Monday, October 19, 2015

Retromania in Lidl groceries

Products visually identical to those in communism are back

Three months ago, I promoted (American-European and other) free trade in general and some characteristic Czech food product in particular. This blog post is dedicated to a similar light topic – in fact, to a retro hardcore version of it.

Xindl X (Mr Ondřej Ládek): "Czechacheque And Totacheque" (Little Czech Man And His Dear Totalitarian Regime) dedicated this song to the absurdity of some people's claim that life used to be better during communism

The German supermarket chain Lidl is doing very well in Czechia – I am pretty sure that much better than Tesco, Billa, and others. One of its bonus features are "weekly themes". Every week, the consumers may enjoy their American week or Mexican week or Spanish week or French week or Italian week or Greek week or British week or XXL week. Depending on the nationality, you may buy many of the typical products associated with one nation or another.

But the week that started today is arguably even more fancy. At least in Czechia, it's the Lidl Retroweek. See a PDF or interactive flier version of the weekly catalog. And it's so much fun that I even forgave our local Lidl for having given me no Stikeez today. (And the previous 3 Stikeez I got were identical, too bad!)

It's an important enough event that even some top Czech newspapers wrote about the Lidl Retroweek.

A section of the supermarket is dedicated to products that we knew before the fall of communism.

What is particularly fascinating is the design of the packages which is virtually indistinguishable from what we experienced before the market economy was restarted in Czechia. During communism, the Czechoslovak products preserved some of their quality – and in the 1980s, they were OK and remotely comparable to the products you knew in the West.

But the aspect in which communism has manifested itself most visibly was the selection. In every kind of a product, you could have chosen approximately from the same number of choices as the number of parties you could have chosen from during the elections: namely one.

Needless to say, this started with the cars. In the mid 1980s, if you wanted to buy a state-of-the-art car, you had basically one option: Škoda 105/120. And you could choose the shop where you bought it or where they repaired it – your option was Mototechna. ;-) Some people bought cheaper cars so they ended up with a Lada, a Wartburg, or even a Trabant. Other choices were already rare and the number of people who drove a Mercedes in the 1980s – like my dad – was very low.

Škoda 130: this "poor man's Porsche" was the "top" model being produced when the Velvet Revolution was getting started. It may be partly due to some patriotic sentiments but I have always believed and I still believe that it was a pretty car, even relatively to the Western products. Unlike other socialist bloc's cars, this model became successful enough in the U.K. and other places. And it was this model that had inspired most of the British Škoda car jokes. Check a 1989 Top Gear about the Škodas including the newer Favorit.

Many of the products had good enough quality and they even have packaging with a relatively OK design and catchy names – similar names that looked like the Western brands trying to attract your attention and beat dozens of competitors. Except that the Czechoslovak communist products had no competitors.

The music video clip at the top shows a cartoonish version of the comparison between the communist grocery stores and the contemporary supermarkets. First of all, the supermarkets are much larger, there's much more traffic. People tend to do bigger shoppings, I think, and they also have larger fridges to store the food.

Half a year ago, Lidl ran the Retroweek and unsurprisingly for me, it was a big success. I largely missed it when they did it for the first time. But I didn't miss it today – when their improve Retroweek began. The number of commie products on the shelves was substantially increased. Some of the products have never really died – and the producers have only changed the packaging design to the commie design to do their homework. But the effect is rather spectacular even for me – I can only speculate how the people nostalgic about communism may feel.

So you can buy a Kofola, the Czechoslovak failed-but-even-better attempt to counterfeit Coke. I think that it was not sold in PET bottles during communism but at least, they reminded us that the beverage was developed in 1960. See page 1 of the flier. The same page shows you the classical Czechoslovak Hermelín, a Brie or Camembert-style cheese (the name Hermelín originally means the stoat fur/skin). Page 1 also shows Horalky, the "Mountaineers' Waffles". Those things have never quite disappeared so the shock isn't big. But it gets more intriguing.

Page 2 offers you some salami – Gothaj Salami (the old version of this salami has already been promoted to the permanent list of products), Paprikash, Vysočina (The Highlands), and Herkules, among others (yes, competition did exist in the salami brands). But Page 3 contains some fancy stuff such as a can of Májka, a delicatesse pork cream, and a can of "luncheon meat" currently produced by Hamé. As kids, we would often take such cans to various trips. Termix is a famous sweetish termized yoghurt-like product made of cottage cheese and produced from 1976. Again, it was a monopoly in a wide class of similar things. Page 3 also shows one liter of milk in a traditional commie plastic bag – in igelit as we still call it even though we shouldn't. The alternative was the typical glass bottles – I remember the price CSK 1.90 per liter. The price of milk went up about 6 times, the salaries about 10 times since the Velvet Revolution. Perhaps the improvement of the living standards isn't too obvious when you look at this particular product type. By the way, the "tetrapack" cardboard seems to be a vastly more practical packaging system for milk than either the bottles or the plastic bag; yes, the plastic bag did often get punctured, and it was very hard to keep the open bag in the fridge without another vessel, etc. I am pretty sure that the cardboard milk began already during the late communism (e.g. "South Bohemian Milk", unless I confused the timing).

On Page 4, you may buy potato dumplings in powder, the classic liquid spice, and some instant soups as well as Masox, the only bouillon we could have bought. There's also the "Old Huntsman's" alcoholic beverage. It wasn't quite a monopoly because it competed with the "Domestic Rum" and a few other strong alcoholic beverages but the selection was incomparably smaller than today.

Page 5 boasts some cakes and pies, a Russian icecream ("Eskymo" and "Ledňáček" ["A Small Icy Boy" or "Kingfisher"] were more widespread classic Czech-made popsicles and they are being sold now, too), but especially two things I want to emphasize. The round "piškots" (sponge biscuits) – I ate so much of this stuff as a small child (in the milk etc.) – and "rum pralinés" ("rumové pralinky") in the original packages. I couldn't resist and bought it today, of course. (The producer, and the whole "Orion" brand, belongs to Nestlé Czechia these days. The packages inform you about things like the nutrition facts as well. I am pretty sure that those data didn't exist 30 years ago.)

You know the Belgian pralinés which are supposed to contain primarily nuts and sugar. There are no nuts in "rum pralinkas" although the name is clearly derived from the French template. Instead, aside from some good enough chocolate, it's the rum essence that gives it its unprecedented taste. Note that the domestic rum is produced from the rum essence and no-nonsense industrial alcohol, too. My understanding is that there is really no alcohol in "rum pralinkas" but it still tastes just like rum. ;-)

The prices of these retroproducts are not tiny – as you might expect given their being important from a communist country. They're the same as the price of their "descendants". But 144 grams of "rum pralinkas" cost CZK 19.90 i.e. 80 U.S. cents or so. It's surely much cheaper than any Belgian pralinés you might imagine – and the "rum pralinkas" are still better-tasting, anyway, because no Belgian chocolate art may ever replace or supersede the taste of rum. :-) Rum pralinkas are still being produced and sold even outside Retroweeks but their updated design isn't equally attractive.

From Page 6, I also bought "burizons" – which I honestly didn't see for decades, or at least I didn't realize that. It's puffed (expanded) rice – which, perhaps unsurprisingly, tastes similar to popcorn. These packages are about 100 grams for $0.40, imported from Slovakia. There were some variations such as "Arizonky". "Pedro" (featuring a boy with a Mexican hat) was the most famous if not the only :-) Czechoslovak chewing gum.

And then there are some soluble sweet beverages. Such as the "Vitacit" sweet powder and "Ovocit" concentrated liquid in thick glass bottle (yes, they do seem identical to the communist ones). Most of those things are just sugar but I suspect they were (and they are?) adding Vitamin C at least to "Vitacit", too. "Granko" was a pretty professionally looking soluble cocoa beverage in the cardboard boxes. Some "Melta" coffee.

