As is often the case in life, it was the culmination of many varied experiences that led Nils Bernau to where he is now; putting thoughtfully selected ingredients into a Vitamix to be blended into green smoothies and served at his Prenzlauer Berg store. With a background in restaurants, wine and even a stint cooking in a commercial kitchen, it turns out opening a shop which sells smoothies, juices and vegan snacks has been the perfect way to combine his knowledge of the hospitality industry and enthusiasm for good produce with the burgeoning public interest in health.
For around a year before opening Liquid Garden in November 2014, while working at a Kreuzberg restaurant, Nils had been on the lookout for a new job. His longstanding interest in wine led him to contemplate working for a wine distributor or even going into wine writing. At the same time, the idea of opening his own place was never far from his mind. Before he even had time to develop a concept of what he might like to do, he stumbled across the empty shop space at Stargarder Straße 72. Considering there was no full kitchen and limited space, a restaurant was out of the question. The low margins of a wine store put him off that idea, and a cafe didn’t seem to be a sensible option as there was one next door already.
For around two years prior to this time, Nils had been concocting a variety of green smoothies for himself at home. By his own admission, while they were nutritionally beneficial, they often left a little to be desired in the taste department. He thought back to his time spent living in London and how popular juices and smoothies are there, and saw a gap in the market in Berlin. Next thing he knew, he had signed a lease and was opening a smoothie shop. Nils bought a range of books on smoothies and tried out the recipes within these. He wasn’t so keen on most of them though, and decided to take a different approach. Calling back to his many years surrounded by good food, both serving it and preparing it, he decided to design the smoothies the way he would design a dish – that is, to take a few key ingredients that go well together and build around these. He took this further by creating the smoothies around three main categories of ingredients.
In the first category are the taste-dominant base ingredients such as banana and apple. The second category are the sub ingredients that give the sensation of sweet or salty or sour, and prevent the smoothie from becoming one dimensional. The third category is the one where Nils had to do a bit more research, and that was in the area of the ingredients that are good for your health…the so called Superfoods. Things such as leafy greens, spirulina, hemp seeds, even savoy cabbage. They might not taste great, so Nils uses the other ingredients in the smoothies to mask the flavour of these components. Most of the smoothies at Liquid Garden have between 10 and 12 ingredients, and around 50% green leaves.
It’s the complexity in his smoothies that keep people coming back. And according to Nils, regular smoothie intake is the key to reaping the health benefits! Luckily for Nils, he says around 85% of his customer base are regulars who live in the Kiez. And most of them come in three to six times per week. Surprisingly, he says most people will get the same smoothie for two or three months. Nils believes you can’t have a banana, apple and spinach smoothie for five days in a row without going crazy, so that’s why he applies the principles of cooking to the creation of his smoothie recipes, and why the different layers are so important. “You need to wow people. No one’s going to pay for something that’s healthy but tastes disgusting”.
We were curious to know if opening Liquid Garden has changed the way Nils eats himself. Before coming to Berlin, he co-opened and ran a restaurant in Nuremberg. They were always looking for the best ingredients, local and organic where possible. He says in that sense he became more product aware, but creating the smoothies has taken this to a new level. He eats more consciously now, taking care where he buys his food and eating much less meat and animal products.
This ethos extends to the smoothies at Liquid Garden, and Nils says quality and transparency are two of the things he cares about most in business. “I only sell what I would consume myself. All the products I sell which I don’t make here are all carefully selected and somewhat exclusive. And everything I do make myself, I want to be pretty much perfect”. Nils is of the belief that if you sell a common product, you can get away with not championing quality. And while he acknowledges he could possibly get away with using cheaper ingredients, his conscience won’t let him take shortcuts. “I make it hard for myself”, he laughs.
At the end of the day, he is selling a product that he truly believes in, and which he clearly enjoys educating himself about as much as possible. “It’s fun” he says. “I like the subject more than I anticipated”. And this comes across when visiting the shop. While he has an interest in design, and wanted to create a beautiful space, he was aware of making sure that style did not trump substance. “I’m very particular about the way I do things. It’s easier to make money if you have no scruples….to buy cheaply and sell at inflated prices. But there’s a line where that goes too far, like advertising a product as organic when it’s not.” Nils readily admits that it’s just not possible to buy all organic products for his store. He does where he can, and otherwise is honest about it.
He is of the belief that a place like Liquid Garden only works if the people selling the product are behind it. And of course it’s about more than just the product – it’s about the atmosphere, about how the product is sold and about who sells the product. Nils feels it always makes a difference if the owner of an establishment is there, and more importantly, involved. “You can’t just create a business, put it there and expect it to work”.
The way the business develops and evolves is of great interest to Nils. As the majority of his customers are regulars, he is constantly changing things, from the decorations to the spices in the smoothies. One thing that does remain constant though is that due to around 95% of his trade being take-away, there is often no queue in the shop. And in turn, this means that it’s quiet and people feel comfortable having a chat. “One of the coolest things about this place is that I’ve turned into a combination of bar tender and hairdresser. I’ve got lots of regulars who come in everyday and tell me everything”. Indeed while we were there one of his regulars came in complaining of a headache. Without missing a beat, Nils was able to recommend a suitable smoothie with some additions for extra headache killing powers. As we saw it, this interaction felt like a great example of community, well-being and conscious business practices coming together.