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Culture

Mail Order Firm Ships a Taste of Home

A newspaper article about a grandma with a record of smuggling gave one enterprising German an idea for a business whose time had come: shipping typical foods to his countrymen abroad.

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The "eggs" that started it all

Ask most Germans living abroad what they miss most about their homeland, and the answer isn't likely to be "the weather." It might, however, be "bread." Or chocolate, honey, mashed potatoes, or mustard.

Indeed, as some entrepreneurs have discovered, however well Germans living abroad may adjust to their new country, they rarely lose the longing for those edible things they grew up with.

For Norbert Gutheins of Kleinmanchow, in Brandenburg -- a town known, incidentally, for its typically German sweet mustard -- it all started with a newspaper article about an American Oma with a criminal streak. The granny would smuggle popular German treats known as Kinderüberraschung, or Kinder Surprise, to her grandson in America.

Shipping allowed

Strict American food laws forbid the sale of the hollow chocolate eggs, which contain small plastic toys inside. But while they could not be purchased in the United States at the time, shipping them into the country is not illegal.

From the initial idea of sending Kinder Surprise overseas, it was a small step to a more general concept: a mail order company that ships German food products anywhere in the world.

Chocolate and sauerkraut

Guglhupf-Bäckerei in Durham

Guglhupf bakery in Durham

Today, Gutheins works out of the basement of his Kleinmanchow home, packing the orders that he picks from his Internet site. He sends chocolate to Brazil, sauerkraut to Finland, and yes, Kinder Surprise to America, even though stores there now sell the eggs as well. He ships to wherever Germans live -- or at least to wherever someone lives who is desperate for a taste of German coffee or Haribo Gummy Bears.

While Gutheins managed to share the taste of the homeland from his own back yard, other Germans have taken a different route.

Hartmut Jahn is the owner of the Guglhupf Bakery, in Durham, North Carolina. Durham is in an area known as the Research Triangle, known for its many universities and biotech firms. The area has a strong international population, among which are a lot of Germans. Many of them have never grown to appreciate the soft, packaged white bread found on American supermarket shelves.

Brot

German loaves

A few years ago, Jahn and his then-partner Claudia Cooper decided they wanted to give up their jobs at a Munich computer firm. Cooper had studied in the United States, and had realized that above all, Germans living in America missed their beloved bread. She quit her job, spent two years at a traditional Munich bakery learning the trade, and together with Jahn, opened up the Durham shop.

Stollen for America

"We had just one shot at success," Cooper said. "We didn't have enough money for second chances."

In the beginning, there were 16-hour days among the mixers, ovens and flour dust. As a result, the relationship hit the skids -- but the bakery flourished. Their nut-buns, sesame rolls, and traditional German whole-grain breads are hot items in the Research Triangle. Their Christmas stollen gets sent to Germans across the country.

Amid all the fine baking, Jahn seems to think Kinder Surprise would be out of place.

"We wouldn't sell them even if we were allowed to," he said. "We have an upscale clientele."

Müsli zum Frühstück

Typical German breakfast

Still, the eggs are an item on Norbert Guthein's inventory, and they regularly get sent to US customers. Guthein said he guesses that about half of those customers are German.

"The rest maybe came here on vacation, and in America there are also a lot of soldiers who used to be stationed in Germany," he said.

If Guthein had it his way, he would do more business with people outside the United States. Since 2002, when the Food Industry Bioterrorism Act went into effect, he has had to enter a product-by-product listing of the contents of every package onto an online form. It takes him a half hour to fill out each one.

Guthein said he never stops being surprised by what people order from his company. Kinder Surprise is old hat, as is German Party Pumpernickel and baking mix for sprouted spelt bread. But what is so special about dried mixed herbs, or Kaba brand cocoa powder, Guthein wondered. He only put them in his product line after people asked for them.

Das grosse Fressen, Spaghetti

"It probably has to do with being homesick for everyday things," he said. That way, the steaming cup of cocoa will taste just like it did way back when. Or the Prickel-Pit fizzy candy will take you back to your childhood.So, what is the worst thing he has ever had to mail abroad? A shipment of instant spaghetti dinners, by the timeworn German brand Miracoli, Guthein said. The instant pasta-and-tomato sauce mixes were shipped to a German -- in Italy.

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