Entrepreneurial foodies with a knack for social media saw the lockdown as an opportunity: to deliver their culinary creations to hungry Berliners. But what does it take to turn an indie catering venture into a sustainable business? We caught up with these unlikely start-uppers to find out.
There are two types of “ghost kitchen” that arose from the coronavirus pandemic. One is your typically soulless food factory, operated by the likes of Uber, run out of a warehouse or a restaurant during off-hours, churning out algorithmically calibrated meals ferried to customers’ homes by underpaid couriers.
And then there’s the ghost kitchen painted in a cheery mint-green and located on the fourth floor of a Kreuzberg Altbau. In it, Evelyn Ebert appears to be everywhere at once. She chops vegetables, fries beef, stirs a black chilli sauce, murmurs instructions to the friend who’s helping her out, greets her two school-aged daughters when they come home. The whirlwind of activity eventually condenses itself into the Ghanaian dishes waayke (peas, rice, hard-boiled egg, vermicelli, salad, that complex and deliciously spicy sauce) red-red (stewed black-eyed peas, fried plantains) and omo tuo (peanut soup, two softball-sized orbs of rice). She carefully portions each order into a to-go container, not forgetting the finishing touch: a square sticker with the logo of her company, Afropot.
“I was always cooking for family and friends, inviting people over, and everyone was like, ‘You need to put this thing out!’” Ebert says with a laugh. After moving to Berlin from Accra with her German then-husband in 2009, she worked in event management, then, for a year, at the hostel restaurant next to her flat. When corona hit and the hostel closed down, “I thought, okay. This is the time.”
Setting up shop
She wasn’t alone. In Berlin and elsewhere, enterprising home cooks saw the coronavirus lockdowns as an opportunity to strike out on their own. “It’s a huge trend, and not only because of corona,” says Martin Schmidt, co-founder of HomeMeal (formerly HomeMealDeal). Conceived in spring 2020, his platform helps Berlin food entrepreneurs – over 60 so far, including Ebert – legally sell their home-cooked specialities to customers, no restaurant necessary. He sees the boom in meal sharing as a response to globalisation. “It’s a Gegentrend [‘anti-trend’] towards supporting your locals, neighbours helping neighbours.”
Some chefs might never have found their calling were it not for the pandemic. People like Oli, an Italian laid off from her fashion merchandising job, who during lockdown turned to what had always been “my therapy”: rolling out hand-cut pappardelle, stuffing ravioli, simmering organic tomato sauce, baking focaccia.
Or Nam, a Berlin-born food technology student who spent the early months of quarantine “hanging around the internet, browsing for some new food project.” After experimenting with Italian pasta and Chinese noodles, he tried out a recipe for chicken paitan ramen from the website Serious Eats: two full days of boiling bones, braising pork belly and mixing dough (although the process was sped up with the help of a pressure cooker). In the end, “I was like, damn, this is better than some ramen I’ve had in restaurants, even though it’s my first time making it! And from there I got really hooked.” He discovered ramen Reddit and sought the guidance of US-based noodle soup authority Mike ‘Ramen Lord’ Satinover. He experimented with tapioca and spelt flour, black sesame paste, sardine powder and smoked soy sauce. He also connected with Michael Heiden of The Bird BBQ, who offered him leftover bones and trimmings – and in October, his first pop-up. By lockdown number two, like Ebert and Oli, he was ready to go pro.
A side helping of Bürokratie
It isn’t completely illegal to sell home-cooked food in Germany, but it’s as much of a bureaucratic headache as you’d imagine. In addition to registering yourself as a business, you need to obtain a rote Karte (safety and sanitation certificate, obtainable by going to a Gesundheitsamt and watching a video on kitchen hygiene) and take a course on the Lebensmittelhygieneverordnung (German laws regarding the preparation and storage of commercially sold food). Your kitchen itself has to meet a mega-list of requirements: temperatures must be monitored, insect control measures must be taken, ingredients must be labelled. Not to mention that there has to be a clear separation between the food you’re selling and the meals you cook and eat privately, necessitating at least two refrigerators, two cutting boards and two sets of cookware.
It’s no wonder many home chefs rent commercial kitchens, although without the right connections, this can be a headache in itself. Oli was lucky enough to find a place near her Friedrichshain home where she could make pasta and sauce one day a week: “This guy was using it for catering big events like weddings and festivals, and when, you know, everything ended, he started subletting it to people like me.” For Ebert, though, the search took months – and just when she’d finally landed a space in Lichtenberg, it was forced to shut down. “But they gave me contacts, so I reached out.” She ended up on Bergmannstraße, sharing a kitchen with other chefs who made vegan banana bread, cookies and custom picnic baskets.
Other underground chefs simply hope that they’ll stay under the Ordnungsamt’s radar – like Nam, when he first started selling his ramen over Instagram in winter last year. After preparing the week’s pre-orders in his small Köpenick kitchen, he’d meet customers outside the Asia Mekong supermarket by Hackescher Markt, inconspicuously trading paper-bagged soup kits for cash. “The ramen community is very close-knit, so nobody’s going to say anything, which is good,” he told us at the time. “But I still have to be careful not to go too crazy.”
Once you’re legally in the clear (or not), there’s still the matter of getting your food to customers. For some, that’s as easy as creating an Instagram profile: Nam, who already ran a popular restaurant review account, simply directed his followers to his new ramen persona. Oli enlisted an illustrator friend to create a playful, minimalist logo and menu drawings to catch scrollers’ eyes; other friends pitched in with photos, likes and shares, and before she knew it, she had the 20 orders a week she needed to keep her project afloat.
For Ebert, Instagram was only the beginning. It attracted a base of Ghanaians looking for a taste of home, which she still refers to as “my Afropot customers”. But HomeMeal, which approached her shortly after their launch, introduced her cooking to Berliners at large. Next came Wolt and Lieferando, whose 30-percent commission (HomeMeal is still free for chefs, though Schmidt says they plan to take a 15-percent cut) was worth the expansion. “HomeMeal doesn’t do deliveries, so I was delivering on my own. Sometimes I had three people helping, going to Lichtenberg, Wedding… It was just tedious. So I got on those platforms to help with that, and to reach people I can’t reach on my own.”
This had the side effect of creating three sets of customers: Ghanaians familiar with her dishes, HomeMeal clients seeking “authenticity and original food”, and Lieferando and Wolt users who just wanted a quick, cheap meal. She adjusted her cooking accordingly – especially the spice level. “So many people can’t handle it! One woman ordered my food for her whole family, and they were all on Zoom with me telling me how important it was that they didn’t want peppers. They wanted it as authentic as possible, but they didn’t want peppers! That’s really difficult.” Picky eaters aside, business was booming. By the middle of 2021, Ebert was filling up to 200 orders a week, whether on the apps or from walk-in customers who spied her stirring sauce or frying fish through the window of her rented kitchen.
A new way to eat
Since the spring lockdown, much has changed. Nam has finally registered his business – as Kuma Ramen (“bear” in Japanese) – and transitioned from the Instagram black market to a semi-regular pop-up at Michael Heiden’s new project Markthalle Pfefferberg, where his lemon chicken paitan ramen, with a rich cloudy broth and thick slices of organic pork chashu from neighbour- ing butcher Maurice Wengatz, brings in the crowds. He’s also working at the Markthalle part-time to “gather kitchen and operational experience”. Oli, after spending the summer in Tuscany, has pared down her operation from weekly to monthly, spending the rest of the time caring for her daughter and searching for restaurant investors. Ebert, meanwhile, had to relocate from Bergmannstraße when the crush of customers – who invariably wanted to eat their takeaway meals on the spot – became too much to handle. She’s now working out of her own kitchen as she searches for “a place where people can actually sit down”.
Ironically, one of the only Berlin ghost kitchens with zero restaurant aspirations is one that could open one in a heartbeat. Tiffin emerged mid-lockdown fully formed, with a sleek website, buzzing Instagram and army of freelance bike couriers. You would think Travis Kalanick had thrown millions behind an Indian delivery service in the German capital – but this was the work of two adopted Berliners, Sachin Obaid and Suleman Aslam, who’d met when the former’s media agency was doing work for Khwan, the Thai hotspot co-owned by the latter. From developing recipes in the prep kitchen of Indian fusion restaurant Moksa, they now run their own space in Kreuzberg’s Fluxbau building, where five full-time employees prepare 300-500 orders a week. Obaid credits the pair’s success to “investing in tech – our site was set up from the get-go to make it easy to order and contact us. And we’ve been very lucky with reviews.”
He’s being modest; the food is fantastic. But Tiffin’s story does illustrate that for all the promise this new culinary frontier holds for independent chefs, making it big in the ghost kitchen business takes the same cash and connections as in any industry. Schmidt sees HomeMeal as a means of “empowerment”, through which women – and 80 percent of chefs on his platform are women, most of them non-German, many from “more conservative families, where only the husband is working” – can earn up to €2000 a month while still being able to look after their children.
At the same time, he casts an aspirational eye on Shef, a similar platform in the US that recently raised $20 million in Series A financing. He has big plans for his company: a delivery service, a cooking competition to draw new chefs to the app, expansion to other German cities. Time will tell whether the women upon whom Home- Meal relies will share in the profits.
In the meantime, Ebert has temporarily dropped Wolt and Lieferando, but just signed a deal with UberEats – another 30-percent commission, another chunk of her career in the hands of Silicon Valley. But make no mistake: she’s still the one calling the shots. “I wanted to use [the apps] as a marketing tool, a way to get to a certain group of people. But I won’t be there forever.”
What she envisions is something in between a proper restaurant and a delivery-only operation, where she can serve sit-down customers part-time and take app orders as she sees fit while still having time to spend with her daughters. “At the hostel restaurant, I was gone all day – up early morning, not back till late. When I have my own place, I only want to be open four days a week, so that I can still have time for family. Because I got to experience this, I know that it can work – that I can put in the controls, and it’ll be fine.”