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More than a corner store: Spätis struggle for survival in a changing Berlin

Found on practically every corner of Berlin, Spätis are a core part of the capital's culture. But new regulations and rising rents could be forcing their closure. Can the Späti be saved?

More than a corner store: Spätis struggle for survival in a changing Berlin
A typical späti with long benches and late opening hours. Photo: DPA

Like any convenience store, the “World-connection weser” in Berlin stocks shelves with snacks, booze and magazines. Yet reflecting its uber-trendy Neukölln customers, the shop also carries vegan ice-cream, and features a wooden bench outside where customers perch for a smoke or chat, even as the wintry temperatures begin to dip.

“I wanted to do something fun”, Firat Yildiz told The Local when asked why he chose to open up the Späti 12 years ago. “We get on very well with our customers, so we’re all like a family. They’re really good to us.”

The spätis (short for spätkauf, or late-shop) don’t only offer the afterhours and Sundays that other Berlin supermarkets usually don’t, but also fulfil a fun and lively niche, which each späti offering its own quirky character – Pamuk Shop in Moabit, which stocks everything from novelty pencil holders to hookah pipes, to the “Käptn Späti, which drifts on a boat on Berlin’s Spree, or main river.

“My customers love it,” Tobias Laukemper, owner of the Käptn Späti, told The Local.  “They are very surprised when I approach them from the water side.. they laugh and smile at me.”

To most Berliners, Spätis are so commonplace that once you’ve lived here a while, you stop noticing they’re even there. This, however, is what makes them so important. With one on nearly every street, spätis represent Berlin’s spirit arguably more than any statues, museums or churches. And today, they’re at risk of disappearing due to stricter regulations about opening hours and quickly rising rents.

It may seem excessive to gush over what are, in effect, small local shops. But many others share my enthusiasm. There have been odes and cultural guides written about spatis, large campaigns fought over them, and, as of this year, urban art exhibited inside them.

Their history goes way back too, appearing first in 1859 as “Kiosks” in Berlin around the same time that bottled mineral water became available to the public. At that time, tap water was unsafe to drink, and as the populace turned to liquor and beer to replace it, levels of alcoholism grew.

Somewhat ironically, the antecedent of the Späti was thus introduced to combat excessive consumption of alcohol by selling safe-to-drink mineral water. Later down the line, the GDR introduced the term “Späti” as the shops began to stock other essential items to serve the needs of shift workers who couldn’t buy groceries during standard supermarket hours.

Today, aside from the vast array of stock, Spätis serve much the same purpose, acting as a lifeline to those (like many newcomers) who tend to forget about Germany’s strict no-shops-open-on-Sunday policy and find their cupboards empty when the weekend rolls around.

SEE ALSO: Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays?

Is gentrification putting spätis at risk?

Yet while large numbers of spätis do remain open on Sunday, the legality of this practice is dubious, with some businesses in recent years receiving fines of up to €2500 for doing so. It’s a move from local officials that has caused anger among business owners and the public, with a petition launched in 2016 that called on the German Ordungsamst (regulatory agency) to reconsider their stance on the issue.

The endeavour was partially successful, but Spätis opening on Sundays – usually their busiest day – still risk hefty fines and the threat of closure.

So why all the big fuss? You could, after all, hardly imagine people in the U.S running around wearing “I ❤ 7/11” t-shirts equivalent to the “I ❤ PAMUK SHOP” shirts sold at the Moabit Späti, or Brits fighting tooth and nail for a local Spar. The essential difference has much to do with the fact that Spätis tend to be independent businesses, a model that Berliners largely prefer over chain supermarkets.

More often than not, the shops are owned and managed by first, second or third-generation immigrants, and thus provide a livelihood for families across the city. When you shop at a Späti, in other words, you know exactly who your money is going to.

Aside from this, Berliners care about Spätis because they are an integral part of Kiez (neighbourhood) culture. And it’s about more than just the money. In 2001, then-mayor Klaus Wowereit famously declared Berlin “arm, aber sexy” (poor but sexy), a quote that in recent years has been dragged up frequently to complain about the rapid gentrification of the city.

And while your local bar might have been taken over by hipster, craft beer enthusiasts, thanks to Berlin’s Spätis, it’s still possible to enjoy a beer for under a euro. Simply put, in a city that’s been beleaguered by new luxury builds and spiralling rental costs, Spätis are keeping the cheap, carnivalesque spirit of Berlin alive.

“Drink Drunk” by Schlesisches Tor, for instance, is one of a number of Spätis that host free parties until 6am for their customers, sometimes even bringing in a DJ. This year, Späti-lovers enjoyed a “Spätival” around Friedrichhain and Kreuzberg, and not long afterwards, I watched England’s World Cup chances die on a makeshift screen outside Neukolln’s “Späti international”, packed out with people spilling onto the street. They’re meeting places, cheap bars, post offices and emergency stops, and as integral to Berlin’s culture as the currywurst or the döner.

A push to save the Späti

Yet it’s not just Sunday hours that threaten these cherished businesses. Spätis are not immune to the forces of gentrification happening around them, and recent years have seen a number of owners turfed out or threatened with eviction.

Felix Lange, a member of the activist group “Bizim Kiez”, told The Local the problem lies in the fact that “small stores in most cases do not have the  financial resources to sustain the enormous rent increases they are threatened with,” he said. “German legislation offers little regulation on rents for business tenants.”

The group was founded after the closure of the neighbourhood supermarket Bizim Bakkal in 2015, but since then many more small businesses and Spätis have closed or are under threat, including the Oranienspäti on the quickly-gentrifying Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, which Lange says “still faces eviction…the situation remains dire… these small stores in most cases do not have the  financial resources to sustain the enormous rent increases they are threatened with.”

The Späti was among the businesses which the group illuminated with lanterns on Saturday evening, November 17th, to bring attention to the development sweeping through the neighbourhood.

The very existence of groups like Bizim Kiez is some comfort, however, and rallies to save the Oranienspäti – and other businesses like it – will continue later this month. It’s clear that Berliners understand the value that spätis add to the fabric and culture of their city; staying up with the revellers and offering all manner of weird and wonderful trinkets – whatever the hour of day, or night, may be.

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For members


‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.