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Domberger Brot-Werk: The military operation behind making perfect bread

How unlikely baker Florian Domberger built a bread empire by sharing the craft with anyone willing to learn.

Photo: Makar Artemev

The list of people working at Domberger Brot-Werk includes a music conductor, an architect, multiple social workers, several Syrian refugees, and a food chemist – none of them with a background in baking. The bakery, which has five locations across Berlin, is a must-try when it comes to sourdough, Brezeln or their famous Bavarian Dampfnudeln. But not a lot of people are aware of the unusual story and egalitarian hiring approach of their owner, Florian Domberger.

Domberger was never supposed reign over a small bread empire – his path to the job involved five countries, three continents and 18 years spent living abroad before returning to Germany. Domberger was born in Augsburg, and his father owned a transportation logistics company that he was earmarked to inherit. In 1988, he joined the West German army and served for two years – a role that would one day influence the management of that bread empire. “I am 100% military trained. I don’t think there is a better literature of leadership than what the army offers,” says Domberger, who is still in the reserves and works part-time as lieutenant colonel and logistics commander.

Being a baker is often romanticised, but it is a heavy job in the physical sense

In 1990, he returned to his father’s business, working as a manager in freight forwarding, but after a few years he struck out on his own. He joined one of the country’s biggest logistics companies, Kühne-Nagel, and in 1995 was stationed in Hong Kong. Five months later he met his wife, Vanessa Lake, a Malaysian native who was working as a flight attendant. She now handles sales at Domberger Brot-Werk, and “can explain bread in six languages”.

In 1999 the pair moved to Indonesia, then to Melbourne, Australia in 2002, where Florian studied business. He was already working on a business plan for a bakery. Why a bakery? “I love bread!” he declares, laughing. “I have three passions: bread, beer and trucks.” While living abroad he often imported bread from Germany, asking his mother to mail it.

“I am 100% military trained. I don’t think there is a better literature of leadership than what the army offers,” says founder Florian Domberger. Photo: Makar Artemev

The bakery plan would take another decade to materialise, though. In 2004, the family moved to Switzerland, where Domberger began working in supply chain management for Johnson & Johnson. In 2014, with two daughters in tow, they decided to upend their lives once again and moved to Berlin. Domberger learned professional baking in Eberswalde, and in 2016, he opened the first location of Domberger Brot-Werk in Moabit. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Vanessa’s support. But for me it wasn’t about getting into craftsmanship. I wanted to run a company, I wanted to be my own boss,” he says of the decision to start the business. “For about 10 years I was looking for something to take over or invest in but could’t find anything. So I just decided to build it from scratch, and it was the best decision.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

Domberger Brot-Werk grew quickly. Today they employ 37 people and have three fixed locations – in Moabit, Tegel and Markthalle Neun – and two mobile bakeries, transformed military trucks that nod back to Domberger’s army days. Throughout the company’s seven-year rise, Domberger has been devoted to employing career changers, offering apprenticeships to anyone who asks on a trial basis to start. “Being a baker is often romanticised, but it is a heavy job in the physical sense – carrying 25 kg bags of flour, moving and kneading dough, et cetera. We offer them a week or two, and they decide whether it is what they want or not. If they show the right attitude and are motivated, they get a job,” he explains. “We are not only looking at how well they are managing the dough, but we look at whether they can manage themselves, can manage others, whether they can teach. And only then do we look at how good they are at managing the dough.”

This equal-opportunity hiring policy has given Domberger Brot-Werk a diverse cast of committed staff. Their master baker, Benjamin Tugwell, is originally from Los Angeles and worked as a truck driver before becoming a renowned professional in the Berlin sourdough circles. Another baker, Mo Al Ahmad Al Mabruk, was an electrician in Syria before losing his left hand in a bombing, moving to Berlin and connecting with the Domberger Brot-Werk team. Algerian-born Berliner Sam Belfrinat was pursuing an apprenticeship as a painter when he found the bakery. Another employee, Miriam Tröscher, was a filmmaker who’d once made a documentary about bread, and plans to one day take her honed skills to the German countryside. Their baker Yong Ho Chung is an evangelical pastor who’d always wanted to learn about bread, and heard about the Backshop from a podcast.

Photo: Makar Artemev

The Domberger Brot-Werk website is full of these stories – they post the biographies of many of their staff members and apprentices, along with a narrative of how they each arrived in the bread world. “They all have their stories, and they are all fantastic to work with, and they all learn something from the experience too,” Domberger says of his employees. He’s proud to employ a crew with so many backgrounds and specialities, and he’d give anyone a chance – though he does admit that the fit isn’t always right. “We hold everyone accountable, we don’t work with children. You get two to three shots, and then you are fired. Throughout the years I’ve had to fire about 20 people, and three or four of them came back and said, ‘Thank you for doing that, you’ve shattered my dream but it was a blessing in disguise.’”

Of course, the majority stay, often for years. Even when other bakeries were struggling to find new craftsmen and women, Domberger Brot-Werk always had employees. Some come after working at other bakeries, some are customers charmed by seeing the bakers work, some are lifelong enthusiasts who’d never found a way into the craft. Some come to learn a few tricks during a holiday job but end up asking for full-time employment. “I always tell people that this is a mean way to get them hooked. I don’t believe in having to become a Meister [Master] in order to bake, I want to focus on this Ausbildung [apprenticeship] system we have going on. Good materials, through good craftsmanship, using clean energy and selling with the right attitude – that’s what we do here.”

Once a person starts to know their way around, they’re responsible for teaching the next new employee – this way the knowledge deepens. Domberger implemented this method from his years in the army. The company also emphasises “Fehlerkultur” (“mistake culture”), where they encourage people to find a solution themselves if they mess something up. “It’s a boring business term, but the only thing we have to do right is to give people space to grow,” Domberger says.

Of course, Domberger is still in transportation and logistics – in a way. The bakery’s bread deliveries to restaurants, Kitas, schools and shops are not outsourced, a conscious choice Domberger made in order to maintain a personal relationship even with their commercial customers. Domberger Brot-Werk’s huge, non-electric cargo bikes are in fact often ridden across town by Florian Domberger himself, no matter the weather. The bakery’s reach is much broader, though, than its Berlin dough-minance. For the last year, they’ve been baking donation loaves as part of the Bake for Ukraine programme, already having collected more than €8,500 for relief aid.

Photo: Makar Artemev

But ultimately, Florian Domberger’s focus is on training as many people as possible and growing the company without lowering its quality. And then, in about three years, he wants to sell it all. “I will have had enough of Berlin by then – too dirty, too crowded, too aggressive. I will be ready to leave. Vanessa and I are moving to my hometown, and we are planning to spend a significant amount of time in Malaysia too.” It’s his chance to do what he’s always done for his employees – a new chapter. “I don’t love the term second chances,” says Domberger. “I’d rather say a second hat to put on, because your past knowledge never gets lost. I offer people a new profession, a second or third hat to fit on their heads.”

Domberger hasn’t yet decided what will happen to the bakery when he leaves, but he’ll always stay connected to the business and to Berlin. In the meantime, he’ll stay on to teach the next generation of Berlin breadwinners.

  • Keep up with Domberger Brot-Werk on Instagram at @brotwerk