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Food: Sweet centre of dreamy desserts; Drucker's has been providing cakes for Birmingham's sweet-toothed since the 1950s. Caroline Foulkes goes behind the scenes at its Hall Green bakery.

Byline: Caroline Foulkes

Number 146-156 Sarehole Road is a dream come true. From the front it looks nothing - an ordinary office that just happens to have dropped into a gap in a road full of semis.

But inside, behind a white door in the corner of a narrow hall, is a world of whipped cream, sticky jam and sweet icing.

A world wrapped and folded in thick, fluffy, golden cotton sheets of puff pastry.

A world where your eyes become bigger than your belly, and you could get fat on the sights, the smells and your thoughts alone.

Number 146-156 Sarehole Road is home of Drucker's, Birmingham's premiere patisserie purveyor and owner of 29 cafs nationwide.

It's not a mass-produced factory outfit, a place where jam is injected into fat balls of dough for doughnuts, or where muffins are bathed and bound together by oil to ensure they retain their prepacked moistness.

This is a place where cakes are still made, by and large by hand. This is the real thing.

Costas Constantinou first encountered Drucker's in Leamington Spa. He was working for another company, then dealing with its coffee and cake shops. He went to oversee the opening of his company's new Leamington Spa branch. And then he spotted Drucker's. 'I just kept going in there for coffee and a cake. Then every time I had a meeting with someone I would suggest we should meet in there. I just found it amazing. So I said to myself if I ever left the company I worked for, the one place I'd like to go and work was Drucker's. Costas is now retail director for this famous Birmingham company.

And he is just as enthusiastic about it now as he was when he first encountered it.

'We are offering something unique. Every place has to have something to make it unique, something to distinguish it from its competitors. Ours is our patisserie.'

Drucker's has now been making patisserie for 40 years.

The company started in 1958 when Andre Drucker, a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany, decided to do something to introduce the caf lifestyle of his Viennese boyhood to his adopted home town of Birmingham.

He opened his first caf in Aston, after borrowing pounds 1,000 to get going, but felt the pastries he was serving to his customers just weren't up to scratch.

He wanted to create a place where people could browse through newspapers, play chess, talk politics. . . oh, and eat cake. Cake like that he used to eat when he was a boy.

So he bought a shop in St Mary's Row, Moseley, and set up a bakery behind it. But Andre couldn't bake for his life. So he ended up recruiting German pastry chef Bert Mller.

Over the years, the business grew until it ended up with three divisions: retail (the cafs), chilled and frozen. 'The chilled division provided Tesco with quite a range of products - tarts and scones, things like that - and also gateaux for airlines,' says Costas.

'But it got to the stage where we couldn't do all three. The business we were doing with Tesco was growing by 100 per cent every year. Growth like that needs a lot of attention.

'Overnight, we could add another two or three lines to the range we were supplying them with and it would have run into hundreds of thousands of units, requiring new equipment and employees.

'So the question was, did we continue with the Tesco business or focus on the retail side?'

The company decided to divest itself of its Tesco business in 2000, selling both the chilled and frozen divisions to Hibernia Foods. Its annual turnover dropped from pounds 22 million to pounds 12 million.

'I know it sounds corny,' says Costas, 'but this isn't just about profit. This is a private, family company which is still headed by Stephen Drucker, Andre's son.

'Sure, we are in this to make a living.

We could have taken a lot of short cuts over the years to increase our profitability, but we haven't.

'The one thing we've never sacrificed is quality. We've just chosen to deal with lots of small customers instead of one big one.'

By focusing on the retail side of the business, Costas says the company has also managed to maintain a loyal customer base.

'All our customer comment cards are answered personally - we don't just file them away. One customer we dealt with the other day knew where all our shops were in the area and even knew the names of the staff.

'It's important to find out what our customers like and what they don't. We don't stand still - we're always looking for ways to improve our cakes.'

He talks about the redevelopment of the croissant diplomat, about the new deep-filled mince pies being launched for Christmas, about the revamp of the hazelnut gateau.

'We've already got one, but the new one will bear no resemblance to it - apart from containing hazelnuts,' says Costas enthusiastically.

'It'll have two tubes of ganache chocolate running through the centre - we're working on it at the moment.'

He leads me downstairs to the bakery where I have to don a white coat and fetching blue hairnet, and place blue plastic bags over my shoes. Then Diane Row, operations director, and Bernard Andre, the technical director, lead me through the magic white door and into the heart of Drucker's.

Racks and racks of scones and pastries and biscuits sit neatly lined up on trays, waiting to go inside one of the huge ovens that look just like shiny silver lifts.

In one corner, a man folds a sheet of puff pastry the size of a baby's cot blanket over and over, pushing it through a roller to get it to exactly the right thickness.

Another machine, only recently acquired by Drucker's, rolls triangle strips of golden dough into perfectly curled croissants, ready for the oven.

'Sales of croissants have grown over the years, so we needed a machine. We had to go to Switzerland to get this,' says Bernard. 'If the machine was working flat out, it could roll up to 4,000 an hour, but we'd never get all those into the oven.'

Diane adds at this point that the building itself was never designed to be a bakery.

'It used to be a place that exported surgical instruments, I think. So obviously we fit around the building, rather than vice versa.'

She shows me a mixing bowl the size of a kitchen sink where a thick gooey white liquid flops around, pushed by a slow-moving whisk.

'Fondant,' she says. In a tray behind, Diane's favourites, the Bavarian apple pies, wait for their toppings, chunky lumps of apple sitting in a pastry case.

In the sandwich room, paninis, savoury croissants and bloomer sandwiches are being prepared.

At the end of the croissant row, a man in a blue apron slices each one open and places it in a pile, while the man next to him spreads butter on each one.

It takes the '50 baps, you slice, I'll spread' concept of catering to a whole new level. The ladies working on the bloomer section have an advantage over the croissant lot, though. They have a machine that can do the spreading for them.

Then it's on to another room, where pastry cases are filled with creme patisserie and strawberries, where baumkuchens get their iced coats, where Christmas biscuits have their messages hand-inscribed with chocolate from the chocolate kettle - a kettle the size of a dustbin.

It is a bit like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory - apart from the Oompa Loompas and the chocolate river.

And the end product tastes magic - which ensures that people remember a Drucker's cake.

'The amazing thing with Drucker's is that no matter where you go in the country, someone has heard of us,' says Costas.

'When we went down to Watford to have a look at our new premises there, people had heard of us - and that's despite the fact we don't have countrywide coverage.

'It doesn't mean we rest on our laurels, though - we've got standards to keep up.'
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 30, 2002
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