Swedish Bakery in Laos

Pastry chef Sune Wissmar is most likely the only link between Soderkoping in Sweden and Vientiane in Laos. It was here, at Docks Hovkonditori in Soderkoping, that Sune started his journey towards a prosperous and popular cafe and bakery business on the other side of the globe.
     On the way he has gone through countries in various continents, walked in the bush, watched the surfers and worked hard. Almost all the time he has been accompanied by his beloved wife Inger, who he met right after he moved from Soderkoping to Stockholm. That was 35 years ago and since then they have lived in USA, Africa and Asia.
     The first time living abroad was in the mid seventies when they had been on holiday to California and met friends of friends who offered Sune a job in a bakery on Sunset Boulevard.
     “We decided to try Los Angeles and people at home thought we were crazy to move so far away with three children, the youngest one year old,” Sune says.
     “It was a great time but after a year and a half we were sure that this, a society with weapons, drugs and kidnappings in the daily life, was not the kind of place where we wanted our kids to grow up.”
     Sune and Inger moved back to their house in Jarfalla outside Stockholm. Some years later Inger got a job at the Swedish Embassy in Tanzania. Busy Sune had been working 50 hours a week and thought he would have a well deserved break and take it easy for a while. It got to be for a very short while. Someone at the embassy noticed Sune’s profession in the documents and asked if he would consider making 20 cakes for a reception at the embassy. From there it went on to countless events and parties of all sorts with the biggest moment of pride being when Sune made the wedding cake for the Tanzanian president’s daughter. At first Sune was a bit reluctant to take on such a mission since it was always hard to find proper ingredients.
     “It felt a little too “big” but the Swedish ambassador said to me “I think you should do it since that would be positive for Sweden”, so I went along,” Sune smiles.
     Sune and Inger were the only whites among the 800 guests invited to the Tanzanian society party.
     Having experiences from different cultures the moving to Laos in 1993 felt as pleasant new adventure. Inger was again to work for the Swedish Embassy. At that time Swedish construction company Skanska was building a road heading south and almost 200 Swedes lived in Laos. Pretty soon Sune started to make plans. It took one year of bureaucracy and hassle to register the place. In September in 1994 Sune invited the Swedes for the opening of his bakery by Nam Phu not far away from Mekong River in Vientiane. There were still dirt roads in the laid back capitol and not many tourists visiting. Two local girls were trained in baking cakes, rolls, croissants , biscuits and other pastries.
     “We had made cinnamon rolls, Danishes, cookies and so on for the first guests but when all our friends came they asked for sandwiches! So from that day sandwiches became somewhat our niche.”
     Sune’s sandwiches became immensely popular and people came from all over the place. Today the goodies with cheese, salami, ham and all sorts of vegetables are still an important part of the concept as well as all the dreamingly delicious pastries and the coffee approved by connoisseurs. Cream, flour, butter, cheese, salami and other necessities are mostly imported from Sweden or bought in Bangkok were Sune goes and fills up the car every two weeks. He is keeping the bakery efficient with machines bought second hand or new from Sweden.
     “This one is from Gotland, he says pointing at a well used machine for making dough, and this one is from Atvidaberg,” he nods content.
     Scandinavian Bakery has turned into a successful business with 40 employees. A new Scandinavian Bakery opened four years ago in Luangprabang in the north of Laos and if things works out the way Sune wishes they will open in Bangkok and maybe one day, if the situation gets better, in Burma.
     Nowadays Sune has his son Daniel as an inventive partner. Having had mainly backpackers and other tourists as customers Daniel found the way to reach the laotians. He speaks Lao and put a commercial on the local radio station. The Laotians came and they stayed and are truly loyal customers buying a lot of cookies and at this time of the year just before Easter even typical Swedish “semlor”.
     Daniel and Sune have worked with corporate social responsibility before it became a global issue and a necessity for companies who wants to be long lasting and in pace with time.
     “To my father it has never been crucial to make loads of money,” Daniel states. “Of course it is important for a company to be profitable but it is equally important to have a healthy business.”
     When Inger’s contract with the embassy ran out some years ago she wanted to move home. Together the family decided that Sune should continue his business in Laos.
     “I couldn’t leave my staff, around twenty people at that time,” Sune says bluntly.
     “At most places around here people don’t work for a very long time. During all years we have only had one person who wanted to leave. Of course I feel a responsibility for “my” girls and their families. We have given many of them interest free loans to by mopeds and other things, we send them for health checkups and so on. They know that they are important to us. But the first thing I tell them when they start to work here is that I am not paying their salaries. It is the customers who do. No customers – no jobs – no salaries. Therefore it is vital to treat the customers in a polite and pleasant way.”
     Sune has a passion for pastries but he also talks tenderly about a stylish beauty, his bright red Pontiac station wagon from 1956. The car used to belong to the former king in Laos who was forced to leave his throne in 1975. Sune is searching for the right spare parts all over the world, both on the internet and when traveling. Last summer he went to Power Meet in Vasteras, the biggest gathering in Europe for car lovers. Sune enjoys the moments when he can drive his precious Pontiac and listen to Love Me Tender or any other Elvis tune.
     His own love, Inger, lives in Sweden which is an arrangement that they have agreed on and that works. Now she comes to Laos twice a year and Sune goes home four times. Every night they mail each other.
     “I work in Laos but I live in Jarfalla in Sweden. There must not be more than seven weeks that we are away from one another. That wouldn’t be good for our marriage,” Sune says.
     “A marriage is something that you have to take care of and cherish.”
     Obviously Sune feels the same way about his bakery.

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