Cynthia Barcomi is among the expat pioneers who paved the way for the food scene the city boasts today. In 1994, Barcomi’s brought classic American Deli food, coffee and other treats to the Hauptstadt. Now, as a result of the lockdown regulations Barcomi’s has closed its large location in Mitte. We spoke to Cynthia Barcomi about the struggle of the past months, how funding failed the food industry in Berlin and what is to come.
Restaurant and cafés has been struggling to get through lockdown and struggling further with the COVID regulations they’d been subjected to since reopening – at one point it seemed like Barcomi’s would have to close down entirely. Can you talk us through what happened?
Well, we had two locations, the one in Bergmannstraße, where we’ve been since 1994, and the Deli in Mitte where we’ve been for 23 years. On March 16th we had the restriction that you could only be open for takeaway and we tried that, and in the Deli, it didn’t work at all. It wasn’t only that there were no tourists, but also that most of our potential guests were sitting in home-office. We couldn’t even cover our staff costs. Even if you take advantage of Kurzarbeit, it doesn’t help with the overhead.
We then started care package donations, where donors could order care-packages that we would deliver to hospitals. That was a great experience, to honour people in the front lines. By the end of April we decided that we wouldn’t open the Deli back up at all. It simply didn’t seem like a viable venue during a pandemic.
And Bergmannstraße is different?
Yes, we have a different significance in that neighbourhood. Even though it’s smaller, it’s our mothership location. Everything is operated from there. And we were so lucky that our regular guests there supported us so well, I am so thankful for that!
So, the Deli will remain closed, that must have been a hard decision to make.
It definitely was. But it was the only way to avoid bankruptcy. Kind of like cutting off an arm to save the rest of your body. It really was a painful process – like someone had died. But it just wasn’t sustainable. So finally, I was like: I’m closing. I want to leave on a high note instead of watching it all crumble. I couldn’t afford to have one shop take everything down with it.
At the same time, I had to navigate Bergmannstraße, I had all of the employees who needed me to navigate the storm with them, and it was really hard.
So how many employees did you have, and did you have to let anyone go?
There were 55 people in total, both locations combined. And luckily, we only had to let one person go, he was the last one to join. Two left on their own merit, because they feared we weren’t going to make it. And a few contracts just ran out. We are about 30 people now, and it really focused the team. I think it made the whole endeavour more personal, and it made it better. It made it better for the employees, for the guests and for the quality of work. I actually really love the downsizing and streamlining. I think it’s not a bad thing.
Rent is another factor you have to deal with. Did you receive any state aid?
We got a letter from our landlord in Mitte that basically said: ‘Don’t even think of asking for a rent reduction.’ And I was shocked. I mean, I am closed for half of March, which means I only have half the revenue. I already paid the rent for March, so how am I going to do this? I mean this is threatening my existence. So, I wrote the owner of the building an email and I just begged. I literally begged to pay a 100 percent of the operational costs, but only 50 percent of the rent in April. And she was like: ‘You know we’ll just wait and see what kind of support you will get from the state.’ And I said ‘Well, I’m not getting any support from the state and I won’t be getting any support, because I have too many employees.’ And I am not going to take out a loan to finance a lack of revenue. You cannot do that, that makes no sense.
If you had more than 10 employees, you got no assistance. We didn’t qualify for anything. And it’s not about running your business correctly – no one can survive that.
And in the Bergmannstraße, the landlord was like: ‘You can pay me half now and half later.’ And I told him: ‘I cannot pay you half later, I can never pay you the second half. Because we are barely making it right now.’ So, we agreed upon half the rent for April and May – and then in June he expected me to pay the full rent. So now we have to find a way to do that, while paying rent for the Deli in Mitte until the end of the year. It’s so hard.
And no, we didn’t receive or qualify for any aid whatsoever.
It’s been reported that you, and many other business owners, are issuing a class action lawsuit, can you tell us more about that?
Yes, so this law firm in Hamburg started a class action lawsuit, suing the individual federal states. It’s extremely complicated and I, as a non-lawyer, can barely begin to understand the ins and outs of it. It has to do with the Infektionsschutzgesetz, and other very complex laws. And yeah, I would sign up for that, I believe there is a strength in numbers. But quite honestly, if this lawsuit ever takes off – it will take years. It’s just something that I don’t have any risk being involved in. And I feel that certain people were really passed by during this time. Unfortunately, we were one group of them. So, if you had more than 10 employees, you got no assistance. I heard of businesses with 10 employees who received €15.000 aid, which would have really helped us out. But we didn’t qualify for anything. And it’s not about running your business correctly – no one can survive that.
It comes as a surprise that people like you or Sarah Wiener, who have been such giants in Berlin’s food scene, have been hit so hard. What do you think should have been done better?
It really is outrageous how nobody considers the food business. I can’t tell you how many jobs we created; I can’t tell you how much revenue the food business brought into this city. You know the industry used to be a wasteland, and then people started doing really, really good work. And most of those people were just passed by.
I was so shocked and devastated to hear about Sarah Wiener. I wrote her and told her that I am so, so sorry. It really shows no one is too big to fail.
I was so shocked and devastated to hear about Sarah Wiener. I wrote her and told her that I am so, so sorry. It really shows no one is too big to fail, and it is incredibly dangerous to assume that they are. People in the food business have done their best, but if there is no help for them – it’s not their fault.
And I was one of the lucky ones, I get to keep one location, so I just really feel for those who have lost their businesses.
And you know, I don’t really have the solution. People asked me why I didn’t do crowdfunding, and I was like: ‘Are you kidding me? Why would I do crowdfunding? Barcomi’s is not a charity!’ We’ve worked really hard, I’ve worked really hard, everybody on my team has worked really hard. I think we have a place in the city for the work we are doing!
I truly do not know what the answer could have been, I’m not a politician, but I do see that a business like Lufthansa is highly supported and financed by the state. They don’t even have to guarantee any jobs in order to get that kind of funding. And it just kind of seems like this isn’t quite right.
So how are you moving forward, what is your outlook for the future?
Seasonal, regional, local. We are applying for some kind of Überbrückungshilfe (a federal for freelancers and small to medium businesses issued to bridge the months of June, July and August). But you can’t fill the form out yourself, it has to be done by a tax accountant, and will cost quite some money – which is so paradoxical. And even then, it’s an incredibly small amount in comparison.
Other than that, I feel grateful to be in Germany, especially if I look at what’s going on in the US, it breaks my heart. I am grateful to have salvaged one of my businesses. And I am convinced that we are going to make it through, I am so sure. But there are things that are just out of our control. I am not being pessimistic – just realistic. I think we have to be careful and smart about how we live for a long time now. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. All you can do is make sure you do the things that need to be done.