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Germany's Gingerbread Giant

Monika Lohmüller (jdk)December 21, 2004

At the cookie manufacturer Lambertz in Aachen, the factories are running at full capacity to meet the current demands. The company is the largest German producer of gingerbread cookies and now exports worldwide.

It's a hard choice...Image: dpa

Unless you have a cold, you will not miss the smell of sweets in the air at the omnipresent Christmas markets in German cities and towns. One unmistakable scent is that of gingerbread. The Lambertz cookie company, based in Aachen, Germany, makes its money off of it. With sales over €400 million ($532 million), Lambertz is the main player on the German Christmas cookie market. And it is seducing sweet tooths now in North America and eastern Europe.

Lambertz's ingredients include hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, candied orange and lemons, honey, flour, sugar, eggs, marzipan and most importantly, spices: Anis, ginger, coriander, cloves, cinnamon -- just to name a few -- are all combined to produce a variety of cookies, including the trademark "Printen" cookie. The origins of the cookie are uncertain. Some proudly speculate that Charlemagne, whose throne still stands in Aachen, was the inventor of the rectangular cookie. But that is just speculation.

Supplier of church and city hall

Deutschland Dom in Aachen
Lambertz is sole supplier to Aachen's cathedralImage: dpa

One thing is certain: The Lambertz tradition dates back to 1688 when the family bought the rights to establish a bakery on Aachen's main market. The name of the bakery was called Zur Sonne -- in reference to the reigning monarch in France at that time, Louis XIV, the Sun King. For over three centuries Lambertz, who still use the sun in their logo, has been the exclusive supplier to both the Aachen cathedral and city hall.

In 1820, the first "Printen" was produced, said current sole owner, Hermann Bühlbecker, a descendant of the Lambertz family. It takes a strong jaw to bite into the cookies. There is also the chocolate covered variety, created by accident in the late 19th century by one of the family's daughters.

Earlier, the cookies were produced laboriously by hand. The forefathers of the company would be proud of the modern production lines where a scent of Christmas emanates from the cookies as they glide past.

Plants in eastern Europe

Gingerbread or "Printen" do not hold a firm foothold just in Germany. In eastern Europe, particularly where Germans once lived, gingerbread is beloved, Bühlbecker said. The aroma of gingerbread belongs to the Christmas tradition in the German-speaking regions in central and eastern Europe.

Besides the six factories in Germany, Lambertz has a plant in Katowice, Poland to cater to the markets in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Now, Lambertz is also finding out that North Americans have grown fond of their various baked goods. Bühlbecker said they print "German cookies" or "European cookies" on the boxes for the large supermarket chains in North America.

Hermann BühlbeckerImage: dpa

Some 3,500 employees work for Lambertz. Bühlbecker (photo) took over the company 28 years ago as sole owner and manager. He said he feels a deep responsibility for the welfare of his workers and Germany in general.

This is reflected in some of the numerous awards Bühlbecker has won of late. In 2002 he was honored as the Entrepreneur of the Year in Germany. One year later, he was added to the list of Best Entrepreneurs of the World. All this a small bit of sunshine, like in the company logo, at a time where gloom usually wins the economic headlines in German newspapers.