Morgan Love: Transforming coffee culture in Berlin
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance
Fact: Australians take their coffee very seriously. So seriously, that in the past few years there has been an abundance Australian-influenced cafes infiltrating cities around the globe, and influencing the way the locals experience food – from avocado toast to flat whites. Berlin is no exception, the city is home to many new cafes recreating the unique coffee culture Melbourne and Sydney are known for.
Advance spoke to Morgan Love, owner of one such café named Silo, about his experiences on moving to Berlin, opening a venue with zero hospitality experience, and plans for future expansion.
Could you give us a little bit of your background, and how you came to be at the helm of one of Berlin’s most popular coffee hangouts? (Where’s home in Australia, what your background is in, etc)
I grew up in Canberra, but consider Melbourne “home”, as I attended boarding school and university there (and most of the time in between), so it’s where all my mates in Australia are.
A few days after my last university exam I was on a plane to Europe for the very first time. I was mainly planning on travelling around a bit, but also wanted to live in one place for a few months to have a bit more of an in-depth experience.
The purpose of the trip was to give me some time to think about what I wanted to do after university, and like so many others in a similar position, I found myself in Berlin. I started an internship with a small iPhone application development agency, and while I found that to be uninspiring, being in Berlin – meeting new people and just generally absorbing and getting to know the energy of the city – was something quite special. I decided to stay past my one year working holiday visa (somehow I got myself a student visa) and continued living there. Around 18 months into my Berlin “Vacation” I had an idea to open a café, as the area I lived (Friedrichshain) had a dreadful coffee scene, yet was filling up with expats, internationally aware Germans and tourists. I talked about this with my cousin, James Maguire, who had come to Berlin around six months after I arrived, following the completion of his Masters in Architecture. At the time, we both found our jobs in Berlin to be a little mundane and under the level which we thought we could operate if we were working back home, partially due to the difficulties of the language barrier.
The idea of having a project together – where we could have creative freedom and also create something we were passionate about – really appealed to us. And so (probably against better judgement) we opened Silo – totally inexperienced in hospitality or how German business and taxation works. We’ve been learning a lot in the past four years!
Despite a little resistance from “old school” coffee lovers, Silo really resonated with a lot of Friedrichshain locals due to the attention we put into the coffee and also James’ design of the space. It didn’t really take long before people were talking about the café, and then around eight months into the whole thing we added a Melbourne style breakfast offering, and things just sort of exploded from there. We’re really grateful that people appreciate our quality focused approach – something that I think was lacking in Berlin previously.
How long have you been living in Berlin for?
I have been living in Berlin since December 2011.
Has the hospitality scene changed in the time you’ve been living there?
I think we’ve seen huge improvements in the food scene in the five to six years I have been here. There was (and still is) a plethora of very cheap and low quality food options, and then on the other end of the spectrum high end, traditional restaurants – and nothing in between. Neither of which are particularly interesting to many residents and visitors to the city. Slowly, we’ve starting seeing more and more mid-priced, creative restaurants open – almost all of which have seen instant and deserved success.
Similarly, the coffee scene has developed. When Silo opened, I think there was maybe six or so good coffee shops serving a high-quality product, and now there are over 30. This presents new challenges to coffee shop owners as the scene is moving really quickly, so staying ahead of the curve and staying relevant starts becoming pretty important.
Why do you think Australian hospitality professionals fit in so well in many diverse cultures around the world? How do you think Australians are influencing the industry?
Australians have a love of great, creative food and drink, and expect it with friendly and unpretentious service. Australians have a really strong sense of culture of when it comes to hospitality, so it’s just so obvious if someone has lived in Australia or worked in hospitality there because they want to get the job done (and get the job done well) and treat their customers like mates while they’re at it.
What was the biggest challenge in opening Silo? Do you identify with it being an “Australian” hangout?
The fact that we had a total of zero hours of hospitality experience between us when we opened. So, the whole thing was challenging! But I would say that navigating the German bureaucratic system while barely being able to string a sentence in German together was really hard. We did have the help of a friend who, without, probably we’d never have gotten permission to open.
How did you know you were ready to expand?
Silo was running really well, and also started requiring less and less of our attention. I think we always wanted to do something on a bigger scale to keep learning and growing. The roastery, Fjord, was a big part of that. It was something totally new and gave us a huge platform to keep learning and obviously doing B2B has its own challenges compared to a B2C business. I think when the opportunity to open Commonground came along, we weren't actively looking to open a new place (with Fjord also only being relatively new), but when the opportunity did come along, we had all these ideas and it just started happening.
Is it the same concept as Silo?
Both places have the same ideals, but are quite different in terms of the vibe and marketing position. Commonground is right in the middle of town and therefore attracts different customers from Silo. It gives us a chance to readapt our ideas and concepts and then make judgements on what parts of the concept works at both places, and potentially universally, and what is Silo exclusive. I guess the main difference between the two is that Commonground also is a cocktail bar in the evening too!
Do you plan on opening more, perhaps outside of Berlin?
I think that I would like to keep opening new places. There is definitely an adrenaline rush and excitement when you are working on a new concept. The day to day running on a venue can be a little less interesting after building something from scratch. I would love to build something like Silo elsewhere, maybe a little bit closer to the ocean and somewhere a little sunnier. I definitely miss those long and hot Australian summers.
Australia is quite spoilt in terms of accessibility to agricultural resources and fresh produce. How does it compare to Berlin?
Absolutely Australians are spoilt! The quality of the produce we have available to us here is not great, and the produce you do find that is great quality can be really expensive. Both fruit and meat and to some extent, vegetables, are all superior in Australia – and with Berlin being inland, it’s very challenging to get halfway decent seafood and fish. Having said that, there are some great producers and suppliers trying to offer a level of quality to market for prices which still allow for regular people to afford and we’re happy to be in a position to support those people with our business.
What’s something surprising about Berlin that only a local would know?
The reason that someone in a restaurant or cafe answers your questionable German in English is more than likely because they prefer speaking English too! Walking around the streets (in east-Berlin) here you hear a lot of English, I would almost say as much English as German.
If a visitor had 48 hours in Berlin, what would you recommend they do?
In summer – hire some bikes, ride around Kreuzberg through the parks in the sun, stumble upon something weird and amazing like an open-air party. In winter? Don’t come in winter! It’s freezing.