‘We have amazing customers’: Berlin startups get creative to ride out the corona crisis

'We have amazing customers': Berlin startups get creative to ride out the corona crisis
Food from Fraulein Kimchi in Berlin. Photo: Tatiana Ernst
Small businesses are feeling the strain in the growing coronavirus pandemic. We looked at how small companies in Berlin have been dealing with it.

Two Thursdays ago, Berlin business owner Lauren Lee was starting to panic. As many shops and food establishments began to shut down and concerned citizens retreated indoors, she started to receive a flurry of calls from customers cancelling their orders. 

“By the end of the day, I had to tell all my employees that I might have to let them go as I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” she told The Local. 

Lee is the founder of Fraulein Kimchi, a food truck and catering company that cooks up Korean-based cuisine for local startups and corporations, as well as hungry foodies at Berlin’s various markets. These operations have been suspended in light of the coronavirus, but Lee hasn’t let this defeat her.  

“I went home that Thursday night, I cried, I called my mum, and then, by Friday morning, I had worked out a plan to do a home-delivery service,” says Lee. 

After that, she logged into Facebook, published a post and her contact details and, by the evening, had amassed 250 emails from interested customers.

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

From problem to solution

As of Sunday, March 22nd, all Berlin restaurants and cafes have been shut down due to new coronavirus restrictions. Previously, the capital’s eateries were allowed to stay open until 6am to 6pm each day.

Fraulein Kimchi shares a commercial kitchen with Humble Pie, a street food and catering business owned by Sarah Durante, which specializes in southern US food. 

Fraulein Kimchi's truck. Photo courtesy of Fraulein Kimchi

On Sunday March 15th, Durante, originally from Tennessee, was stationed in her beloved “pie-wagon” at the weekly street food market in the Kulturbrauerei when it got shut down by police. She was devastated. 

“A couple had walked one and a half hours to get to me and, by the time they arrived, we had already closed,” Durante says. 

Durante came back to the kitchen, packed the food into the freezer and promised herself to sit tight while she worked something out. 

Meanwhile, Lee was already starting to prepare for her home delivery service: “I could see Sarah was freaking out, so I said, ‘want to do it with me?’” 

The pair kicked into action, and by the end of the weekend, they had put a menu up online: a dreamy selection of Southern American chicken pies, Korean pork belly and szechuan eggplant rice bowls, and sweets from both cuisines. Orders skyrocketed.

“We had to close the order sheet three days before we planned to because we had already maxed out our capacity,” says Lee.

On the first day of delivery, Fraulein Kimchi and Humble Pie delivered over 250 steaming hot packages to 75 addresses across Berlin. “We pretty much worked around the clock,” says Durante. 

Sarah Durante of Humble Pie. Photo courtesy of Humble Pie

Government loans are ‘not the answer’

Books and Bagels – a combined bakery, cafe, and bookstore located in Berlin’s hip Friedrichshain neighbourhood – has also pivoted to a delivery model in the wake of the coronavirus. 

So far, it’s been going well. “We’ve been around for eight years so we have a number of amazing customers who have supported us,” says owner Laurel Kratochvila.

Like many business owners, Kratochvila is anxious about the future. So far, her sales have dropped by 70 percent, which will affect her ability to pay Books and Bagels’ monthly rent of €5,000. Not only that, but Kratochvila is concerned about how she will continue to pay her 20 employees. She is currently not paying herself a salary. 

“No one does this job to get rich, but it could devastate businesses if the government doesn’t step up,” she says. “At a minimum, they should implement a rent freeze – like what Macron has done in France – to support businesses during this time.”

On Friday last week, the German government unveiled a €40 billion ‘rescue package’ to help freelancers and small businesses “secure their professional or operational existence quickly and with little red tape,” according to a press release from the Senate Department for Culture and Europe.

Out of this sum, €10 billion will be given out as direct subsidies to distressed one-person businesses and micro-enterprises, while €30 billion will be handed out in the form of loans, Spiegel Online reported.

Kratochvila is sceptical of this solution. “For me, it’s not a good idea to take out loans from the government that I’ll have to pay back. That doesn’t solve the problem.”

Lee agrees: “I’d rather create enough work for myself and my employees to survive this period.”

READ ALSO: How can workers and businesses benefit from Germany's new rescue package?

Taking things ‘one day at a time’

Still, there are positives to be gleaned from the situation. Durante and Lee say that the coronavirus has encouraged them to tap into their entrepreneurial skill sets: they’ve had to pivot their business models, hatch new ideas, and solve logistical problems, all under time pressure.

“I'm the kind of entrepreneur that likes to have a lot of facts and data, and plan things out thoroughly. And, I think this situation has really forced me to get out of my comfort zone and try something new,” says Durante.

For Lee, turning her attention away from lunchtime corporate catering to home delivery for families, couples, students and singletons has also opened up a “nice little niche market” for her business that she could continue to focus on “even after corona.”

Companies outside Berlin’s food sector have been forced to get creative too. Logan Ouellette works for a tech company called Code Control, which matches digital talent to companies in need of their services. He says that while most tech companies are comfortable with remote working practices, many will have had to adjust to not having in-person meetings. 

Books and Bagels in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Books and Bagels.

“In the context of the corona-crisis, personal connection is more important than ever,” he told the Local. “That’s why we’ve started this new weekly peer-exchange format called Virtual Lunch & Learn.” 

Every Wednesday around lunchtime, the team at Code Control jump on a Zoom call and invite a member from their community to share insight about a particular topic and open it up to the group. 

Ouellette adds: “I’ve also been planning a flurry of webinar and virtual meetups which have been going well so far. It’s possible I’ll be scaling this format up to become a regular thing.”

READ ALSO: How you can help others in Germany during the coronavirus pandemic

Even Berlin’s music scene has adapted to the time of crisis: many DJs from clubs such as Kater Blau and Wilde Renate have been performing live online streamings to give Berlin’s partiers their daily dose of techno. 

This has also encouraged citizens to donate to clubs that, in the absence of people to attend their events, are struggling financially.

“Coronavirus has been a reminder that people actually pull together when things go to shit,” says Lee.

She and Durante have had a few hiccups with their deliveries but their customers have been “more than forgiving.”  They’ve even had people offering their time and skills to optimize their cooking and delivery processes.

As for Kratochvila, she’s confident that coronavirus won’t mean an end to her business: “We’ll be ok here. We’re just taking it one day at a time.”


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