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“The most fucked-up, illegal place I’ve ever worked” Confessions of a Berlin barista

Staff wanted! Signs in café windows around the city suggest employers are still struggling to find the people to make coffee in Berlin. But why? A Berlin barista bares all.

Photo: Unsplash – Ian Harber

“It is soul-destroying, exhausting work. I can’t go on doing this, this is crazy,” says Jacob. Like Christian and Laurence, he recently quit his job. The four of us met at one of Berlin’s leading roasteries, where I started working immediately upon my arrival in Berlin in 2019. Combined, we have decades of experience in specialty coffee across the world. Yet, after stints at both the big players and at some of the independent shops that make up Berlin’s coffee landscape, we’ve all since left the industry. But why?

Berlin’s specialty coffee baristas are, for the most part, foreigners. When I started working in the city, there were around 85 employees divided across 10 cafes; I don’t remember a single German barista. Typically, we arrive and take a job at whichever shop allows us to start within the week. Producing and serving a range of coffees requires precise skill and developed palates. For that – plus standing all day at the coffee machine, pulling shots and steaming milk, jumping over to serving customers, in whatever crude German we can manage, pouring hand-brewed filter coffees, cleaning up after customers, ourselves and each other and introducing customers to new types of coffees – the compensation in 2019 was €9.50 an hour. At 35 hours a week, that adds up to around €1114 a month, once taxes and insurance are deducted. Not exactly a king’s ransom, plus the tips in this city are shit.

‘I was exhausted. I just couldn’t wait to get out.’ Christian, meanwhile, was fired for speaking up after the boss was caught stealing staff tips.

The upside to a foreign barista arriving with little more than a CV is clear – immediate work in a reputable coffee shop or roastery, and no real requirement to have learned the language. These simple perks can be enough to convince you to grin and take the measly wages. For employers, the benefits are twofold: the German coffee scene has limped behind the rest of the world for a long time, and the advances it has made in recent years are owed largely to the experience in both production and service that these imports bring with them.

Then, there’s the fact that “when you’re a foreigner, you don’t understand the language, you don’t have a grasp of the law,” says Jacob, who worked as a barista in multiple countries before settling in Berlin. With a seemingly endless supply of skilled baristas flooding into Berlin (we were handed CVs daily), it is easy to see how an employer can get a bit too comfortable with the mindset that anyone can be easily replaced. This indifference extends to the worker’s wishes to have some say in their working conditions.

For each of us, scheduling was a constant scourge. Rosters routinely sent out the day before they took effect made it extremely difficult to make any social plans. Though entitled to vacation, getting it approved was hopeless. A day here or there, sure, but never during peak times, and good luck if it falls over a weekend. “They just didn’t allow it,” says Laurence. With multiple branches, managers were free to shuffle employees around with scant regard for their wishes. “I was pissed off about it,” Christian explains, “mainly because I was just told what was happening. I wasn’t asked, I wasn’t given any options. I felt like a cog.” This treatment hardly inspires fealty. Accordingly, many of us already had one eye on the exit. But we likely faced more of the same elsewhere, and it could always, of course, be worse. For some of us, the language barrier alone was enough to keep us in work. Others would lose their visa without a job. Before Covid, this was business as usual. There were always plenty of reasons to want out, but we held on.

It would be a nightmare if suddenly everybody stays at home that has a little cough. It doesn’t mean you have Covid

“Berlin was the most fucked-up, illegal place I’ve ever worked in hospitality,” reports Jacob, who has since left the country. When Covid hit, those who had been around the block knew how the cookie was likely to crumble. At my work, underlying tensions between staff, who felt they were treated little better than interchangeable automatons, and owners, who now faced unprecedented financial threats to their business, immediately came to the surface. The management became very cagey when questioned about our rights or the legality of their actions.

