KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Pop-Tarts, Hamburger Helper, Twinkies, Wise Potato Chips, Windex. Oh, and grape Kool-Aid.
Commissary shopping list? Not exactly.
These quintessentially American items and more are all the rage in the German community here at the KFI Kaufhaus für Import store.
Less than a month after it opened, the shop selling iconic U.S. brands near Vogelweh’s Armstrong Gate doesn’t have to guess what its German customers want.
On the store’s Facebook page, people are clamoring for American brand-name snacks. Especially popular: grape Kool-Aid drink mix — 5.90 euros (about $7.50) for a small container — and just about anything else that’s purple and sweet.
“German customers, I think they like anything grape,” said Samira Salem, a store manager, who explains that the flavor is rare in Germany. “They just rip it out of our hands.”
At KFI, customers can indulge in wild grape Pop-Tarts, Wonka grape Laffy Taffy and Nerds candy, Welch’s grape jelly, grape bubble gum and grape soda.
And, of course, grape Kool-Aid: “It sells out in almost one day,” Salem said. “They take the grape out of the package [box], before I can put it on the shelf.”
It’s not that Germans are nostalgic for these treats. They didn’t grow up with the 1970s commercials of the Kool-Aid Man busting through a fence on a hot day, shouting “Oh, yeah!” Their mothers probably didn’t pack Oreo cookies in their school lunches, and they might never have eaten chocolate and peanut butter together in the same bite, since peanut butter is hard to find in Europe.
Salem attributes the strong interest in American products to the longstanding presence of Americans in the Kaiserslautern military community — the largest presence of Americans outside the United States — and the pervasiveness in Germany of American pop culture in movies and television.
“The American base has been here for such a long time, people may have an American husband or American boyfriend; and you see the products,” Salem said. “It’s very easy to get to know American people.”
Windex, marketed in the States as “America’s No. 1 Glass Cleaner,” was featured in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” as a cure-all for any ailment. “People say, ‘Look, they have it,’” Salem said.
American items are novel and trendy, she said — “something different.”
On the day of the store’s grand opening in April, the city bus stopped short of its nearby designated stop because most of the passengers were going to KFI, Salem said. “They waited in the rain (to get in),” she said. “We had tents” but the line extended past them.
Germans’ fascination with American goods became evident to sisters Franziska Jörg and Alexandra Daunderer after customers began requesting items from the States in addition to the Yankee Candles sold in their Dragonfly Inn, a small shop in downtown Kaiserslautern.
While such items might dominate the shelves of U.S. supermarkets, many of them are no longer made in the U.S., but in countries such as Mexico and China.
Some big-name supermarkets in Germany sell such products, but they are often in very limited quantities and choices.
The sisters decided to expand their inventory and opened KFI Kaufhaus für Import. Still, they “didn’t expect this run on our product,” Salem said. With items from the States taking six to seven weeks to arrive by mail, the store’s management had to get creative to fill the holes on store shelves, opting to buy some American products sold or made in the United Kingdom, since shipping time is shorter. The product for the most part is the same, though the packaging may differ. Oreo cookies, for instance, look smaller and come in a box. Cans of Heinz beans have British-sounding names, such as “Big Saucy Bangers,” which is baked beans with pork sausage in tomato sauce.
Germans shopping at the store recently said they were curious and eager to try food and other items from the States.
With three flavored soda cans in her hand — including grape, of course — Kaiserslautern resident Christine Wenzel said Monday that she stopped by KFI after reading about it on Facebook.
“Today, I am off from work and I wanted to use the chance to check out the store,” she said. American soda “is a little more special than German” soda, she said, because it has “more sugar and the colors are more bright.”
Some German stores carry American soft drinks, but the prices are high, Wenzel said, so she doesn’t buy them often. KFI soft drink prices include 1.20 euros (about $1.60) for a can of 7UP, and 12 euros (about $16) for a 12-pack of Dr Pepper cherry vanilla soda.
German customer Sandra Grub said KFI prices were higher than she expected. She and Jutta Luba drove about 25 miles from Ohmbach to visit the store. Even so, the two friends quickly filled their shopping baskets with Hershey’s chocolate syrup and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Shipping and import fees drive up the store’s prices, said Norman Daunderer, who works in the store.
“We do not see ourselves in competition with any grocery stores on base,” he said. “Our competitors would be other German stores who offer American groceries.”
So far, product selection is mostly trial and error, Salem said. Sales of cooking spices and Coppertone spray-on sunscreen have been sluggish, Salem said, the latter perhaps tied to this year’s rainy spring. Due in the next shipment from the States are more varieties of Oreo cookies, including those with peanut butter and mint creme filling, she said.
“We try to respond to every customer wish,” Salem said.
Marcus Klöckner contributed to this report.