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Bonanza Coffee in Berlin - Our interview with CEO Yumi Choi


We spoke to CEO of Bonanza Coffee Yumi Choi, the first to bring high quality coffee to Berlin.

Although the presence of high quality coffee shops in Berlin may not seem remarkable today, it certainly was ten years ago. It’s in this sense that Yumi Choi and her business partner Kiduk Reus have “the spirit of pioneers”. They were the first ones to bring carefully sourced and meticulously roasted coffee to the German capital, with their Bonanza Coffee “roasteries”.

From visiting coffee farms in Ethiopia to designing an aesthetic that complements the product, Yumi Choi has the exacting eye of an artist – which makes sense because it turns out that’s exactly what she is! Speaking over Skype, we talked about the history of Bonanza Coffee, the importance of communication in gastronomy and much more.

Hi Yumi. Let's talk about the history of Bonanza Coffee. Why did you start the business in 2006?
Back then it was really exciting because this type of coffee didn't exist in Germany. Also, it was exciting to discover coffee from a personal point of view – I went from being an ignorant consumer to really understanding the product I'm drinking. So it was these two things: it hadn't been done yet and there was so much to do. I think we have this spirit of pioneering at Bonanza.

What inspired you to start Bonanza if no-one else in Germany was doing it?
First it was actually England. I went to Monmouth Coffee in London and it was such a strange taste – I couldn't place it. Then my business partner Kiduk and I visited the US, Portland and Seattle. There I had for the first time coffee that tasted of strawberry. So we were inspired by other places where the movement was already happening.

Now it's ten years later. How has the market for high quality coffee in Berlin changed?
Just a couple of months ago I just wanted to have a good coffee and of course, I'm really picky and can't just drink anywhere but I noticed that now there are many places where I can! It's amazing the way the scene has exploded.

Did you say you have a business partner?
Yes, his name’s Kiduk. He's really the driving force for coffee quality and innovation. He's an entrepreneurial perfectionist.

And what values do you bring to the operation?
Coffee – or gastronomy in general – is also about communication and being a host: making people comfortable. I'm personally interested in what happens at the origin of the coffee process. So I travel to these places to see how they work. I also take care of our wholesale customersKiduk travels a lot but is not really in the daily business. I'm at the point where everything comes together. 


So you travel to the countries where the coffee beans are grown and produced? How do you choose your sources? 
We choose by flavour! Obviously Ethiopian coffee is so unique in its flavour profile, so too is Kenyan coffee. For our espresso we use a Brazilian bean and I went to visit the farm last year. This year I also went to Costa Rica but it was more NGO work: it was for a prestigious competition called the 'Cup of Excellence'. I was on the jury and it was a great experience.

When you're visiting a coffee-producing farm what factors do you look out for?
You can only produce outstanding flavour when the circumstances around are good. There needs to be a certain kind of organisation; a fairness towards the people who are picking; a cleanliness for the processing of the coffee – if the water is not clean the final cup cannot be clean. It's all very tangible things. A dirty, exploitative environment cannot produce high quality coffee.

People who produce high quality coffee are often community leaders and have a positive impact in the communities they're working in; you can taste this in the cup. That's what's so beautiful and rewarding about searching for this product.

Let’s move back to Berlin. I believe you now have two locations. How did you choose them?
We were really blue-eyed and very naïve when we started. With the first location in Prenzlauer Berg, we just took it because we could get it. We didn't do any deep analysis about foot traffic or the location or anything! But we were really lucky because, something we only discovered later, was there's a flea market nearby on Sundays which meant lots of people and tourists came. It’s more of neighbourhood café: there's not a lot of foot traffic. This means it's more intimate and you have time to talk to people. Also since we moved to Prenzlauer Berg ten years ago there has been a lot of gentrification. A lot of our old customers who were artists and so on moved to Kreuzberg. 

That’s where our second location is. It's really beautiful and smack in the middle of Kreuzberg. But at the same time, it's a surprising location. It's in this place where there are a lot of stereotypes about it being dangerous, but you follow this street and suddenly it becomes really quiet. So there's all these exciting things happening and then you follow the street and go into a backyard and our roasters is like an oasis. It's really hidden. 



I'm interested in how you become embedded in the community. Do you have customers you develop relationships with, or is the clientele more migratory?
In the first location, Kiduk and I worked there for the first three years every day. The customers are very interesting and it was like making friends. There was a lot of conversation and you see babies being born and growing up, people going through hard times. It was like having your own fabricated TV series you step in to every day!
In the second location, the Kreuzberg neighbours were a lot more suspicious of us at first. There have been a few incidents of vandalism, with people saying it's a "Yuppie Café" and some even spray-painted our signs. But we've spoken to these people and managed to resolve some differences – this one person's stopped spray-painting our sign after he saw that we were cool people! But most people are very nice.

A purely functional question: do you serve food at Bonanza or is it only coffee?
We ourselves do purely coffee but we also realised customers cannot stomach coffee alone! So for the second location we get really good pastries. At the moment I'm really proud there's one pastry chef and he's a very unique character in Berlin. He's only open 3 days a week and he makes the best pastries in the city. We’ve been asking him for ten years if we can sell his pastries and he's finally agreed!

What's his name?
He's called Eric and his place is called Salon Sucré. He's French and Katia, his partner, is from Brazil. They're very unique characters. He listens to techno while he bakes his things. For ten years she's been saying they can't do wholesale but now we're finally selling them three days a week. But next week they're on holiday so there'll be nothing!

Is there anything else you want to talk about?
What people don't know is we also do wholesale. I think we have the best team in Berlin, with a pretty unique approach. We give training to other staff of companies who buy our coffee. We use a pool of coffee experts that we send out to train our wholesale customers. It's not just buying coffee – it's buying into the whole culture of speciality coffee. 

Check out Bonanza Coffee's websiteInstagram and Facebook. Use the map above to find your nearest one.

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