When it comes to Swiss specialties, everyone thinks about cheese or chocolate. Sadly, most are missing out on a sublime slice of our culture: the biber! Also called biberli, it is a unique Swiss delicacy originally from the tiny canton of Appenzell. Unlike it’s homonymous Canadian counterpart, the Swiss Biber is filled with goodness. A delicate almond paste wrapped in a nicely soft and perfumed cake, very much like a denser ginger bread (see here a recipe).
We had the chance to talk to Silvan Leibacher (in black shirt below), who opened with his brother Claudio (white shirt) the awesome Leibacher Biber-Manufaktur a young startup that makes the most delicious bibers based near Zurich. We are fond of such passionate and brilliant entrepreneurs who not only create amazing products – out of this world (yes, we tried: mind-blowing!!), but also preserve the disappearing traditions of the biber making and of wood-carving. These guys are true FoodCrafters, and we’re delighted to have them share their story with you here!
FC: Hi Silvan, can you introduce yourself and tell us the story of the Leibacher Biber-Manufaktur?
Hi everyone, my name is Silvan Leibacher, my brother and I launched our company, the Leibacher Biber-Manufaktur, in 2010. We focus on reviving a very traditional Swiss dessert, called Biber. Let me first explain a few key points about this specialty.
Biber is essentially a gingerbread with a high percentage of honey and filled with a fine almond filling. Traditionally, this sweet is produced by using a so called model – a wooden board with a carved picture or scene on it, in which the biber dough is pressed before it is being filled. This gives the product the beautiful appearance, which is characteristic for this old Swiss tradition. In the past the product united two old trades – the one of the wood carver to produce the decorative forms as well as the gingerbread baker. During the last 30 years, the biber has been largely industrialized. Preservatives have been added, while important and expensive ingredients such as honey and almonds have been replaced or sourced at very low costs and qualities. Some bakers in Appenzell, located in the Swiss Alps and one of the traditional origins of the biber, however have kept the knowledge of making traditional biber. Needless to say that the handmade product tastes like heaven! :-)
My brother has always had a keen interest in baking. When he was little he would always help our mother baking the Swiss traditional Sunday bread up to the point where his was even better than our mom’s. Since he was quite good at school he went to college and to university, where he enrolled in history. He also developed a passion for collecting old artefacts so he always bought lots of stuff from flea markets and antique stores. Once he discovered these beautifully carved wooden models that have been used for centuries to make the traditional Swiss bibers. He also started collecting them. From there it was a small step from having a go at actually trying himself on making a biber – for his girlfriend actually. He is a bloody perfectionist, which is a very good thing for a baker to be. The biber he was able to produce using old techniques and great raw material was so exquisite that everyone agreed that he should at least attempt to sell it at a local store in a little side business. Since I studied business at the time I followed this development with keen interest and started advising him on things I knew about like marketing, branding, design, distribution and the like. It just came natural that way. We are very different – he is the perfectionist focused on creating the best product and also the artist who carves our designs while I’m a people person and love the entrepreneurial challenge. And so we just went for it – kept working and sweating – until today. There is still a lot of work to do of course but we are proud of what we could achieve during the last 3 years.
FC: Let’s get it out – how do you make the perfect biberli?
Well that’s our secret of course (laughs). In reality, the raw materials are extremely important. We use just the best ingredients, wherever possible organic and from the region. But choosing the best materials is not enough. Also the taste nuances have to fit together. We tried about 15 different honeys until we found the perfect one – a darkgolden forest honey from the Zurich Highlands. Many people are surprised when they first try our biber because it tastes very different to the ones they know. We add some lemon for example which makes the product lighter and fresher. We also peel the almonds we use for the filling ourselves directly before making the biber instead of using pre-peeled almonds as many producers do. This keeps all the goodness and the delicious flavor in the nut until the very last moment. There is also a secret however. It lies in the spice mix which we add to the dough. This one we keep to ourselves :-)
FC: What were the biggest challenges you had when you started and what helped you the most to overcome those?
We were and still are in the lucky situation that our parents’ house had a large empty cellar when we started which we were able to use and to equip with all the necessities for a proper specialty bakery. We did a lot of the painting, the new flooring, lights etc. by ourselves and my dad helped also with a lot of it. We now extended it to our garage as well. With our rather limited funds we would have never been able to rent a production facility. But I guess we are not the first company starting off in a cellar or garage (laughs).
FC: What proved to be the most efficient method(s) to grow your business/community/presence/sales? What didn’t work at all? In other words, what do you wish you had known when you started and anyone launching their food businesses should do or avoid doing ;)
When you start off the one thing you really need besides a good product is distribution channels to generate your first sales – you don’t have a business until you’ve sold your first batches. If you are in food, try to contact a few of the small and independent retailers, visit them, present your products, negotiate and try to get your products in their shops. But getting it in isn’t enough. You need to do lots of promotion to make people try and purchase your product.
When we had a few smaller retailers, we started contacting the bigger ones, then a small chain and so on. I also did a lot of cold calling to companies for which we offer customized presents for their clients or employees. So my first advice would be to take care of your distribution. Personally, I also think it was better for us starting off with B2B than B2C.
Finding your niche would be also an important point. Right now, special-diet requirements for an increasing part of the population opens up lots of new possibilities for small scale food producers. Vegan becomes the new vegetarian, many people can’t have gluten, etc. In the second year, we have launched a vegan biber, the first vegan biber in Switzerland actually, and received very good feedback on it. I think the most important advice would be to try more and to think less. It’s essential for an entrepreneur to be ok with cold calling and deal with setbacks. It might not work the first time, but it might with the second or third attempt.
One thing I personally underestimated in food entrepreneurship is the influence of perishability on doing business, hence the expiry dates of food products. A short expiry date of your product makes calculating your stock hard, increases the risks for the retailers to try out your products, leads to expensive shipping, growing can be increasingly difficult… The list is long.
FC: Can you share a funny/embarrassing anecdote you’ve been through? Especially one that you laugh about now, but didn’t when it happened ?
Once my brother and I went to our bee keeper to fetch a few buckets of honey. On the way back one of the buckets (about 20 liters) tipped over and the whole floor of the car was covered with honey. When cleaning we were amazed how many corners and hidden spots our car flooring had. Also we didn’t need air fresheners anymore and we always had company of 2 or 3 bees when driving.
FC: What’s next for you? Any secret future projects or products you’d like to share with us?
Since our product peaks at Christmas season we are currently searching for a product that could balance out this high to a certain point. Mainly in summer. We are thinking along the lines of a new product which is compatible with the vegan lifestyle. But it’s still early…
FC: A last word for anyone who dreams about starting their own business but are too scared/shy, don’t have time/money, or simply don’t know where to start?
A business is hardly ever a one man show. Having a person as a business partner or mentor can be extremely helpful. Ideally you have competences in different fields and have different backgrounds to get to a pool of skills which can support the business in the long run. So try to find someone who you can work, suffer and celebrate with.
Also you have to be aware that when you start your business usually you have to fill out most of the roles in a company. From being the cleaner to being the managing director. Growing and persisting to strive forward with a startup also involves a lot of routine, like packing goods and other grunt work. So this is definitely also something people have to be aware of. On the other hand it gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility. You decide if it’s time to take a few days off, you decide when it’s time to take important steps for the business and so on. This can be extremely motivating and rewarding. And if the whole thing works out – you get all the Kudos ☺
FC: thanks a lot for your time (and the delicious sample)!
All pictures courtesy of Leibacher Biber-Manufaktur.