Kägi-fret chocolate wafers are considered by many to be a national Swiss institution, beloved by children during school breaks and enjoyed by adults with their coffee.This content was published on December 18, 2009 - 08:51
The company which makes them, Kägi Söhne, is still based in Lichtensteig, a small village in northern Switzerland, where Otto Kägi first set up a bakery 75 years ago. swissinfo.ch went to the factory to take a look.
Lichtensteig lies deep in the rolling Toggenburg countryside, not far from the abbey city of St Gallen. It was to this rural setting that the baker Otto Kägi, a native of eastern Switzerland, came with his six children in 1934, following his wife's death.
He set up shop, but there was a problem – the village already had six bakeries. "Otto Kägi quickly started to visit other locations around Lichtensteig by bicycle, selling his specialties to farmers as well," Beat Siegfried, the CEO of Kägi Söhne, told swissinfo.ch.
"Eight years later in 1942 he started the wafer business, of course everything was handmade at that time, now it's done by machinery," added Siegfried.
The business grew and the famous bicycle, which can still be seen in the factory shop, was replaced by a fleet of delivery vans.
By the early 50s the three Kägi sons – Otto senior and the twins Albert and Eugen – having spent their childhoods helping in the shop, were now involved in the company.
Kägi-fret is born
1952 saw the appearance of the first chocolate-coated, multilayered wafers, the classic Kägi-fret, after a long search for the perfect recipe. The wafers were an immediate success, with demand outstripping supply.
A survey has found that nine out of ten Swiss now know Kagi-fret, which are sold in supermarkets and alongside newspapers in railway and town kiosks.
"I would say the appeal lies in the recipe, which is very balanced between the four wafer leaves, the filling and the home-made chocolate, for which the recipe has remained unchanged for almost 50 years," said Siegfried.
The wafers, in chocolate and non-chocolate versions and in different flavours, are also exported to Austria and Germany, as well as to the Middle East and Asia, where they are known as Toggi.
Wafers and biscuits have been made on the same site since the 1950s, which has, of course, been modernised and expanded. After donning some protective white clothing, Siegfried takes me into the manufacturing area, where we are immediately assailed by sweet scents.
"That's the smell of the three ovens which are producing our wafer leaves from 4am to 10pm," said Siegfried. Fillings are made in another room – there are around ten different ones including rum, hazelnut and vanilla. The classic chocolate Kagi-frets, however, remain the most popular, says Siegfried.
52 hours of conching
As we move on, the factory starts to warm up and the smell, although still sweet, has changed. We have entered the chocolate-making room.
Kägi Söhne makes its chocolate from scratch using the conching process. Metal arms drive through huge vats, each holding around 720 kg of chocolate, mixing the chocolate and making it smoother and creamier.
"When you first have the chocolate mass you couldn't eat it because it would not be so nice, there's a lot of bitterness in it," explained the CEO. "These conches are working and refining the chocolate for 52 hours minimum."
The wafers are still assembled by hand, to check for quality, Siegfried says, as we pass workers nimbly stacking the wafer sheets. The more high tech part of the factory is used for covering the wafers with chocolate, as well as for the sorting and packaging. Around 3,000 tons of Kägi products are made a year.
The Kägi brothers, now in their 80s, sold the firm in 1996. It currently belongs to a international investment company.
But the small factory, which employs around 70 staff, still retains a family-run air. The Kägi twins still live in a building across the street which can be glimpsed from inside the factory. The elder brother lives around five kilometres away.
The wafers' Swissness is particularly important to the export market, which now makes up 37 per cent of the business. The biggest export region is the quality-conscious Middle East, with Saudi Arabia leading the way.
"We have had to invent or adapt products to export countries' special wishes and in the Middle East region we have created a special product called Toggi choco which is rich in chocolate and a little bit sweeter," Siegfried said, referring to the region's sweet tooth.
There are currently no exports to English-speaking countries, despite a successful foray to the United States in the 1950s.
The company has also adapted to health concerns, hence the launch of the Kägi-fretli, the mini, individually packed version of the classic wafer double pack.
Kägi Söhne, like many others in the food industry, has largely escaped the downturn. Siegfried hopes that the company, the number one in its niche sector, will defend its good position and make more progress on the domestic market. A new product is scheduled for launch in the spring.
Siegfried, who has always worked in the food sector, has been at the helm for six years. Does he have a favourite wafer?
"Not really no. I like to taste a little bit of all our range and when we have new products in the pipeline I love to taste them too," said the hands-on boss, who is also involved in the innovation phase.
Overall, it's a great position, he says. "It's really a chocolate job," Siegfried said, with a smile.
Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Lichtensteig, swissinfo.ch
Number of employees: 72
Main export markets: Germany, Austria, Middle East, Asia
Products: Kägi-fret/Toggi chocolate covered wafers, wafers without chocolate coating, butter cookies
Kägi-fret: The name comes from gaufrette, the French for wafer.
Famous fan: Legend has it that Marilyn Monroe was a fan of the “Swiss-frets” when they were imported into the US in the 1950s.
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