Five Elephant: Coffee & Cake Perfected
If you run a quick Google search for coffee and cake in Berlin, you’ll come across rave reviews for Five Elephant. In fact, it's ranked number one for desserts on Foursquare. Co-owned by Sophie Weigensamer and Kris Schackman, the café is particularly known for its cheesecake, which has reached an almost mythic status—it’s made from a carefully guarded recipe originally authored by Kris’ grandmother. Using her talent for baking, Sophie refined the recipe, and developed a process that could meet commercial demands.
“It was my grandmother’s recipe. She’s from Philadelphia, so it’s a completely different recipe than the New York style—New York styles are very dense and thick. One of the reasons it’s also different is because we make these crusts by ourselves… and it takes a long time. The cake takes about 10 hours to bake.”
Five Elephant’s coffee is celebrated in its own right, and is perfectly paired with their baked goods. The beans are imported from all over the world, from countries like Brazil, El Salvador, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Columbia. Sourcing the coffee involves a lot of traveling. Sophie, Kris, or their staff members visit the origin to make sure the coffee quality is good, and to understand the exporting process so it can be optimized.
“It needs to be fresh. Coffee is a living thing—it’s a seed. So, actually, by the time it gets here, you want to make sure it’s still fresh and not harmed in shipping. You need to make sure the temperature is stable otherwise the coffee can fade very quickly—it becomes kind of like cardboard.”
Kris saw sustainable and direct sourcing practices while he was living in New York, but also in his hometown during the 90’s, where local café owners would go to the origin and pick their coffee. So, this approach felt very intuitive to him, despite others warning him it could be risky. Indeed, the process involves many extra considerations, like insurance.
“At the moment, we actually have someone working in Brazil. She was a barista, and then she worked in the roastery. She’s actually there for the Brazil harvest—for 6 months, she’s living on a farm. It’s kind of a cool gig for her… and it’s a service for our partner there, too, because they have limited resources for staffing. The people we work with there are sort of like family. We’ve known them for six years, it’s pretty special.”
When the business began in 2010, both the roastery and the café were at the same location. The neighborhood quickly expanded, and so too did Five Elephant’s customer base. They needed more room, so they broke through the café’s back wall and secured extra space for refrigeration. And, the roastery moved to an airy industrial loft a short walk away.
“We wanted to involve the neighborhood from the beginning. A lot of people were looking in the window and we wanted to include them all, so we did a kind of senior one euro coffee and we met a lot of people through it.”
Over the years, the Five Elephant brand name has become ubiquitous in Berlin; many cafes and restaurants around the city stock their coffee. Besides further internationalizing their wholesale business, Sophie and Kris plan on launching more retail locations. They’re also experimenting with new recipes to expand their selection of baked goods.
“We opened a shop last week in China, actually. And, we’re going to open another store in Mitte, probably in October. We’re developing some top secret versions of our cakes.”
All this growth, while positive, can also pose unique challenges for a business. Specifically, navigating different kinds of taxes can be complicated, as it requires precise documentation of orders coming in and going out. Additionally, expanding requires a lot of extra capital as well as careful management of waste and surplus. Five Elephant’s management therefore has focused on implementing internal processes to address these potential pitfalls.
What advice does Kris have for someone who wants to open their own business?
“If you’re doing something that’s already very popular, then it’s really a lot of money and a lot of know-how—it’s difficult. So, find a unique opportunity to do something you really love.”