Making Fortunes Germany's Good Luck Factory
Despite the financial crisis, a family-run company in the southern German town of Gondelsheim is making a killing -- on fortune cookies.
The Brauch siblings place plastic nets over their heads to prevent so much as a single stray hair from falling into the vat containing the batter and undergoing the hygienically unfortunate process of being baked into a fortune cookie. Their factory is certified in accordance with international food standards. Though Viktoria, Alexandra and Christoph Brauch, from the town of Gondelsheim east of Karlsruhe, in southwestern Germany, are entrepreneurs in a sector in which luck and chance play an important role, they take no risks themselves.
Both Viktoria and Christoph are fast talkers, and it's clear that they like to talk. They tell us that Sweet & Lucky GmbH, the company they run with their sister Alexandra, has more than two dozen employees and is a leading player in the German fortune cookie market. They say they are shipping more and more cookies to Italy, Spain, England and France -- with the fortunes printed in the language of each country, of course. One container, they say, was even shipped to Australia.
Germany's traditional export products, which have helped make it the world's second-largest exporter, include things like luxury cars, specialty precision tools and chainsaws. The promise of good fortune hasn't been on that list until now.
The idea of good luck hasn't exactly been in vogue during the financial crisis, a time of casino capitalism, and of gamblers and adventurers losing other people's money because they believed, erroneously, that luck would always be on their side. The Brauch siblings' cookie factory also represents a daily struggle to bring back the days of good fortune.
The siblings walk past stacks of fortunes, which a machine cuts into small strips. The cuteness factor is a key element of the fortune cookie, which is why one is apt to forgive it for sometimes sounding as upbeat as German President Horst Köhler. Everything is possible as long as you firmly believe in it, the fortune cookie (and Köhler) tells us. Just be patient, that little piece of paper says, because everything will work out for the best. Things are going very well! You're on a roll!
Until now, the fortune cookie was mainly a fixture of restaurants decorated with an Asian theme, and one could be forgiven for thinking that it comes from China. Although the history of fortune cookies hasn't been studied in detail, there are many indications that it was the invention of a Japanese immigrant in San Francisco about 100 years ago. In terms of cultural history, the fortune cookie is a descendant of the horoscope and a close relative of the tear-off calendar, which also dispenses small bits of advice in the hope that no one will spend too much time thinking about them. A good fortune cookie exudes the inspiration of an aunt, but it can also be serious.
Not Everyone Is Interested in Wisdom
The Brauch siblings, still talking, walk past vats from which skin-colored batter is being pumped through tubes into gas-fired ovens. If she had her way, says Viktoria Brauch, she would only insert wise sayings into the cookies, but not everyone is interested in wisdom. In the organic sector, however, people are more spiritual, she says. Other, more meaningful sayings can be baked into the cookies intended for that market, sayings like "There is always only one correct path: your own," "Today is the tomorrow you've been looking forward to," "Good luck knocks on your door more often than you think -- you just have to let it in."
Viktoria Brauch, 37, used to work in a bank, and later as a miller. People in her village used to have closer relationships, she says. The men would sit outside on park benches, gossiping, while the village mill that was run by her parents, fourth-generation millers, ground wheat at a leisurely pace. Life proceeded at a slower pace, she says, and perhaps people were happier as a result. Brauch says that when she hears politicians spouting phrases like "growth acceleration act," the world doesn't make sense to her anymore. Why does growth have to be accelerated, she asks? Brauch practices yoga, and when she travels to India for ayurvedic treatments, she notices that the people there are poorer and yet happier than in Germany. She watches in delight as a gripper arm inserts a fortune into a cookie: 870 square millimeters of paper, with 22 letters typed on it. Her goal has almost been achieved.
A Shred of Meaning
The Brauchs have a supply of about 700 fortunes in their inventory. Before a new fortune is baked into cookies, Christoph Brauch emails it to friends, who assign points for effect, style, whether or not they like it and whether it's suitable for use in cookies. Brauch enters the friends' responses into a colorful Excel spreadsheet on his computer. Although the survey is by no means scientific, Brauch does recognize tendencies. You can look forward to a great week in all parts of your life: 50 points. Many things stick to sticky hands: 17 points. Christoph Brauch has determined that no one likes a rude fortune cookie. Go into yourself and stay there: Now that could be interpreted in a negative way. The saying was discarded.
He is 31, studied business administration and commercial information technology and doesn't talk about spirituality as much as his sister, but about markets and investments instead. Sales were stable last year, he says, pointing out that although people tightened their purse strings, they didn't skimp on fortune cookies. It's even possible that Sweet & Lucky GmbH benefits from a reward effect or, to put it more directly, from the yearning for good luck.
About 40 million cookies roll off the small assembly lines in Gondelsheim each year, earning the Brauchs a comfortable living. Viktoria Brauch says that when you approach a challenge with a positive attitude, it increases the chances that it will turn out well. She's beginning to sound like a fortune cookie herself. Her brother, on the other hand, points out that he still sees potential on some foreign markets.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan