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December 1999

Victual Reality

Geographically, it’s a long way from North America to Germany. Culturally, it is an even farther stretch to have a greater-Pittsburgh native working at Munich’s Viktualienmarkt. But, since 1991, locals and surprised U.S. tourists have been buying pickles, jams, herbs and vegetables from Pennsylvanian Betsy Hollweck and her Bavarian husband, Hans, owners of Rottler, a 100-year-old stand at the outdoor market in the city’s center. The Viktualienmarkt’s world-famous huts, which hawk fresh edibles ranging from Appenzeller cheese to zucchini, are usually handed down from generation to generation or, in some cases, sold to those who agree to stick with the established assortment. “Rottler has a long history,” explains Hollweck. “A century ago it was run under a different name. Then, “Franzi” Landsmann, like many other women during World War II, was ordered to exchange letters with a German soldier. After the war, and much correspondence, Franzi married her pen pal, Herr Rottler.” The newlyweds purchased the mercantile and developed recipes for exotic marmalades, many of which Hans Hollweck, a Michelin-recognized chef, includes in his homemade offerings today. Betsy Hollweck’s reason for being in Germany is a common one — she fell in love. What is extraordinary is that she works in an environment so steeped in tradition, one wonders how she could possibly be accepted by some of the area’s stodgier clientele. “When I first arrived, I couldn’t speak a word of German,” smiles the now fluent transplant. “I might have gotten an order right, but if they asked for a bag I was sunk! I was not popular, let’s say that. There were even some who told me they refused to buy sauerkraut from anyone but a German. It still happens from time to time.” Repeat customers have, however, taken a shine to the vibrant “Ami,” who often dons some form of Tracht (national costume). “She is just great,” gushes Hans, her proud partner in business and life. “I tend to take a more strict approach with both shoppers and staff alike. Everyone likes Betsy, and, she sets the stand up in the morning faster than I ever will!” The close-knit, victual-vending community is much like any small neighborhood. There is gossip, scrutiny and competition among its inhabitants. “We go about our business,” laughs Hollweck. “But the rumor mill can be interesting. Rottler must have been a wonderful man, as I’ve never heard one bad thing said about him. And believe me, people here talk!” A survey of the market’s offerings reveals that some retailers carry many of the same products. Can one shop have the edge? “There’s plenty of money to be made here,” grins a knowing, but I’m-not-saying Hollweck. “Like with any store, though, you have to emphasize freshness and service. Supermarkets can afford to throw a few withered bundles of chives on their shelves, or act like they’re doing the customer a favor by just being there. The small guy can’t — and that’s the secret to our success.” In addition to an active involvement in their booth on Munich’s premiere foodstuffs grounds, as well as in their customized preserves factory in the suburbs, the Hollwecks spend time with their two children (daughter 12, son 11) in a home they recently had built in Zorneding. “Architects in Germany are impossible,” cackles the 43-year-old. “I wanted a straight staircase. The builder said ‘no’ because of space considerations. I tried to convince him that this is my space! In the end I got my stairs, and, although he wasn’t happy about it, I got a fireman’s pole, too.” Aside from good-natured ribbing when comparing America to Deutschland, Hollweck enjoys Bavarian life, and is grateful for this society’s ingenious little pleasures. “I buy an entire case of Überraschungseier (chocolate eggs containing a toy) before heading home for a visit. In fact, my son gave some to Pocahontas at Disneyworld — she loved them!” Future plans for the dynamic duo (they really are in possession of their own “Bat pole”) include focusing on their existing mail-order business through which they sell their inventive collection of “spreadables,” such as sour cherry with rum, pineapple with Kirschwasser and lemon-lime. Will they ever give up the stand and concentrate solely on delivery? “No way,” stresses Hollweck. “The Viktualienmarkt is too important an address to leave off our label!” And it is at that world-renowned location that hearty souls, one from the state that houses the Liberty Bell, will continue to make their mark on retail Bavaria much in the manner of postal workers — through rain, wind, hail, sleet and snow. <<< Liz vannah

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