It all started when the children were craving bread with a real crust, so Helene Stohr began baking bread at home.
Today her family runs a successful Swiss bakery and catering business near Boston in the United States.
“We really like living here, but we are Swiss at heart and the same goes for our product,” Helene and Thomas Stohr told swissinfo.ch during a visit to their bakery in Reading, Massachusetts.
The bakery itself is actually in the basement; the ground-level shop is where the Stohrs greet and serve their customers, many of whom are regulars.
Prior to their adventure with Swiss-style baked goods, Thomas and Helene were both active in the international gastronomy and hospitality businesses.
Thomas, a professional baker, had worked for Mövenpick in Canada as well as Landry’s restaurants in the US. During that time, Helene looked after their sons Tobias and Nicolas, now in their late teens.
Their professional experience and contacts were a big help in building up their bakery business.
“Business life is unbelievably fast in the US; you have to be tough and stick to it,” according to the Stohrs.
The challenge is to find out what works. “If you do it right, the money will come in at some point.”
Having sold their wares at markets, events, over the internet and finally through a national supermarket chain, the Stohrs have been running their own bakery shop for more than a year now.
Red and white tiles
At swissbäkers, the walls behind the counter are tiled in red and white.
“It was already like that when we visited for the first time; it’s as if the shop was made for us,” laughed Helene. Its location at the local train station brings in a lot of commuters travelling from Reading to Boston.
A giant photo of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks decorates the wall across from the counter. In the corner there’s a table with a few chairs where visitors can have a coffee break or a soup-and-sandwich lunch.
In addition to Swiss-style breads, the range of products includes jam-filled doughnuts and other sweet treats. However, swissbäkers doesn’t serve cupcakes or other items you could buy at any American bakery.
The Stohrs see themselves as Swiss ambassadors: “We sell a piece of Swiss lifestyle; our products are truly Swiss.” One of their marketing slogans reads, “Visit Switzerland without leaving Massachusetts.”
When the Stohrs came to North America, the children were four and six years old. The family started out in Toronto and moved to Boston around a decade ago.
“I’m a wanderer at heart, and it was always clear to me that my children should experience a second culture,” said Helene. “Our emigration wasn’t an escape but a chance to expand our horizons.”
The push to start baking came from Tobias and Nicolas, who missed eating bread with a proper crust.
Helene soon began selling bread at the German-language school the boys attended at weekends, and her circle of clients grew steadily. Later, the Boston branch of Swissnex, one of the science and technology outposts run by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education and Research, hired the Stohrs to cater its events.
The Stohr family eventually converted their spare room into a bakery.
“I enjoyed breaking back into the workforce after a 15-year time-out,” said Helene.
All hands on deck
The Stohrs had always dreamed of running their own business. In 2006, Thomas quit his job so that he and Helene could focus on baking.
“We worked hard, took on the challenge and decided to focus completely on the Swiss angle.” Doing it as a team made it a bit easier; they could encourage each other during tough times.
“Everybody jumped in. Sometimes the children had to help us pack the goods in the wee hours,” said Thomas. Both sons still help out at the bakery now.
Tobias, the older one, will soon spend a year working in Switzerland – at the Suvretta House hotel in St Moritz as well as at the Hotel Bern in the capital. Nicolas still has a year of school ahead of him.
Wanted: a bigger bakery
Until 2009, Helene and Thomas worked out of home. As the business grew, so did their desire for a shop of their own. Meanwhile, the home bakery was getting too small, so the Stohrs sought something more suitable.
The old depot building at Reading Station was just the place, and they celebrated their grand opening in March 2009. A year later, they are finding that space is already getting tight.
“What we desperately need is a larger bakery so that we can maintain our quality while meeting the growing demand,” said the Stohrs.
The locals are clearly sweet on the Swiss bakers.
Rita Emch in Boston, swissinfo.ch (Translated from German by Susan Vogel-Misicka)
The “swissbäkers” concept
Adopting the best of both worlds – the US and Switzerland – is the entrepreneurial concept behind swissbäkers, founded by Helene and Thomas Stohr.
That means quality, dependability, attention to detail and the ability to react quickly to new situations.
Customer service is key, with the motto being, “Our food makes you feel good.”
Part of that is a friendly smile and taking the time to exchange pleasantries with the clientele.
The Stohrs bake with butter, shunning additives and artificial ingredients.
Everything they sell is baked fresh on the day.
Facts & figures
At the end of 2009 there were 75,000 Swiss citizens living in the US – 20,000 of them in the northeast, around New York and Boston in particular.
About two-thirds of Swiss people living in the US are dual citizens.
Some 685,000 Swiss live abroad; that’s around ten per cent of the entire Swiss population.