.
It is well known, but I repeat: Berlin is different from the rest of Germany. That is also a good thing. But of course we are still German here, and fulfill all the good and not so great stereotypes. What’s more, Berlin is preussically shaped – Prussian Virtues (developed from the least fun of all religions, Protestantism, and of course the military) and you understand the city much better. We do not appreciate the extravagant, nor do we run after the latest innovations. What’s more, we avoid trends wherever we go – these bland and definitely temporary whims, made only to pull the money out of our pockets. And we’re really worried that others are branding us superficial when they see us join every new trend.
We are not experimental either, we like what we know and what has always been so. And that’s reflected in the local gastronomy – most stop developing their concept once they open their store, so most menus aren’t exactly playful or bold. Many Köch_innen avoid anything that is seen as a current trend for fear of scaring off customers with too much “hipsterism.” So it is no wonder that we are usually five years behind international movements (but are still three years faster than the rest of Germany). Have you ever wondered why every second store now has everything in Bowls Served? For more than five years, the bowl had to be established in the international circus, so that it is no longer regarded as trendy, but rather as “innovative”. (I saw a menu with a cheese-spatula bowl last year – why?)
Of course, one could imagine that we appreciate and preserve our traditions, but no…
Berlin is in Germany
Sounds like a no-brainer. But what I am concerned about is that Germany, especially the white part (like all other white-dominated countries) is xenophobic. Now this country was never pure white (although everyone knows how hard our ancestors tried to make it). And obviously, in the last fifty years, there has been a lot of immigration from which the German state has benefited insanely: we owe our wealth today above all to the countless, poorly paid and poorly treated Arbeiter_innn who came to Germany after the Second World War (and not only in the western part). But it is difficult for us white Germans to accept that even a non-white person can be real and complete, and without exception, German. And while, of course, we value the cheap labour force, Germans struggle to appreciate the Arbeiter_innen, or even their cultures. We demand that all “newcomers” integrate into our lifestyle, rather than value exchange and development. This, of course, includes food from all regions of the world, which we accept only on our own terms. The doner kebab is now an accepted fast food in large parts of Germany, but most white Germans would not call it part of the German food culture, nor as qualitative food. We live with a lot of stereotypes about non-German, especially non-white food, which make it difficult for non-white Gastronom_innen to be successful beyond the snack.
One of the most damaging clichés is that non-white food, such as Chinese or Thai food, should be cheap. Not only because we generally consider it to be less valuable, but because of a dangerous connection between price and authenticity: first of all, we use the unclear term “authentic” as if something had a single, undeniable origin. And then we often consider small, cheaper family shops to be more “authentic” because they correspond to our own false and often very limited definition of authenticity.
This focus on the low price devalues the skills and time that are put into kitchen work. In doing so, we limit their influence and development. How can we really appreciate Thai food and learn when everything we want a Pad Thai for a maximum of 4.50 euros, but without coriander!
Another factor is that although Germany is home to a relatively large number of people with a migrant background or history, their composition is not very diverse. Most of these people are from Poland, the former Soviet Union or, as the largest non-white group, Turkey. You may want Mexican food, but there are only about 17,000 registered people with Mexican passports in Germany. The same applies to those of Indian nationality, of which there are about 150,000.
If you include xenophobia now, it becomes clear that until a few years ago there was simply no demand for Indian food that was not Germanized (some call it mild, others bland). But it is not the Indian community who is responsible for this. She’s creative when it comes to making a living in a country that doesn’t appreciate the full spectrum of subcontinental cuisine. It is (unfortunately) not a paradox that right now white men are snowing in, accepting the role of expert and explaining to us that so far “there is no good Indian food in Berlin” (but now they are there). Beware of those who benefit from a gap in the market that their white fellow citizens have made possible.
We love bureaucracy.
Here is the next hurdle in the effort to establish a diverse and creative gastronomy scene in Berlin: bureaucracy. Opening a restaurant in Germany is relatively complicated. If you’ve ever wondered why there are no food trucks here: there are no licenses to sell food in the public street, this can only be done on private land. Before Market Hall Nine established Street Food Thursday, there were few opportunities to develop its own food business without starting directly with a store (and the corresponding investments).
Each restaurant is subject to the strict rules of the health board and so several, paid courses are necessary (which are more expensive if you want to make them in English). Then the tax office has a lot of entitlements, apart from taxes, for example, a certain cash system. And when you’ve finally found a store, the building supervisor has a whole list of requirements (ever heard of a grease separator?). One of the biggest problems in the Berlin scene at the moment is finding a property, which is due to the hype and the resulting high rents (more on this below). In addition, you are not allowed to operate restaurants in every business premises, but you need a permit. And getting to this one is not easy, if your chosen place is even an option, it also has to meet a lot of other requirements, especially if you want to run a full kitchen. Most shops only have a permit for a “cold kitchen” or partial kitchen, for which you at least do not need a fat separator, but in which you can not fry anything. Surely you have seen how the reopening of a shop has been postponed again and again? This is often due to the fact that the Inspektor_innen were not satisfied and made more demands.
I’m not an expert on all the details, but I know how rocky the road to your own business is if you want to do it correctly. I am German myself, so I find most of these rules right and important, but it is problematic when offices make no distinction between small businesses that are just starting and those large companies that serve food to thousands of people every day. In the end, everyone is treated equally.
And here is one more point: we Germans love thorough organisation, even if this is not always efficient. One of these strict structures is the Chamber of Crafts – an association that organizes and protects certain crafts. There is a fairly strict craft code that regulates who can open like a store. Originally this was intended as a protection of the goodness and skill of the individual crafts, so it was exemplary. Many trades are subject to the so-called master compulsion, i.e. to open a business in this area requires a Meister_in in the team. This title is, of course, only available after a longer training from the Chamber of Crafts. This is not necessary for the opening of a restaurant, but for other food areas: bakery and pastry shop, for example. This means that anyone who wants to start a business in the area, even if it is only about cookies, must either be Meister_in themselves or make a Meister_in. Fortunately, there are exceptions, but understanding and fulfilling them naturally costs money, time and effort. What was originally an award and protection now favours rather large companies and hinders innovation.
And finally, the hype
At the moment we are in the middle of the food hype, everyone has probably noticed that. Of course I contributed, because it’s also a lot of fun. A negative consequence, however, is that the hype causes people to completely overestimate the profit you can make in the gastro. Investor_innen and Vermieter_innen assume that you can make a lot of money with food in Berlin. So our capitalist system forces us to be optimistic. At the moment, Immobilienbesitzer_innen are the most optimistic of all: the rents for gastro in Berlin are for the most part really insane. Medium-sized cafés, where you can serve at most cold lunches, go on the market for 30 euros per square meter. In addition, there is often the replacement, supposedly for furniture and kitchen, which can be up to 300,000 euros. Most of the time this is more of a commission to get a place with a gastro license at all and you’ll still have to invest a lot of money. If you calculate how much you spend on furniture, equipment, team and shopping, 2000 Euros rent can be a heavy lot.
Commercial space in new buildings is often far too large for Beginner_innen at 200sqm plus. However, the very large proportion of gastroimmobillien never reaches the free market anyway, but is awarded behind closed doors. Luckily, often contacting the neighborhood, but if you don’t have these connections, it becomes difficult.
By the way, the leases for trades are hardly protected by law, the rent can be as high as the Eigentümer_innen like, and in addition, contracts can be terminated without further ado. We know, of course, what the consequences of this development are in other cities, but that does not really affect our actions. Thus, none of the previous city governments hasto support small shops (i.e. those that attract all the visitors). They are much more chasing the profit promises of the local start-up industry, so we get lots of food start-ups, food start-up hubs, food start-up marketing events, awards and so on. A commercial gold-digger mood is in the air, obscuring how hard it is to scale everything to do with food. Here’s a simple example: a new start-up is working with a farm that supplies high-quality walnuts for the recently funded protein bar. Next year they need three times as much because it’s just going really well for them. Of course, this will be nothing, because trees unfortunately do not grow on trees – at least not within a year.
It’s getting better.
If you have read the whole text, you may be surprised that there are still enough people in Berlin who, despite all these obstacles, are going into a gastro business. Thanks to their unbridled enthusiasm, we have plenty of creative, innovative, sustainable and high-quality options. Recently, a really spicy Chinese noodle restaurant and a super-delicious Pakistani street food restaurant have found shops. One of the few Michelin-starred Thai restaurants outside Thailand is within walking distance of Potsdamer Strasse. We have one of the best ice cream shops in the world in Schöneberg, and excellent baked goods, as well as excellent hummus from a collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians. And so much more – I will always be able to put places on the map.
What I want is to protect these delicate seedlings, which can grow into an enriching, sustainable and fair food scene. If we are patient and careful, it can only get better.