It was sometime in the mid 1990s and the place was New York. Kai Bröer was visiting from Berlin and stumbled across a cafe called Newsbar. They sold coffee and bagels, had an extensive selection of newspapers and magazines, and televisions mounted on the wall screening CNN. This was when cafes could be a place for people to go and read the paper. Before smartphones and iPads, wandering down to the local coffee shop to peruse the paper was a genuinely viable option for getting your news! And to do it while surrounded by others in a lively, relaxed place. This sort of experience struck a note with Kai, and he thought about how he would like to open something similar in Berlin one day.
Like the owner and designer of Newsbar, Kai’s background is in architecture. He and some friends had a firm in Berlin which he ran for 10 years before realising that he needed a change. In November 2012 he opened westberlin, a coffee bar and media shop on Friedrichstraße in central Berlin. They serve coffee, sandwiches, salads and cakes. And they sell a carefully chosen selection of magazines and books, focusing on independent publications.
westberlin is located on the Kreuzberg end of Friedrichstraße, in an area which is, by Kai’s own admission, a bit weird. Around the corner is the chaotic tourist frontline of Checkpoint Charlie, but the strip of Friedrichstraße westberlin is on can feel rather deserted. Despite some doubts from a few friends, Kai believed the area had potential. He knew there were a number of architectural firms and agencies in the vicinity for a future customer base, and if nothing else, Kai felt a place like westberlin would certainly stand out in the area. Almost three years into business, their customers are a mix of tourists and people who work nearby.
Kai believes that there’s no way a place like westberlin would have been successful in Berlin 10 years ago. He moved here in 1990 from the south of Germany to study architecture. He says he remembers a cold, grumpy and aggressive city. While it was an adventurous city, it wasn’t international. Kai feels the arrival of new residents from around the world in recent years has made it a friendlier place, and he much prefers this to the somewhat closed-in city of the past.
The arrival of some of these people saw the beginning of the Third Wave Coffee movement in Berlin, which in itself brings a new type of visitor to Berlin – the coffee tourist. These are the folk that purposefully set out to visit all the speciality coffee shops in the city, and westberlin is usually on their list. Prior to opening, Kai had met April Melnick, a coffee expert from Portland who started out as a consultant for the cafe, and is now the manager. While quality coffee was of high importance, Kai and April both agreed they wanted to keep things relaxed. It was important their baristas were educated and knew what they were doing, but the coffee culture didn’t need to be forced down people’s throats.
The cafe is housed on the ground floor of a residential building from the 60s. Kai was instantly drawn to the big windows and saw the potential to create the sort of space he had in mind. And as you’d expect from a former architect, everything from the furniture to the signage and the logo is carefully designed and thought out. Which brings us to the question of why Kai left his former career to open a cafe. It’s almost a bit of a cliché…the architect (or lawyer / bureaucrat / teacher etc) leaving their professional field to go in to a business which they (usually) have no experience in.
For Kai, the seed was planted with his visits to Newsbar many years before, where he saw the possibility to show people a different concept of what they thought a coffee shop could be. Another factor was the appeal of the simplicity and succinctness of the interaction between cafe and customer. While naturally it had it’s rewards, Kai had grown somewhat tired of the lengthy architect / client relationship, often spanning months and involving a lot of going back and forth. With a guest at the cafe, it’s a much quicker and simpler transaction. Kai is clearly content in his new role as the owner of westberlin. He says “It’s like I created my own living room – I love to be here”