Blending the steely discipline of the corporate sector with panache cultivated from a career in acting, German entrepreneur Ralf Rüller created one of Europe’s most celebrated specialty coffee businesses
Ralf Rüller Founder, The Barn | Photo credits: All photos courtesy of The Barn
As employee number one of Berlin-based specialty café The Barn
, Ralf Rüller has at some point mastered every role in his 10-site business. From green coffee buyer and celebrated roaster, barista and even store cleaner, there’s no job too large – or too small – for the award-winning café founder.
The German-born entrepreneur’s eclectic career has consistently been defined by a strong work ethic and uncompromising focus on quality that are the founding principles of his brand.
“I’m a total control freak, it is probably not easy working with me,” Rüller concedes. “I don’t have much time, so I need to let go and delegate, but I’m still doing the sourcing and quality control. I work closely with the head roaster and the head barista. Any changes to brewing techniques go through me. I also do everything on marketing, wholesale and the web shop – everything you read on social media is from me.”
Since opening its doors in 2010, The Barn has become a leading light in German specialty coffee, but the business has also cultivated a strong international reputation for its meticulous attention to quality and detail.
“Turning green beans brown is easy, but roasting the coffee really well is like bringing out the characteristics of a person – that’s the craft,” says Rüller.
Today, The Barn exports its award-winning coffees to 82 countries via wholesale and retail subscriptions, and maintains long-term direct trade relationships with coffee farmers from across Africa and the Americas.
“I never felt the direction other people were going with latte art or using specialty coffee as branding was very truthful”
Underlining the business’ achievements, in 2018 The Barn was voted Best Independent Specialty Coffee Shop in Europe
, at Allegra’s International Coffee Awards. The following year it took another Allegra award to be named Best Specialty Coffee Roaster in Europe & Middle East
The university of life
An autodidact by nature, Rüller did not attend university and instead began an apprenticeship at Deutsche Bank at age 16. He subsequently embarked on a successful career in corporate finance, holding international posts in Singapore, Tokyo and Berlin in the 1990s. A later reinvention saw Rüller attend drama school and pursue an acting career in the UK where he took roles in several television and stage productions.
“My whole life has been working for people and rising through the ranks. For me, it is very different from the Millennial culture we have now where people are asking for the reward before they even start working,” Rüller reflects.
The interior of the annex café space at The Barn’s new Brunnenviertel roastery
A decade spent in London 1998-2008 would prove especially influential in his culinary journey. Living close to legendary artisanal food hub, Borough Market
, Rüller was steeped in the UK capital’s emerging specialty coffee revolution as legendary brands such as Flat White
and Square Mile
were making their mark.
“Everything is formative,” says Rüller. “Starting The Barn brought together a lot of elements from previous lives, almost like a circle closing.”
Cut from a different cloth
For many with a corporate finance background, an intensive period of market research to ascertain consumer trends and market demand must precede any new business venture. However, driven by an unshakable vision and passion for coffee and hospitality, Rüller followed his instincts instead.
Had he built his business around market demand in Germany in 2010, Rüller jokes he would have excusively served lattes in tall glasses with lashings of syrup. “I never felt the direction other people were going with latte art or using specialty coffee as branding was very truthful,” he says.
Instead, a laser focus on delivering the very best coffee quality enabled him to build a business that even after 10 years is still cut from a very different cloth in the German market.
Rüller credits his financial background as a great asset in building The Barn, especially in a market still relatively unaccustomed to specialty café culture. “I wanted to find a fusion between the capital market skills I gained in banking and the communication skills I learned from drama.
“Going to Japan in 1993 after the asset price bubble had burst, I was restructuring and fixing companies. I saw a lot of companies go down and learning from these experiences was very helpful when starting my own business.”
“Specialty coffee is an opportunity to create a very democratic community in your coffee shop"
Room to breathe
The Barn’s approach centres on de-cluttering the store environment so that customers can immerse themselves in the sensory experience with minimal distractions. “The vision for The Barn came back to three points: One was coffee, the other was fresh bread and third was home-made cakes and food.
I think you can only really be successful when you have a very clear vision, focus, and do not
“The communication element is very important to explain our water temperatures, why coffee with cold milk tastes like Nescafé, and how our biodynamic milk, if it is steamed at the right temperature, will create high sweetness so that you don’t need to add sugar.”
It is a purity of vision that has ruffled some feathers over the years. In 2012 The Barn sparked controversy after adding pushchairs to a ban on extra milk, laptops and dogs in-store.
Nevertheless, Rüller is adamant the rules make his coffee shops more inclusive by encouraging customers to focus on the fundamentals of specialty coffee.
“Specialty coffee is an opportunity to create a very democratic community in your coffee shop. It doesn’t have to be full of hipsters with tattoos and moustaches. In my shop that person would sit next to an elderly lady who is enjoying the drink just as much.”
L: Ralf Rüller oversees the roasting process | R: A clear vision: Pouring the perfect pourover
The Barn prides itself on the strength of its Direct Trade relationships with coffee farmers. But these did not materialise overnight, nor is there a manual on how to establish ties with producers.
So, how does one forge lasting commercial relationships with coffee farmers in remote locations across different continents?
“At first it’s more like coffee tourism; you go on tours with other roasters to learn, but that’s not relationship building, it’s more education. Initially I bought from green coffee traders, like Nordic Approach
, for instance, who share the same vision in terms of quality. However, at a certain scale there is a tipping point when a specialty roaster will switch from buying through a trader to direct relationships.
“We have a very clear vision of who we are and what we want to change at origin and how we want to promote higher quality coffee and not mimic what already exists in the market.”
The strength of these global relationships has been tested during the pandemic, but The Barn has been able to give producers a greater sense of certainty, even as supply chain disruption has left many producers unable to sell their crops. “In Guatamala we had a situation where there was a group of eight farmers who could not move their coffee as single origin specialty, so we agreed with them to do a blend at origin. They got a premium price, not as high as a single origin, but a lot higher than market value, and we were able to take that,” Rüller explains.
Weathering the storm
Like the vast majority of coffee shops globally, The Barn has been hard hit by Covid-19. But through a combination of e-commerce, takeaway coffee, wholesale and charitable initiatives, Rüller has worked hard to keep the coffee flowing through his business.
“We kept five cafés open with a bean window so customers could at least buy beans and takeaway coffee. This generated some revenue, but the café business dropped by 80%.”
As of August 2020, in-store trade was still only 30-40% of its pre-coronavirus levels. And, without qualifying for state support, The Barn’s international B2B business has been a lifeline. Fortunately, the business’ global reputation and reach, along with the savvy adoption of e-commerce, has helped it weather the storm.
“We are carefully navigating through this crisis and trying to generate as much café business as possible, keeping negotiations with landlords open, and trying to trade as much as possible.”
By establishing an online coffee community and encouraging customer loyalty with membership perks and special offers, sales from The Barn’s global coffee subscription have increased 50%.
Creative marketing through this network has also enabled the business to move surplus stock and avoid waste. One such initiative saw coffee donated to healthcare workers as far afield as the Republic of Ireland and Romania.
“I strongly believe that discounting is the wrong way for specialty coffee – at my level it will destroy my brand. I can’t give 20-30% off, but I can say: buy four bags, you don’t know what you’re getting and they’re slightly rested, but you get a better price for that product and it is only available during Covid.”
L: Customers are served with coronavirus safety measures at The Barn Café Mitte | R: The Barn’s unfussy coffee bag design
Old traditions, new beginnings
Despite the challenges of the global pandemic, in September 2020 The Barn unveiled a stunning new roastery and café space
. Located in the historic area of Brunnenviertel, the iconic venue dates back to 1883 and was the former headquarters of German electrical firm AEG.
The new space features a dedicated single origin brew bar and, coronavirus disruption not withstanding, will eventually host a training centre and invite guests into the heart of The Barn’s celebrated roastery.
As for the future, Rüller says it has always been his intention to grow organically and never scale at the expense of quality. Like thousands of hospitality businesses around the world, The Barn is grappling with deep uncertainty because of coronavirus
. While the business has had to dig deep to find innovative solutions, compromising its core principles was never on the menu.
“The very strong advice I would give to anyone starting a business is to have a very clear philosophy and concept and stay true to that,” says Rüller.
That drive and singular purpose has paid dividends during the pandemic and demonstrated that perspiration, dedication, and just the right amount of candour, can go a long way in the face of adversity.
Ralf Rüller is founder of The Barn
This article was first published in Issue 5 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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