The Spätkauf Beer even at 2 am

Edna Niclas works the early shift at the Spätkauf in Berlin-Mitte.
Edna Niclas works the early shift at the Spätkauf in Berlin-Mitte. | Photo (detail): © Katja Hanke

It’s one o’clock in the morning, the party is in full swing but the last bottle of beer has just been opened: a situation that causes young people in other German cities to tear their hair out in despair does not bother Berliners in the least. After all, a Spätkauf – a late night shop – is never far away.

These small shops are open well into the early hours, some even round the clock. Affectionately dubbed “Spätis” by Berliners, they come in all shapes and sizes, from small kiosks to mini supermarkets. All stock a basic range that includes drinks, crisps, tobacco and chocolate: in almost all the counter is covered by colourful chocolate bars, with endless different cigarettes and tobacco products stacked up behind it. One wall tends to be taken up entirely by bottles of wine, while at least three large refrigerators with glass doors entice customers with fifteen or more different types of beer, plus water, juice and other soft drinks. Most of the Spätkaufs also offer a selection of food and household goods: pasta, butter, yoghurt, dog food, washing-up liquid, and even fresh tomatoes or bananas – for those customers who have not managed to get to the supermarket in time or have forgotten to buy some small item.

People know each other and have a chat

Berlin boasts around 900 of these Spätkaufshops. For their customers, the Spätis are more than just shops – they serve as a neighbourhood meeting place. Local people buy their newspapers in the morning or a beer after work in the evening, often drunk right away at the little tables outside the shop. People know each other, have a chat and bump into their neighbours there.

The relationship between the customer and the shop owner is much more personal than in an anonymous supermarket. “We have become really fond of our customers”, says Seydi Dogmus, who runs the Oderberger Kiosk Späti in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district. His brother and a few close friends also work there. We are “like a family”, he explains, meaning not only amongst themselves but also in their relationship with customers. “We know when our customers aren’t feeling well or have some other problems”, he says, “and then ask them next time whether things are better again”. People from every conceivable social stratum come to his shop, he continues:“from the not very well-off to the multi-millionaires”.
Audio-Slide-Show: Spätis in Berlin
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
Transcript (PDF, 80 KB)

Pub substitute and more

Spätis are also extremely popular among students and the hordes of young party tourists who descend on the city every weekend from all over Europe, as they offer a cheap alternative to pubs, as well as a place to meet before a night out. Half a litre of beer for under 1.50 euros and pleasant company to boot is unbeatable value. Beer and cigarettes tend to be sold more than anything else, with the highest turnover achieved between 10 pm and 2 am.

In addition, some Spätkauf shops have specialized in certain products, stock a particularly wide selection of magazines and international newspapers, or offer unusual types of beer and wine - like Seydi Dogmus, whose Oderberger Kiosk boasts wines from small Italian wineries alongside fancy varieties of beer.

The controversy over Sunday opening

Sunday is the most important day of the week for Spätkaufs – it’s then that they sell the most, as other shops and supermarkets are closed. Berliners rely on being able to drop in to their Späti on Sunday to buy the butter they need to bake a cake or to grab some pasta for supper. Strictly speaking, however, the shops are not actually allowed to open on Sundays, something that has been the case ever since Berlin’s “shop opening law” came into effect in 2006. It dictates that shops offering many different articles are not permitted to open on Sundays – the only exception being petrol stations and shops in railway stations. Most Spätkaufs opened nonetheless, and were tolerated by the authorities. When a Berliner took some 40 Spätkaufs to court in early 2014, however, the authorities intervened and are now checking that the law is observed. After all, certain exceptions are permitted: shops offering a limited range of goods such as flowers, newspapers or baked goods, and those selling products for tourists such assouvenirs, city maps or tobacco. This means a bitter financial loss for owners of Spätkaufs with a broad range. Some are opening their doors all the same and using towels to cover up the products they are not permitted to sell on Sundays – and hoping for rare visits from inspectors.