Boasting a menu of over 50 strains – not to mention a killer breakfast – Barney’s is a favorite first stop for many a stoner tourist arriving in Amsterdam. It’s time for a closer look at the origins and evolution of one of the world’s most celebrated and successful coffeeshops.

“Barney’s started with an interest in food, really,” says the shop’s original co-founder, Paul Gould. “When we first came to Amsterdam from the UK in ’79, we couldn’t find much to eat at the coffeeshops. All they sold were toasties and coffee and were all very cold – just took the money from you and left you; nothing else to do, no scene.”

As an Englishman who didn’t speak Dutch trying to make it in Amsterdam during a recession, Gould was having trouble finding a job and started to feel trapped. He eventually decided that his best option would be to start a business, so he turned to a friend – Irishman Nicky Matthews – for some capital.

“I asked around about what businesses you could start without any qualifications or papers, and there were basically three options: coffeeshop, snack bar or sex shop. Back then, the coffeeshop industry was still growing, so we went with that.”

In 1986, Gould and Matthews entered into a partnership, buying a small café and renaming it Barney’s (after a fat street cat that took up residence there). Their plan was to stand out from the other shops by serving a larger variety of food, and it worked – particularly in regard to their breakfast, for which they soon became well known. Gould eventually left the business in 1990 and was bought out by his partner. But two years later, Matthews suffered a heart attack and sold the business to an old buddy of his from Dublin, Derry Brett. A former Shell Oil executive turned marijuana botanist, Brett had moved to Holland in the early 1980s to pursue his passion for pot in a freer environment.

“I used to live in India – working a lot with genetics in the Himalayan mountains – but I had a base [in Amsterdam] as well. When I came back one year, Nicky said he was tired and wanted to get out. It was an impulsive decision, but I said, ‘Okay – I’ll take it on and see what happens.’ That was in 1992 … the rest is history.”

Brett tackled coffeeshop ownership with the same business savvy and determination that he’d brought to his previous endeavors. His first order of business was to shift the shop’s focus from the food to the herb. He also commissioned the iconic “sun face” logo design, which it’s rumored is actually based on his own portrait.

“If you look at it, it’s smiling, but there’s a little something sinister there,” he says with a mischievous grin.

Through branding, promotion, quality control and customer service, Brett managed to transform Barney’s from one small shop into the cannabis empire it is today. In 2003, he opened Barney’s Brasserie (now called Barney’s Farm) on the corner two doors down from the coffeeshop. In 2005, he opened Barney’s Lounge near Rembrandtplein. Then, in 2007, just as the ban on selling alcohol in coffeeshops was going into effect, he opened his fourth location – Barney’s Uptown. Directly across the street from the famous coffeeshop, Uptown provides his customers with a comfortable environment for having a drink and a bite along with their smoke. In May of 2009, the restaurant hired a new world-class chef and created a revised, recession-friendly menu full of smaller, less expensive dishes.

But there were far bigger changes in store for Barney’s than just the menu. In January 2009, the original Barney’s coffeeshop closed its doors to undertake the largest renovation in its history. This complete gutting and overhaul of the entire three-story structure was the culmination of over five years of planning and hundreds of thousands of euros.

“The building had been sinking for over 500 years,” Brett explains, “so we’re actually lifting the whole thing up and laying new foundations underneath it. New cellars, new walls, new roof – it’s basically a whole new structure.”

The interior of the new and improved Barney’s was totally redesigned as well, with a long bar, eight tables, wider stools and a vintage pharmaceutical theme.

“The walls are drawers and shelves, giving the feeling of an old apothecary. Each table has its own built-in Volcano vaporizer and its own plasma-screen TV showing tourist info, sporting events, etc.,” says Brett.

After several delays and disputes with the local government, the remodeling was completed in October – a few months behind schedule perhaps, but just in time for the 2009 Cannabis Cup.

Of all the shops in Holland, only a handful actually breed their own cannabis, and Barney’s is among those few. The seed company – also called Barney’s Farm, and started in the 1980s –supplies nearly all of the marijuana sold in the shops, as well as providing feminized seeds for the public. Though maintaining farms is more expensive and labor-intensive than simply purchasing weed from independent growers or seed companies (as most shops do), Brett insists that it’s worth the effort.

“I want control over the marijuana. Sure, it’s much cheaper and easier to go out and just buy the weed, but what you get from doing it yourself is … you get what you want: You get very high-class, biologically grown marijuana that people will really want to smoke.”

Barney’s first entered the Cannabis Cup in 1997, and won second-place in the Best Hashish category for their Nepalese Temple Ball. Since then, they’ve won a staggering 38 Cannabis Cups – even sweeping the 20th-anniversary Cup in 2007. The only other shop to win that many Cups is Barney’s main competition, the Green House. 

There’s a well-known rivalry between Brett and Arjan from Green House, who try to outdo each other every year in their struggle for the hearts and lungs of the judges. Even so, Brett makes it clear that this rivalry is very amicable and professional, not personal.

“Publicly, we may seem to be at odds with each other, but privately, we’re really good friends,” Brett admits. “Of course, we both have a lot of pride in what we do and love to win, so during the Cup, our hunger for success really comes out and we get very competitive. But we have a lot of respect for each other.”

Due to the overwhelming success of Barney’s and the Green House over the years, rumors have inevitably sprung up about these two shops “buying” the Cup, but Brett never takes the accusations to heart.

“It’s just sour grapes,” he says. “There was a time when I was just a tiny little coffeeshop going for the Cup – I was nobody, but I really wanted to win it. Promotion helps, but what really wins the Cannabis Cup year after year – for Arjan as well – is our passion for our trade. If you don’t have that, you can throw a hundred million euros at it and you won’t win a Cannabis Cup.”

In 2012, instead of entering the Cup, Barney’s decided to take a year off – allowing other coffeeshops a shot at the winners’ circle, and affording the staff of their various locations the chance to approach the always frantic Cup Week from a more relaxed perspective. But this November, they’re once again back in the game and going for the gold. When asked what they have in store, Brett flashes that same mischievous smile. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

Visit Barney’s this November during the 26th HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup. Get your judge’s pass today!