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Mr Chips says goodbye

Zweifel leaves the company but he'll still probably dream of crisps

Swiss businessman Hansheiri Zweifel knows a few tricks of the trade when it comes to making and selling potato crisps - or chips as they are known in some countries.

Zweifel, aged 75, who has just retired from the family firm in Zurich after 50 years, resorted to a number of escapades when he started so that he could outsmart the competition.

For example, he would buy their products in shops and replace them with his own. He also “spied” on one competitor’s activities by looking through its factory windows to see what was going on.

Zweifel regarded them as invaders on his territory. “The Swiss of old weren’t always fair with their intruders. In the battle of Morgarten [in 1315], they threw rocks and trees at the army of Leopold from Austria,” he told swissinfo.

“And so we said we would defend our territory too with all the weapons we had, so it was tough for our adversaries.”

His antics in the 1960s – and he would be the first to admit that is what they were – paid off and the name Zweifel is now a household name in Switzerland. The brand is in the top 20 of a list of 1,000.

Fresh approach

One of the weapons he introduced was to check all the stock regularly.

“My idea was to sell the crisps all over Switzerland in all the stores but I realised that the problem was how to keep them fresh.”

“The idea of Fresh Service [checks] came up. We tried first in the northern part of Zurich and then in the whole city and within a few months we’d doubled sales, so we considered we were on the right track.”

Another part of the weaponry to beat the competition was a fleet of ten VW vans which would file through cities in a procession on Saturdays.

It was an awesome sight, although Zweifel’s father thought that it was “spending money for nothing”. Zweifel himself saw it another way.

“This was very good advertising in those days. In 1960 there was not much television and seeing these ten vehicles had an impact,” he said.

There were five or six competitors in those days but by November of that year, the company managed to buy them out or they disappeared from the market.

Cider and juice

The Zweifel story doesn’t begin with crisps but originally with cider and apple juice.

Hansheiri can still remember his father saying after the Second World War that the company needed a second source of income because the family cider business was slowly declining and beverages like Coca Cola and beer were fast gaining ground. Wine was also being imported again.

Zweifel senior had a cousin, Hans Meier, who had started producing crisps in 1950 in the village of Katzenrüti. When he died there was no family member willing to take over, so the Zweifels stepped in, but not before mulling over the idea.

“After some hesitation, my father said: ‘Crisps…well why not? We could buy it. Crisps make you thirsty. Cider is good when you are thirsty, so they go together’.”

By that time, Zweifel had studied food engineering, although he remembers with a chuckle that in his last year at school he had wanted to become a “philosopher or an author”.

Onions… or potatoes

As he looks back on his 50 years in the business, Zweifel definitely knows his onions – or should that read potatoes – and the tricks they can play.

“I always said to make good crisps with fresh potatoes was not difficult. Every idiot can do that.

“But the real art comes after March and April when the potatoes start feeling spring. It has the same consequences in potatoes as it does in human beings; they get a little bit excited and this excitement [in potatoes] starts building up sugar.”

That means that if they are not kept in the right conditions and monitored once a week, the end result is brown crisps.

To prevent that, there are a few trade secrets but the problem with potatoes was not helped by the scare over acrylamide.

Low sugar

“We immediately reacted and official chemists of the canton told us that we were already on the right track because we had the right potatoes with low sugar.

“But in addition we tried a lot of things to avoid too much acrylamide, for example reducing the exit temperature when the chips come out of the fryer so that the browning was much less… and we also control our potatoes much more.”

As Zweifel steps down after half a century at the company, he still sees potential in the crisp market, noting that annual consumption in Switzerland is around one kilogram per capita compared with three or four in Britain and the United States.

Is he going to be able to switch off from the company after all those years?

“My wife doesn’t believe it. Of course, I’m not separated quite completely. I still have my ideas but I can’t force these any more on the next generation.

“Over the last 50 years I used to wake up in the night and my wife would ask me: ‘Are you thinking about crisps?’ Mostly the answer was… ‘Yes’,” he laughs.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes

The company has a market share in crisps in Switzerland of about 70%.
There are 150 company drivers selling the firm’s products daily at 30,000 outlets in the country.
Every hour about six tonnes of potatoes are processed.
3.6 kg of potatoes produce 1kg of crisps.
The potatoes are kept in the warehouse at 8 degrees Celsius in a humidity of 95%.

The company produces 70 million bags of crisps a year at a production site near Zurich – nearly ten bags for everyone living in Switzerland.

The most popular flavour is paprika, which is perhaps better known as barbecue in the United States, but which Zweifel says resembles more goulash spices.

Paprika crisps represent 56% of the company’s turnover.
Total sales had increased by 8% by the end of October, 2008 compared with the same period in 2007.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR