Chris Onton & Shawn Barber
Owners of Companion Coffee, Workplace, Kreuzberg, Berlin
Workplaces > Chris Onton & Shawn Barber

Opinions diverge on where to find the best coffee in Berlin – it’s both a hotly debated topic and an intensely personal issue. As barista Shawn Barber puts it, “Having a coffee can be a vulnerable time. You’ve finally found a place, you’re tired, and you just want something really good.”

Shawn, originally from Vancouver, is the co-founder of Companion Coffee, alongside Chris Onton of Perth. Their mission in Berlin – make good coffee, simply and thoughtfully.

They started their journey as two key baristas at The Barn café, back when it first opened in 2010. Following just the right amount of after-work drinks, they began to pose serious questions to each other about the direction they were heading in. Then inspiration struck, coming in the form of a decision to leave Berlin’s Third Wave coffee hub to start their own small venture inside Kreuzberg’s fashionable concept store Voo. Their impressive space – located in the courtyard of what was once a locksmith’s workshop – attracts all types of people from across the city: coffee–aficionados, locals, tourists and recently even tea lovers.

The pair source coffee from a trusted network and they recently expanded their menu to include a selection of hand-picked teas. And if just serving delicious beverages wasn’t enough, they also cater, consult and do coffee trainings, while focusing on transparency and ethics in the coffee industry. All while creating a relaxed and friendly experience for customers.

Early one morning we sat down with Shawn and Chris for our caffeine kick and to hear funny stories about how Companion Coffee came to life.

Let’s start with an easy one first. Where are you guys from and what brought you to Berlin?

Chris: Perth, Western Australia. Coming to Berlin sort of happened on its own in a way. At the time, I planned to spend a year or two traveling around Europe and thought it would be good to be based somewhere instead of wandering around the whole time. I thought Berlin would make for a good base.

Shawn: Vancouver, Canada, where I used to help people open cafes as a consultant for a few years. I came to Berlin and helped set up The Barn’s first cafe. Ralf, the owner, originally wanted to go for a lunch delivery service and I said, “Well I know how to deal with coffee and can help you out.”

Is Berlin where you both first met?

Chris: Yeah, we met at The Barn where we used to work together. Shawn was the first ever employee there, starting when it opened in 2010 and I was the third barista to be hired, about six weeks later.
Shawn: After we first met I moved back to Canada for some time and then moved to Italy where I was running a Bed & Breakfast in Tuscany. I eventually came back to Germany to help Ralf open The Barn Roastery and Chris was still working there.

And then how did that evolve into Companion Coffee?

Chris: We got to know each other as colleagues and realized we were pretty synced up in terms of how we worked. We would often go for drinks after work and talk about how we could set up our own thing. It was a pretty spontaneous step because this space became available and thanks to a lot of the conversations we’d already had, we knew we were on the same page and didn’t really need to think about it too much. It took us around 24 hours to decide to take it.

Shawn: There was a cafe in here before us and it closed after two years. Chris and I went out for a whisky one night in the dead of winter to decide what we were going to do with our lives and were like “what do we do? What opportunities are out there? Places are closing… Cory’s place in Voo just closed”… and then there was a pause and we both clicked.

So we showed up at Voo one day after sending a bunch of emails to what we thought was the owner, Yasin’s email address. Later it turned out we had just been leaving random messages for no one to see. One of the last ones we left said “We are going to come and meet you at the space on this day.” Not surprisingly, we got no response. We showed up anyway though and asked the guys working there to let the owner know we were there for a meeting. They called Yasin to say “the coffee guys are here to meet you” and he came down and was like, “who are you?!” But we pitched him our idea and he said we could have the space if we could be ready to serve coffee in three weeks or less. That was it. “If you can’t be open in three weeks, you can’t have the space.”

And at this point you didn’t even have a name or anything set up, right?

Shawn: Right, we didn’t have a name. All that we had done was go out for a drink and come up with the idea a few days prior. So we just got really lucky. There was another cafe closing in town and so we bought a bunch of their equipment, rented a machine and in three weeks we opened the cafe.

And why was it so important for it to be this particular space?

