Column: Cafe Berlin is defined by more than the break-in

The community came together, donating to keep the “comeback cafe” running.

Whether you’re there because your parents are visiting for the weekend, you’re fist pumping at a concert, or you just need coffee, Cafe Berlin is a Columbia hotspot. It’s highly rated on apps like Yelp and Zomato, and it’s known for its creative dishes that incorporate simple, locally sourced ingredients.

But in January, when Cafe Berlin was broken into, much of the equipment, especially valuable items, were destroyed. The restaurant was left with around $53,000 in damages. The cables to the refrigeration units were cut, the evaporator inside the walk-in was punctured, and milk, cream and sugar were dumped on the sound board. These were just several of the damages.

Other Columbia businesses stepped up to help Cafe Berlin after the break-in. Lakota Coffee Company donated 25 pounds of coffee, Logboat Brewing Company replaced kegs, and members of the community donated money and resources to the cafe.

One community member, Barbara Buffaloe, created a GoFundMe page in response to the break-in. According to the page, Buffaloe thought the Cafe Berlin staff needed a day off to “process what happened and breathe.” Cafe Berlin owner Eli Gay estimated that $3,000 would cover the staff’s income for one weekday, so Buffaloe set the monetary goal at $3,500 to compensate for added GoFundMe charges. Within 24 hours, community members donated enough money to hit the goal. By the time donations closed, the page raised $4,521 from 125 donors.

“When we were getting closer to the goal some of the comments said that any extra should go towards a security system,” Buffaloe said in an email. “I think the funds might go towards that or perhaps to cover any of the other costs that have arisen since the break-in.”

Cafe Berlin is not only about food. Since 2014, the cafe has doubled as a concert venue for artists like Calvin Love, The King Khan & BBQ Show and Shana Cleveland & The Sandcastles. There was a concert scheduled for the night after the break-in, and with the rallying of the community, the show went on; David Dondero performed with Drown Craft and Cantalouper.

“There were probably a lot more people at the show giving support to the cafe, which made for a better turnout on a Sunday night,” Dondero said. “I was surprised how many folks came out in solidarity with the space.”

Cafe Berlin is also known for playing an active role in the community. In July, the restaurant closed in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

“We're using what little platform we have to raise awareness and spread support,” Cafe Berlin tweeted at the time. “We encourage other businesses to do the same.”

For MU junior Jack Gilkey, Cafe Berlin is the first restaurant where he felt like a repeat customer. He considers it his Columbia comfort food, not only because of what is on the menu, but because of the cafe’s atmosphere and impact on the community.

“Cafe Berlin is a representative of the customers they serve,” Gilkey said. “In this town, no matter which side you fall, if there is an issue to be faced, you speak out. Columbia is a place where being quiet means being content, so community members are proud to have a restaurant that will stick their head into the fire for them.”

Cafe Berlin also helps The Community Montessori, a low-cost school for young children. The cafe provides fresh, healthy and vegetarian lunches every day for the students, 75 percent of whom are below the poverty line.

“We really think our food programs help early child education,” said Ellen Wilson, site director of The Community Montessori. “Kids learn about different foods and fresh vegetables. Our whole community gets to try foods that they don’t normally get to try.”

Cafe Berlin also provides a location for The Community Montessori’s annual fundraiser. This year, the fundraiser is on April 29 and includes a lip sync battle. The last fundraiser raised $11,000.

“For many reasons, [Cafe Berlin is] essential,” Wilson said.

The break-in does not define Cafe Berlin. What does define it are a sense of community, activism, delicious food and the local music, education and art it supports.

“It was inspiring to see folks come together like that,” Dondero said. “They took a shitty situation and made it awesome.”

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