When Erwin Gerber walked through an old street in Shaxi, a small suburb of Taicang, back in 2013, he was on the lookout for a small café and some delicious cake. But there was none. After that day in Shaxi, he searched the entire area, from Shanghai to Kunshan, looking for a café offering a “decent” Black Forest or hazelnut cake. After a year, he gave up on his search and decided he’d have to make it himself. This is how he tells the story about the start of his business. Today, his bakery “Brotecke” is known far beyond Taicang for its German baked goods.
“People here order over the Internet,” says Gerber, explaining that the bread and pretzels he makes in his bakery near Taicang are sometimes shipped all the way to Beijing, 1,200 kilometers away. Everything arrives in one day, he says. “In Germany, no one orders rolls from Hamburg to Munich.” But even without walk-in customers, the bakery has grown every year since its opening in 2015.
Erwin Gerber was in his early 50s when he decided to make everything himself. Having grown up in Koblenz, he had a carpentry business in Germany until he was headhunted and stays in Ireland, Canada and Dubai subsequently followed. When he was in the process of expanding a terminal at the airport of Dubai, he realized what the stress was doing to him. “I was afraid of having a heart attack at 55,” Gerber says. He decided to follow his wife to her home country, and Taicang drew him in. “It was a very clean and organized city, even back then,” Gerber says. Not least because of the many Germans who influenced the city’s officials, he says. The city of 800,000 is home to nearly 400 German businesses and is also known as “Little Swabia.”
The now 57-year-old found his new home because of the “German cleanliness”. He couldn’t imagine going back to Germany. “The last time I was in Germany, I noticed that the Germans hadn’t changed, but I had changed,” says Gerber. It also is related to the Chinese mentality, he says. “I used to be kind of a big-time choleric,” he says. In Taicang, he learned to look for solutions to problems instead of going ballistic. It doesn’t work any other way in China. “I’ve become much calmer,” Gerber says.
It also wouldn’t work without problems, for which solutions had to be found. Finding employees in one of China’s richest provinces who were willing to get up at 3:30 a.m. was difficult, says Gerber. And the most important thing was finding a German baker, as well. Never having learned the trade himself, he placed ads in Germany through the employment agency and websites. With success. Now he is on the lookout once more. “It would be nice to find someone who is not afraid to come to China,” says Gerber. Then, he says, he might be able to retire from the business at some point. Until then, he sits in the bakery every morning at 5:20 a.m. with coffee and a crumble. “Quality control,” as he calls it. Marita Wehlus