Photo: Unsplash – Kevin Schmid

Asking too many questions was an easy way to get put on permanent furlough, as I found out immediately. Jacob was threatened with sacking if he refused to “sign [a] zero hour contract”, which we ultimately all signed under significant pressure. The government reimbursed lost wages up to 60 percent through the Kurzarbeitergeld scheme, but for the baseline barista salary that meant less than €700 a month. Even this was not distributed until weeks after it should have been, once with 20 percent inexplicably missing. The owners’ rhetoric of “all being in it together” didn’t jibe with their failure to renew people’s contracts, eliminating jobs from within the company with no prior discussion, benching “difficult” employees in perpetuity, and even firing people for totally spurious reasons, leaving them both without work when no-one was hiring and ineligible for unemployment benefits. Covid ushered in a new age of paranoia and financial uncertainty for baristas and hospitality staff across the board.

“the love and care you have for farmers does not apply to your staff here in your cafes.”

For me, the timing of it all was particularly galling because of a fawning profile of my boss in a popular coffee industry magazine. In it he pontificated at length about the sophomoric philosophies and ethos to which he attributed his success. At one point he even advertised signed copies for sale in the cafes. Despite paying lip service to the potential for coffee shops to be a space of “community in a democratic way,” the workforce that had built his vision over a decade – the workforce he relied on and expected only weeks later to be endlessly understanding and trusting of his benevolence – went curiously without mention.

As if that wasn’t enough, he sent a video to what remained of his sparsely populated stable, bemoaning the disruption to business that observing the Covid restrictions was causing. In it, he pushed employees to come to work even while sick: “it would be a nightmare if suddenly everybody stays at home that has a little cough. It doesn’t mean you have Covid”. This, in Autumn of 2020, long before there was a Schnelltestzentrum on every street, was in blatant contravention of the legal guidelines. Despite the loyalty they felt they were owed from their workers, their own obligations ran no further than the edge of a contract, and often not even that far.

Enticed by promises that things would be different, many of us took work in independent cafes. It turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of our specialty coffee careers. “We thought we were going to get equal pay, democratic decision-making, autonomy, progression,” Jacob recalls. “It all sounded too good to be true. And it was.” Laurence explains how the familiar scheduling pressures followed him. All of his requests about the roster were completely disregarded and he was made to work such a heavy schedule – upwards of 20 hours every weekend – that “I was exhausted. I just couldn’t wait to get out.” Christian, meanwhile, was fired for speaking up after the boss was caught stealing staff tips.

It’s understandable to look for explanations of what changed in the past two years. What these experiences point to, however, is that hospitality work was always exhausting, always emotionally draining, there have always been legitimate tensions between workers and their bosses. Their positions have a symbiotic relationship but the interests of each side are simultaneously aligned, and conflictual, and what was already a struggle became intolerable under Covid. When the chips are down, it is the workers that are thrown to the wolves.

This might all sound very bitter. But I see it as hard-won righteous anger… (said no bitter person ever). In August 2020, a sort of open letter/email was sent to the owner by a long list of the remaining (and some departed) colleagues, speaking honestly about some of the problems the staff faced. These ranged from someone receiving “disgracefully rude emails” in response to a request for five days off, despite giving two months notice, to someone complaining that “no one thought it would be professional and thoughtful to sit down … to explain the changes you were making.” Instead, they “received an email – a simple email! – to tell me I will not have a job anymore.”

One of the most proudly displayed feathers in the roastery’s cap was its relationships with coffee farmers around the world. All the talk around this was distinctly paterno-chauvinistic and a bit ‘white-saviour’ for my taste. It’s strange that someone so (allegedly) considerate abroad did not feel compelled to bring that generosity back home, and what this letter most succinctly hit on was a common sentiment within the company, “the love and care you have for farmers does not apply to your staff here in your cafes.”

In preparing to write this piece, I found that, despite the widespread bitterness/righteous anger (call it what you will), people were extremely cautious about participating or giving details that would too clearly identify them. I’ve used pseudonyms, but even for people who’ve left the industry, even the country, there’s still a real hesitation about ‘going on the record’ about their experiences. In a scene that small, everyone knows everyone, and some people carry a lot of sway. Meanwhile, even when we’ve moved out of these roles, or out of the industry altogether, we never know for how long. Who would risk a vindictive backlash when we all know that if the shit hits the fan, many of us may have no other option – but to work the barista shift once more.