Max Kugel comes from a family of bakers, so of course he also becomes a baker. You might think so, but it’s not that simple. The fact that he’s still standing in the bakery today, happy and content, is perhaps what surprises him the most.
Max Kugel is a master baker and only bakes and sells bread made from organic ingredients without artificial additives in his shop in Bonn’s Talweg. For this reason alone, some consider him a cult baker. He himself says that he is a baker, but one of the kind that many people can only remember from the past.
Kugel was born into a family of bakers, so of course he will also become a baker. It may look like that, but it’s not that simple, he tells ntv.de. “We always had to help at home. And the bigger we got, the bigger our tasks became.” At 7 he cleared the dishwasher, at 12 he helped at the oven and cleaned the bakery. “Working together in the evening was almost an irrefutable law of nature in our world,” Kugel writes about it in his book How I Set Out to Save My Craft.
“I’ve always said I don’t want that at all, I won’t be a baker,” says the 32-year-old. But the alternative plan to become a chef falls through and Kugel begins an apprenticeship as a baker with his own father. After all, he is a baker. “And I realized that I want to stay that way. During my training, it became a passion.” The family business in his native Lahnstein is still too small for him. “Because I’m a baker through and through, I always looked, what kind of bakeries are there? I then looked at them.”
Solid craftsmanship, raised in a modern way
It quickly becomes clear that Kugel doesn’t just look at what cakes, rolls and bread are on display in other places. He is interested in the whole company. What ingredients are used? What are the work processes and times? What spirit reigns in the team? He works for different bakeries all over Germany and gains a lot of experience. “My bosses were down-to-earth people. They didn’t do much marketing or anything else, they just did a really solid job.”
Kugel wants to raise this return to the old craft in a modern way. With every work trip, the vision of his own company becomes clearer and more and more clear that it is not compatible with his parents’ company. From there he still makes the master craftsman and stays there for some time as an employee, but then it’s clear: his future should be his own bakery far away from home.
“Of course my father was disappointed,” says Kugel, “because that was his big wish.” But he always said: “You just have to know what’s right for you, what you want. And he let me go.” The first few weeks were still difficult.
On August 24, 2017, Kugel opens his own bakery in Bonn. His name is on the windows, in the back the bakery is a few steps lower than the sales room and only separated from it by a glass wall. Customers should be able to see where the bread they buy here is baked. The walls are anthracite blue, there’s a map with Kugel’s “road to bakery,” as he calls it. It lists all the places where he worked and learned. On the opening day, all breads are sold out after three hours. The people of Bonn obviously like his bread from day one.
Kugel’s breads are called Heinz, like his father, Aschauer, because Kugel worked there with Stefan Greimel, or Föhrer Weißbrot, in memory of the time on the island with Volker Hansen. Some have five ingredients, others seven or nine, with a maximum of ten. Among them are none of the technical enzymes that many bakers use that don’t need to be included in the ingredient lists. A kilo of bread costs nine euros on Talstrasse.
When Kugel talks about his sandwiches, he gets enthusiastic and philosophizes. “I’m not a baker who says they need a strong crust and a moist crumb.” That’s 0815 talk. For him, bread has to be complex, which includes the triad of crust, crumb and aromas. “The crust definitely needs a decent baking color and toasty aromas, because they still provide taste in the bread on days three and four.” Of course, the crumb has to be juicy, but it’s also about a nice chewing sensation and tasting the aromas, the sourdough flavors or the roasted seeds. “Bread needs a certain honesty. You have to be able to taste the grain a bit, even as a layman.” When it comes to Kugel, you eat good bread with joy and you don’t have any digestive problems. “That’s important too.”
The pitfalls of success
For Kugel, all of this is only possible with organic ingredients and without additives, which in turn has to be balanced with more experience and craftsmanship. In this way, a seemingly simple craft turns into a very differentiated company, which also deals with the use of pesticides in agriculture, raw material and food prices. “I was a bit unsure whether it was too high a requirement for customers to always be aware of all this when they actually only want to eat a sandwich.” Especially since bread is a product that is always available to everyone 24/7.
Today, the master baker says his target group is simply customers who want to eat good bread. These are students, young families, but also many older customers who “appreciate or want to taste this bread again”. Some come once a week, some every day and then only buy a few slices of black bread.
After more than five years it is clear that there is more than enough demand. But that would mean that Kugel would have to expand. But that’s exactly what he doesn’t want. Because the quality of life is just as important to him as his products – his own and that of his 13 employees. “I’ve decided that I no longer want this craft in the way it used to be. That includes the opening hours.” That’s why the shop doesn’t open until 10 a.m. and closes at 6:30 p.m. Saturday is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Monday the shop is closed. Then the bakers can only start working at 6 a.m. and not at 1 or 2 a.m. in the night. There are also closing times, six weeks a year. According to his own statements, he is profitable with this model.
And he sees more colleagues pursuing similar approaches. This is one of the reasons why he is not worried about the bakery trade, despite the many shops that only offer pre-baked and convenience products. “I think there will be more start-ups again. The bakers who produce good quality, who specialize with a small range, that will be future-oriented.”
Today he himself is a satisfied and happy baker. It might not have been planned that way, but that’s how it is in his life. “I started to bake bread that people will remember. That’s the most important thing for me. I have to be able to make a living from these things, that’s clear. I have to pay my team. But this bread quality and this value, that we embody is above everything for me.”