Poland's 'Sara Lee' weathers Communist rule

Poland's ingrained commercial tradition has helped it bounce back more quickly from Communist rule than many of its former East-bloc neighbors.

The Blikle family, for example, established its pastry shop on Warsaw's main shopping street, Nowy Swiat, in 1869 and today belongs to the top 10 most recognized domestic brand names in Poland.

Shoppers form long lines in the confectioners shop, while young people fill the elegant Blikle Cafe next door.

"Blikle survived communism only thanks to its name," says Slawomir Chrzczonowicz, the company's commercial director.

"The owner always said that if it hadn't been for Blikle, the Communist bosses wouldn't have had a place to buy cake," he adds.

Bohdan Wyznikiewicz, vice president of the Gdansk Institute for Market Economics, remembers that when he used to visit a cousin in Switzerland during the 1970s, he was always asked to bring along some pastries from Blikle.

With Poland's quick moves on deregulation in 1990 following the election of the first non-Communist government in decades, business soared.

The number of employees at Blikle's rose from 30 to 280 to cope with the increased demand from the seven shops around Warsaw and three nationwide branches.

Mr. Chrzczonowicz says to maintain quality, the company doesn't plan any more shops, but it is entering the mass market with a line of frozen cakes.

Long accustomed to shortages of even the most basic staples, Poles are reaching a level of prosperity where luxury goods and well-stocked supermarkets are the norm.

The fall of the Iron Curtain also allowed Polish businesses to reestablish links to the outside world.

Blikle has adopted a "total quality management" program similar to Japan's, cooperates with a French coffee company, and employs a manager from France to run the cafe.

The company is also cultivating the image of a good corporate citizen, sponsoring art galleries and theaters.

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