I’ve been a fan of The Barn Berlin for almost as long as I’ve been into specialty coffee. And that’s a long time. Ahead of meeting Ralf, I tried to collect my thoughts as to why I‘m such a fan.
It wasn’t the packaging. In fact, the packaging is, by Ralf’s own admission, quite boring. It wasn’t the aesthetics of his Berlin shops. To this day, I’ve never set foot in one. So why then would I make a point of finding Barn coffee in any new city I visited? When I first moved to Dubai, for example, that’s exactly what I did.
Since opening its doors in 2010, The Barn has become Germany’s leading specialty coffee roaster. A few noteworthy awards over the years underline the point. And the fact that it exports to 82 countries proves the judges aren’t biased.
When Ralf considered expansion beyond Berlin, Dubai was always the number one choice. I was curious about that decision. I was even more curious about how he built his business. Two very special coffees, a few laughs and 90 minutes later I got the answers I was looking for.
Don’t focus on creating a masterplan
For your life. Or your business.
Ralf started his career in Finance. And what’s the natural next step after Finance? For Ralf, it was Acting (!). And what’s the natural next step after Acting? For Ralf, it was Coffee.
He opened the doors to The Barn Berlin in June 2010. And even then there was no masterplan. It grew organically. He opened one store. Perfected the model. Then opened the next. And so on.
Be relentlessly uncompromising
The Barn has very specific recipes for drinks. And when confronted by a customer asking for a change in the way its prepared, perhaps a plant milk (the Barn introduced oat milk to the menu relatively recently), the staff know to politely refuse. Ralf has over the years perfected the preparation of his drinks such that the very best of the coffee presents itself. He doesn’t compromise that process. For anyone.
Learn to accept
You won’t convert people to your philosophy overnight. It takes time, patience, and acceptance. Acceptance that there are some people you will never convert. And that’s okay.
Ralf proudly told me that The Barn Berlin has 5 star Google ratings and 1 star Google ratings. Nothing in between. You either love or hate The Barn. And that’s okay.
Terroir is the soil, climate and location where the coffee is grown. Collectively these elements have a big impact on the coffee’s taste and character. Coffee terroir is specific to a region. It is terroir that makes coffee from Honduras taste very different to an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. According to Ralf, you can’t truly understand single origin coffee without understanding terroir.
Be on top of every detail
Ralf says he’s been on top of every detail since day 1. Every detail. He has at some point mastered every role in his business. Green coffee buyer. Roaster. Barista. Cleaner. He’s done it all. And because he’s done it all he knows what it takes for those things to be done well.
There are no changes, additions or deletions to recipes or the menu unless he personally approves. He even manages The Barn’s social media. In December he will take a holiday for the first time in a very long time. And while he’s away he will allow one of his people to manage the social media. An idea he’s ever so slightly unsettled by.
The future of specialty coffee is education. Educating the consumer. Because their demand will be felt down the value chain. But education isn’t about talking down to people. It’s meeting them where they are, and then coaching them.
He says that’s why the front-of-house team is so important. It’s their job to know the customer. Build trust. Then educate. For example, if a regular has the same drink every time they visit, offer them something different every once in a while. Coach them to explore. Educate.
Do what you love
Ralf comes from a big family. He remembers his childhood home always being very busy. His mom welcoming guests, cooking food. Hosting was her pleasure. He thinks that’s where his love for the hospitality industry comes from. He really enjoys having people in his shops. Serving them to the best of his ability. Just like his mom.
That‘s why the pandemic has been so tough. Yes, its been tough on the bottom line. But its been even tougher not seeing his regulars.
Take your time
Ralf is in no rush to take over the world. In fact, it took 11 years before he even started contemplating expansion outside Berlin. When I asked why he recently made a trip to Abu Dhabi, suggesting that perhaps he was scouting for a second UAE location, he smiled and reminded me his focus is the Dubai store. Only the Dubai store. And that’s where, he says, it should be.
By the way, he chose Dubai as the first international location because he loves the city. He’s here once a quarter. He loves the people. And, he had selfish reasons too, he says. I I t’s a great escape when Berlin gets too cold.
I left this topic to the end because it’s the most important lesson I took from my time with Ralf. His razor-sharp focus.
Everything Ralf does is focused on serving the best coffee he can. The understanding of terroir. Farmer relationships. The importance of his front-of-house team. The uncompromising approach to brewing. The “boring” packaging. The no laptop rule in his shops. It’s all done so that it is the coffee, and only the coffee, that takes center-stage.
And I love that.
And that, I realised, is why I love The Barn Berlin.