Creating Café Barcomi's in Berlin

Entrepreneur: Cynthia Barcomi, 46

Background: Just one month after graduating from Columbia University in 1985, Cynthia Barcomi decided on a whim to move to Berlin to become a professional dancer. It was a difficult transition for the Seattle native, who had earned a degree in theater/dance studies and philosophy but could barely speak German. Determined, Barcomi learned the language, eventually joined a dance company (where she was a principal dancer for eight years), and got married. After giving birth to her second child, Barcomi decided it was time to change course again. This time she wanted to start her own business. She came up with the decidedly un-German idea of opening a café serving American-style baked goods and roasting her own coffee beans.

The Company: Barcomi started off small, selling her baked goods to Berlin's largest department store, Kaufhaus des Westens, better known as KaDeWe. A year later, in 1994, with $15,000 in savings and a bank loan of $100,000, Barcomi, by then fluent in German, opened Café Barcomi's on Berlin's Bergmannstrasse, serving brownies, New York cheesecake, muffins, bagels, and roasted coffee. In 1997, she opened a second, larger outlet (this one with a restaurant) in the Mitte district in the former East Berlin. Now celebrated in the German media as "Berlin's Coffee Queen" and "Miss American Pie," Barcomi is set to publish her third baking book, is filming a pilot TV program about baking, and is in discussions about opening a café in the city's new airport.

Revenue: $2.07 million in 2008

Her Story: I had a concept, and I knew what I wanted to do. But I had no idea where coffee was cultivated or how to roast it. Still, I learned growing up that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I started by going to Berlin's main library and checked out books about coffee and how to roast beans. Back then, there was no Internet or Google (GOOG). There was a specific kind of roasting machine that I wanted. To find it, I had to go to Berlin's Commerce Dept. library. That was the only the place where you could get access to the Yellow Pages for every city in the country. Next, I needed a loan.

I learned pretty quickly that there were a lot of cultural bridges that I needed to cross. I was instructed to calculate how much it would cost to start my business and explain my plan and ask for a credit line. It seemed simple enough. I went to the first bank; they turned me down flat. Then another and another. I went to about 12 banks and was rejected by them all. I represented a triple whammy: I was a foreigner, a woman, and I wanted to start a food business. While I didn't doubt my concept, I did wonder whether I would get a bank to help me.

Perhaps naively, I refused to give up. The kind of American-style entrepreneurial spirit that I had grown up with doesn't really exist here. Repeatedly, I was given the prevailing wisdom in Germany: If my idea were a good one, it would already exist—and since it doesn't, then we don't need it. I was told there are no new good ideas. I said: "I'm sorry, I beg to differ. With that attitude we'd all be riding around in horse carriages because nobody would have invented the car."

To Go Far, Exude Confidence

I doubled my resolve and came up with a new line of attack. I started taking my cookies with me to my bank meetings, and I put my theater background to good use, approaching meetings like a scene study class. The other people were often mistrustful and skeptical. I told them of course I knew how to roast coffee. Nobody checked, and the trick was to act as if I could do it. I came across full of confidence. I made sure to speak only German, and I refused to let my husband attend these meetings. I was a woman, and I was going to convince them I could do it. Sometimes I think had I not been a Girl Scout and studied theater, I would never have been able to get through the process.

After about two months, I got my loan! (I also had to find a second bank to assess my project, deem me a low risk, and guarantee the first loan.) I found a space and began renovating it. I learned everything by doing it, and that usually meant the hard way. Initially, I did all the baking and roasting. It was crazy. I may have been naive, but I needed to find my footing.

I soon came to discover that the cultural gaps weren't just in business, they were also gastronomical. I was tired of Germans constantly telling me that Americans have no culture, especially no food culture. I knew that I had a great idea, but I had to find a way to communicate it to the German palate. They didn't have a culture of roasting specialty coffees. And while they did have a big baked-goods tradition, a lot of what they did have was packaged, supermarket-quality. It's actually quite horrible.

I was insistent on staying true to my original concept. I see lots of ideas that are successful in the U.S. that seem to make people think they can bring them here and conquer a new market. But each country and culture has its own idiosyncrasies. You can't take an American idea and translate it one to one. I found that it is really important to stay connected to your ideas and communicate them, but you have to know the context.

Chocolate Cherry Muffins

We had a really big opening, but afterward business trailed off. I dug in and realized I had to come up with a way to get people in the café. I knew Germans loved their cake and coffee, so I promoted cake-and-coffee Sundays. My goal was to have Barcomi's filled to standing room only on the weekends.

Once I got people in, I knew they'd love the food. I hung bagels from fishing line in the window because people didn't know what they were. I also adjusted my products to a more German palate. I still made muffins and cheesecake but I used ingredients they favored in an American way, like chocolate cherry muffins. I made my food accessible without compromising. Within six weeks, the place was packed. The press got interested. I was seen as exotic, this American in Germany making handmade baked goods.

I was really successful pretty fast. It was like getting hit by a truck. People wanted more and more. I said yes to almost everything. Had I known then what I know now, I might have been a lot more careful. When KaDeWe came to me and asked for a huge order for its food hall, I didn't think twice. I was working so hard. I had hired a German pastry chef who had worked in New York to help me. He said: "Cynthia, the more successful you are, the more organized and structured you are going to have to be."

No Preconceived Notions

For me, not having a background in the food business had its advantages and disadvantages. I had no preconceived notion of how to do things, which expanded my horizons. But on the other hand, this learning by doing was tough. I was managing people who had a lot more experience than I did. Also in Germany there aren't many female entrepreneurs, and the kitchen is an especially male-dominated arena. I would say to myself: "I hope nobody realizes I don't know what I'm doing."

One of my biggest blunders came when I hired two experienced French pastry chefs. I thought they'd be great in my kitchen, but things turned sour fast. They were disrespectful of me and jealous that I had less education than they did as a pastry chef. I was their boss, and I fired them. They sued me, and I countersued. I eventually won, but it was an awful experience. As a result, I learned you really need to take a good long look at what is going on in front of you. It was a hard lesson to learn, but as an employer it is a big deal. Employee rights in Germany are far-reaching, but you have to know your own rights, too, and be responsible to both of them.

Recently I was asked to be on a panel here for women entrepreneurs. The people in the audience were trying to get a recipe for the personality characteristics needed to be successful, as though there were a checklist. I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that we have very different educations and mentalities. In America I was taught you can be anything. In Germany the attitude is that the government will take care of you or you learn a trade and that's what you do. Most people here see starting their own business as an alternative to being unemployed. For me it was definitely advantageous to have stuck with it and figured out how to run a business here, but I don't think I could have done it had I not been fluent in the language and lived here for many years first. I was self-critical about what I could do and what I couldn't, and then I persevered.

—As told to Stacy Perman

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