‘I’m afraid of ending up on the street’: American owner of Berlin bar fears for future after corona eviction

'I'm afraid of ending up on the street': American owner of Berlin bar fears for future after corona eviction
Kate Coffee in front of the John Muir bar. Photo: Jörg Luyken
Nicknamed the “Cheers of techno”, the cocktail bar John Muir is a beloved starting-point for a night out in Berlin. Now the coronavirus - and an aggressive landlord - have pushed it into bankruptcy.

Sitting puffy-eyed and pale in the courtyard of the building where her apartment and bar are located, Kate Coffee apologises. She has been crying for most of the morning.

Earlier in the day her lawyer informed her that her hope of holding onto her business premises was over. Her landlord had cancelled her contract due to unpaid rent and there was nothing she could do about it.

The business that she’d built up into one of the best known night spots in Berlin's vibrant Kreuzberg district had gone up in smoke.

“Nine years of work just taken away. All the money and time, all the memories are gone,” she weeps.

Since September 2nd she has been waiting for an eviction order. The landlord has already cut off the water to the bar and tried to change the key.

Hammered by the closure of bars during the spring and early summer, she fell back on rental payments. The government aid package for small businesses proved hopelessly insufficient.

“The landlord received every cent of that money,” she says. “Once I’d paid the rent I was left with nothing. I was literally eating every other day.”

READ ALSO: Is Germany doing enough to ensure small businesses survive the coronavirus crisis?

Bleak outlook for bars

The John Muir is far from alone. A recent survey by the DEHOGA, the national association of restaurants and pubs, showed that two thirds of businesses in the sector nationwide fear bankruptcy.

With pandemic restrictions still in place in many cities, 90 percent of employees in the sector remain on Kurzarbeit.

“Our businesses were the first to suffer from the consequences of the coronavirus and will be the last to be allowed to fully reopen,” said DEHOGA head Guido Zöllick earlier this week. 

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“In view of the devastating effects, the current state aid is not sufficient,” he warned.

Zöllick called on the government to provide more grants to help bars through the autumns, and suggested imposing rent reductions on landlords.

For John Muir, any such help would come to late. Coffee has already had to file for bankruptcy.

But for the sake of other businesses, Coffee says that she wishes they would prolong the rental protections. “This crisis is not over. It’s going to continue and I know I am not the only one.”

‘Techno ban’

Starting nine years ago, Coffee built up the John Muir into one of the best known cocktail bars in Kreuzberg. 

When she moved into the premises, the place was “a dump,” she remembers. “There was literally mud instead of a floor.”

Kate Coffee in the John Muir bar. Photo: Jörg Luyken

With the help of friends, she built in the toilets, stripped back the walls to the red brick, and put in a proper floor.

Soon the bar had become a favoured hangout in the techno scene. Famous DJs would drop by to perform unofficial sets. 

“Actually, I hate the name Cheers of techno,” she admits. “Techno is banned here. When these people come in for a Japanese whiskey the last thing they want to hear here is more electronic beats.”

'I feel like I was tricked'

Although the lockdown ended for many sectors of the economy in May, for pubs the rules were stricter. It was only at the beginning of June that they could open in Berlin.

Foreseeing the possibility that unscrupulous landlords could use the opportunity to cancel older rental contracts, the government imposed a moratorium on evictions during the three months of April to June.

But Coffee says that her landlord ignored the law.

“I was hesitant to put all the money into rent and I tried to speak with my landlord. But they threatened to kick me out if I didn't pay,” she recounts. “I paid in full and that’s my fault. But I feel like I was tricked.”

She applied for the maximum coronavirus grant for a business of her size – €9,000 – but this only covered her rent for two months.

READ ALSO: 'We thought we'd be closed for a month': How Berlin bars are surviving the coronavirus crisis

When Berlin did allow bars to open back up in the summer, Coffee was reluctant to do so.

“I wasn’t in a rush to reopen because I care about the health of my staff, my own safety and my guests. I thought it was really irresponsible to reopen so soon,” she says.

And with reduced numbers of customers, everything that she made at the bar went into rent and salaries – but it still wasn’t enough to cover all the payments.

On August 18th an eviction notice arrived in the mail, ordering her to leave the premises by September 2nd.

She approached the tenants' association, who asked the landlord to allow a “healing payment” that would satisfy both sides. Four days later the landlord sent workers around to cut off the water and change her locks.

On legal advice, she is staying in the apartment behind a locked door. But eventually the police will come around and remove her.

“I’m afraid of being deported, losing my visa, ending up on the street, she says. “It's really scary,” 

Coffee has started a Go fund Me page in the hope of raising enough money to secure her flat, even if she has given up on rescuing her business.

The Local approached the landlord, K2 Immobilien, for comment, but they did not respond.


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