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The Rise and Fall of the German Loaf

Faced with competition on an industrial scale and a dwindling customer base, Germany's traditional bakers could soon become a thing of the past.


The last refuge of the old-style German baker

Bakers are among Germany's most popular ambassadors: German bakers can be found all over the world, and they are doing very nicely, thank you. But at home, it is a different story. In particular, many smaller bakers are facing ruin – even though the average German chews his or her way through seven rolls, nearly 30 slices of bread, and a heap of cakes and pastries every week.

Take Zimmermann's bakery in Cologne. It is easy to find: all you have to do is go into the city center and follow your nose. A glance at the display of fruit loaves, giant pretzels, nut cake, onion rolls and dozens of other examples of the baker's art is enough to make your mouth water. That is hardly surprising: the Zimmermann family has been making bread and cakes since 1875.

How long that will continue is an open question. The store's owner, Markus Zimmermann, says family businesses like his are now rare in Germany. "It's a pity, but most of the small bakeries … have disappeared," he sighs. "Let me tell you, if you have a small business in one of these back streets, it's hard, very hard."

An endangered species

Bakers have existed in Germany for more than 1,000 years. Just 15 years ago, there were 30,000 independent bakers in Germany. But Peter Susbauer from the German Bakers' Association estimates that between 700 and 800 small family concerns are swallowed up by larger companies every year. "You end up with chains with 20 to 30 outlets – or even a bakery like Kamps, which has 1,000," he says. "That naturally leads to a certain uniformity."

Bakers such as Dieter Sürth, who has a single store in a Cologne suburb, are now having to fight for survival. Although he is sick, he is still at the bakery. He says it takes more than a cold or the 'flu to keep him at home, but he does not have much choice anyway. Last year, his sales dropped by 30 percent and he ended up making a five-figure loss.

Big is beautiful

It is the same throughout the trade. Recession has made Germans less willing to splurge on hand-made cookies or cakes. Even more important, supermarkets and bakery chains tend to buy mass-produced deep-frozen bread: all the staff there has to do is stick it in the computer-regulated oven and wait a few minutes. Bakers like Sürth just cannot compete with these economies of scale.

Another reason factory-made bakery products have become so popular is that their quality is constantly improving. The big companies spend a lot fine-tuning their products to the customers' tastes. The lone baker has to rely on his own instincts.

The personal touch

Sürth says he can only get that through personal contact with his customers. "For them, it's important to be spoken to properly and to be given the right advice," he says. "That's why they come to small stores."

Sürth's sales have risen a bit over the past few weeks, but the jump hasn't turned him into an optimist. "There'll be fewer and fewer small bakers left because the big boys will push them out. I can even see a time when there are none left at all. That'll be a pity."

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