It used to be an emperor’s dessert. Marzipan, a smooth almond and sugar confection, was a staple for European nobles with sweet tooths a few hundreds years ago. Just ask Niederegger, a family-owned confectionery in the northern German city of Lübeck, that once fielded orders from the last Russian czar and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The demand for marzipan has changed a lot since Niederegger was founded in 1806. In Germany, the confections are sold year-round next to gum and chocolate in supermarkets, but they really only fly off the shelves just once a year: Christmas. Niederegger’s factory kicks into high gear and makes about 50 percent of its total annual revenues (another 30 percent is made around Easter). Wrapped in festive-colored foils, marzipan is shaped into whimsical figures from horses to starfish and pigs (the most popular shapes). Companies even custom-order the candy as gifts, shaped in special molds with business logos and personal messages.
The company wants to change that and make it a treat 365 days of the year. Niederegger, once bound for decades to its secret recipe for an unchanging product selection, is trying a lot of new stuff lately. Like a “men’s line” featuring nougat espresso shots, apple bourbon and whisky cola marzipan bars, and an assortment shaped like a toolkit. Or the new maple-syrup-and-pancakes flavor. They’re even launching ice cream in marzipan, nut-nougat and Marc de Champagne truffle.
Making over the packaging of old products and creating new ones has meant a “very large investment,” said Niederegger boss Antonie Strait. But she and her sister Theresa Mehrens-Strait, who took the reins of the business in early 2016, said it was necessary.
After 30 years in charge, their parents, Holger Strait and Angelika Strait-Binder, are slowly retreating from daily business. The eighth generation has now taken over and is eager to make changes.
Marzipan doesn’t turn the royal profits that it used to. Rising prices of almonds and hazelnuts, along with price-cutting competitors, have bitten into the company’s earnings. Niederegger refuses to compromise its quality by adding extra sugar to cut costs, like some of its rivals do. Although the sisters would not reveal the company’s revenues, in 2015 their father said in an interview with the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt that Niederegger was doing “very badly” and that he had hoped to hand the company over to his daughters with “good numbers instead of problems.”
A number of family confectioneries have already given up. Wagner Pralinen from Brunsbüttel, near Hamburg, was insolvent for a while. Bavarian confectioner Schwermer, which makes marzipan and other sweets, has been sold to a Swiss company.
“Marzipan is a niche market, and it isn’t to everyone’s taste,” said Rainer Hornschild, an industry expert with Nuremberg consulting firm Parzer and Associates. “There is only limited space in stores, and they are competing with Nestlé and other major players. But kudos to them if they succeed.”
Ms. Mehrens-Strait hopes that new offerings such as the men’s line, available in department stores and Harley-Davidson motorcycle showrooms, will help buoy profits not just during Christmas, but all year round. “Why shouldn’t people eat marzipan while watching soccer?” she said.
That’s a far cry from her father’s philosophy. In an interview years ago, Holger Strait said the company “couldn’t change consumers’ eating habits.” Ms. Strait and her sister are keen to take risks. After all, she left a job at home shopping channel QVC for Niederegger, but not because she had to. She wanted to.
“Our parents didn’t raise us to join the business,” she said. “We’ve always loved marzipan.”