Shawn: Well, we looked at the previous cafe’s books and saw that they were pretty slow. For us that was interesting because we wanted to have a concept where we were also doing consulting, training, pop-up bars and catering so we were happy with the extra free time. We wanted to have a business where we were mainly working with people we liked and where we were able to branch out. The idea of having a space where the rent was low that allowed us to kind of showcase the different services we could offer was really appealing. However, it ended up being a lot busier than we initially thought and so it became more and more of a time crunch to actually do other projects on the side. Also, another reason this space was so approachable for us was that it didn’t need much capital. This empty space was easy to fit out with our own equipment and it was finally to a point where we could do something we really enjoyed. We tried to create an experience for customers that we would also want to have ourselves.

Was there anything important about why you chose Kreuzberg specifically, besides the space?

Chris: We both used to live in the area and, although we don’t anymore, it’s a great neighborhood. Without sounding cheesy, this is sort of why I chose Berlin as my base in the first place – it’s a real mix of international denizens, the freaks alongside the ambitious professionals.

So, how did you come up with the name and in such a short time?

Chris: Oh that’s a good story, it’s all thanks to Voo’s Creative Director, Herbert. We had all been thinking of the name and had a short list of pretty brutal ideas. In my opinion, “Those People” was the best contender – not a serious one, but for second place it was okay.

Shawn: I mean it was kind of a joke name but our other ones were so bad I don’t even want to say them now.

Go on…

Shawn: Well, like…Nah, I don’t remember.

Chris: Hold on to those, we should keep them in mind for future endeavors (laughs). So Companion was Herbert’s idea. He had been brainstorming names for us all day. Then he went to sleep and woke up in the middle of the night to write down this name that came to him while he was tossing and turning in his dreams. When I heard the story and hadn’t even heard the name yet, I was like “whatever it is, that’s going to be our name.” I mean, it came to someone in a dream. And then it turned out to be “Companion” and you really can’t talk shit on that.

It works on so many levels; whether we were going to be a consulting and events kind of business or simply a small shop partnered with a larger one. Also in the most obvious sense that coffee is your little bro.

It was pretty damn lucky and even the logo was designed on very short notice. I don’t think our designer, Traianos, even noticed but small stuff like the logo’s borders work well with the name and the fact that it’s a partnership. All these little elements that seem to be really well thought out strategy, it all just happened completely naturally.

Shawn: The name has also led to questions like “What is it like living and working together?” or like, “What do they mean by companions?” or “They’re such a cute couple.”

Chris: I mean, we’re in Kreuzberg, it’s good for business.

Is it true that it can be difficult working with a friend?

Shawn: I would say that about a lot of people; great friends but I wouldn’t work with them. But with us, it has been great actually.

Chris: I’ve never worked with a friend before, I wouldn’t know. Joking. I mean, the relationship definitely changed. It’s super nice to have the trust thing not being a question anymore. You can have total faith in the other person’s decision-making so it’s nice in that sense. But at the same time you have to remember to schedule time to be friends. It’s like living with a girlfriend: if you don’t make time to actually hang out when you live together then you don’t spend any quality time at all.

How do you guys divide up roles?

Shawn: When we first opened, we were both really excited and did everything together. I wouldn’t send someone an email without sending it to Chris first. We don’t really do that anymore. But yeah, we did everything together and for the first year we both worked every day at the cafe, opened and closed together. After doing crazy hours for a year I was like, “hey, what if you opened without me one day?” Slowly we started to pursue our own separate roles a little bit more. It’s funny because it’s the kind of partnership that when we do something together rather than individually, it instantly gets better.

Working with a friend has been great, though finding a balance is an art. We have to have rules. For example, we meet up to hang out and we say this is not a working day. Especially when hanging out with other friends we set a rule of ‘no work-talk’. Then we also have to set times when we are out of here to actually talk about work.

Is there something that makes Companion Coffee different to the other people out there making great coffee in Berlin?

Shawn: That’s an interesting question. I think what makes us different is that we’re not trying to be something game-changing, we are just showcasing what other people have done well in the best way possible. It’s not so much about us. We are trying to support people who grow and roast coffee. We are just the experts in preparation and service.

We always root for simplicity but mastery as well. One of the things I am proudest of is that we attract a mixed clientele; not necessarily just people who are into coffee but also others who live and work in the area as well as visitors.

Chris: The idea is not to shove something down someone’s throat but to just try to gauge where the customer is at and cater the experience to what they’re ready for. Some people don’t care if this particular bean is a fresh crop washed process heirloom varietal from the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia, they just want a black coffee to go.

Is there a reason why you change beans often?

Shawn: It’s a mix of things. Primarily, we aim to showcase different roasteries from around the world and the offerings that are out there. The fact that the beans are always different becomes part of the experience and that makes it more interesting for both us and the customers. Maybe it makes people think a little bit more about what they are having and then that becomes a point of interest and a reason for discussion.

And you also recently got into tea. Tell us more about that.

Shawn: While looking around for good tea we were after a product based on transparency. We wanted our tea to satisfy the same criteria as our coffee. Through transparency comes quality as well as ethics. Unlike commodity coffee producers, a farm that values quality and asks for a premium price considers their staff important and spends time to properly train them. There are places producing great tea that aren’t necessarily being transparent about it. That doesn’t mean they are not being ethical, but it begs the question “why are people not being transparent?” We had a really tough time finding someone who would supply us with something we felt good about. Actually, it ended up with Chris saying he loved this black tea he’d worked with at a previous job. We spent a long time trying to get a contact in India for it and got in touch to ask if we could get tea directly from them. That was where it started.

Why do you think people are not being transparent?

Shawn: When we started doing wholesale of the tea, this question of why people don’t mention things on their label became really apparent. Tea is like buying roasted coffee; there’s a specific place where the tea grows and a place where it’s processed. Maybe they’re the same or maybe they’re not. But once the tea is processed, either the day or the day after the leaves are picked, it’s a finished product. So, as an establishment, if we’re not blending teas and adding flavors. We’re really just buying, importing and presenting it to you. I think the reason there is so much secrecy in tea is because the money is not always ethically distributed and also people are reluctant to reveal their sources. We have spoken to our suppliers so they set aside individual day’s pickings for us and then we purchase an entire day’s production. After tasting a range of teas we buy the ones we find particularly special and then we make sure to put the supplier’s name on the label. Then if someone else wants to start a tea business and buy directly from the source, they have all the information. Since those guys are doing an ethical and great job, it’s more than fair to support them. It’s not all about us.

And it seems to really have taken off…

Shawn: Yeah, it’s been great. I traveled to farms in India and Nepal and many of them wanted to require that we buy large quantities so we had to think how to go about this. Luckily, we found other people in town who were interested in buying tea from us. That meant we were initially selling it to other cafes, not really so much as a business but more as a way to afford the tea we wanted to serve. The wholesale side of it has enabled us to have the quality and ethics we were after.

What’s next? Do you ever think of a new space?

Shawn: We’re in the process of expanding our tea offerings in the next few months. So that’s really exciting.

We’ve been having a lot of conversations about the future and there are a lot of options but we are super passionate about the tea thing – that’s been a key point of conversation. We asked ourselves if we wanted to open another shop but since we’re both so interested in tea nowadays we are still in a decision-making process trying to figure out how to follow that direction.

But do you want to stay in Berlin?

Shawn: Yes, or?

That’s so German! Adding “or” at the end. How’s your German by the way? And would you say Berlin is now your home?

Chris: It’s a hard question that I think about a lot. I feel like it is our home but I don’t know if that’s because it really feels like it or because it’s just a familiar place. My German is not amazing. I can communicate, maybe at a relatively slow pace, but I manage. I went back to German school for that reason; to be able to engage a bit more. Not knowing the language is a huge disadvantage when trying to integrate properly or consider this place your home. I’ve had quite a few conversations about Berlin throughout the years and I’ve decided that Berlin is a pretty unique place and possibly not to be considered as Germany. It’s this weird little island with a long history of international inhabitants.

However, going back to what you asked, the question of home is difficult. I can’t really imagine anywhere else that is home. When I go back to my hometown it feels familiar but I really don’t feel like I fit – even when I lived there I existed outside the normal demographic of that city, whereas in Berlin I’m more normal. More people share the same interests and in that sense it feels like home.

Companion and Freunde Von Freunden have a long history together. Companion Coffee‘s website was designed by MoreSleep, FvF’s mother agency. And Chris even runs regular coffee training sessions at the the office for all our aspiring in-house “baristas.” If you want to find out more about the Voo Store, check out our portrait of Voo’s founder Herbert Hofmann.

Photography: Robbie Lawrence

Text: FvF