As far as I know, around 1980 [oops, this page says that those ads began already in late 1960s so I can't remember the first ones], capitalist-style TV ads began to appear on the Czechoslovak TV stations. The "Mr Egg" (and "Mrs Egg") were often introducing them. In this rather famous ad, a bear is asking: "And where is our bro, after all?" – "He went to buy some honey to Unity ["Jednota", now "Co-Op"]". The YouTube channel has lots of old Czech TV ads but not too many are as old as this one. It's remarkable how lousy the TV ads' quality was relatively to the great Czechoslovak films produced at that time – you know, the money was not circulating in business in those times. ;-)

On Page 7, aside from the "Ovocit" bottles, you also find the "Crown" (Korunní) mineral water, also near a monopoly, and "Vinea", a sweet and bubbly Slovak soda produced out of grape cider. Due to the monopoly status, as kids, we've probably drunk a higher amount of "Vinea" than a Western kid has drunk "Sprite" or "Seven Up" which I could pick as approximately (but less good-tasting) equivalents. Well, the "River" tonic might be considered a competitor of "Vinea" you could have sometimes bought, too (not in PET bottles).

But then this page has some practical gems. "AVA" is a powder to wash the dishes – not terribly good memory about that product. But I simply had to buy "Iron", the blue alcohol-based compound to clean the windows. "Iron" is not the only product to clean the windows you could buy during communism. It's also the only brand of a window-cleaning substance that I know! And I must tell you, it smells great and is very effective in cleaning the window. It probably dissolves the glue that attaches the dirt to the glass, allows the dirt to be collected by the piece of paper, and in the alcohol solution, quickly evaporates the rest of the liquids. I cleaned my windows more effectively than the last time I did it some time ago. How could I have lived without "Iron" for 25 years? :-)

And then there's "Pe-Po". Just to be sure, the name sounds very familiar because "Pepo" is how we call "Pepa" (recall that Czech has the special "vocative" case in its declension system) and "Pepa" (or "Pepík") is the informal Czech name for "Josef" (our "Joseph"), which was the most frequent male name in Czechia just decades ago. The Poles often refer to Czechs as the "Pepíci" (Josephs), a nickname meant to represent a nation of relaxed people with the sense of humor; or, and it is related, a nation that you don't need to take very seriously. However, "Pe-Po" is an acronym for "pevný podpalovač", a "solid firestarter". You throw it somewhere and you may be sure that you will have fire for a long enough time to ignite other things (such as coal), too.

And the practical products continue on Page 8. "Savo" is a chlorine-based product to disinfect bathrooms or swimming pools and other things. When it comes to laundry powders, we may see that there was some competition, after all! Women could have bought either "Titan" or "Namo". Both of them are sold this week, too. "Namo" stands for "namočit" i.e. soak/immerse. I guess that by now, you agree that the creativity they proved while inventing the names was much higher than what the communist economy actually needed. Page 8 also brings you a Czechoslovak 1967 Nivea cream; I am not sure whether Nivea the German company agreed with this marketing. And "Indulona", a hand cream. Some people were saying to have created some hallucination drugs out of it; and gay prisoners were using it as a lubricant.

"Welcome to the Bad Times", another song against the pro-communist nostalgia, was very controversial when it was released in 2006. The creators have even argued that the song had been banned in radios in a communist-style censorship campaign – but these claims may have been mostly a stunt to promote the song. I initially didn't like the excessively pub-like, informal genre of the song but after some time, I actually did become a fan. And yes, I think that the author of the lyrics, Lou Fanánek Hagen (an engineer who looks like a huge macho skinhead), is one of the most ingenious authors of song lyrics, especially thanks to his amazing parodies of famous global songs (e.g. texts for the Heavy Pochondr or the Czech Smurfs).

"Jelen" ("The Deer") was a soap. Its competitor was "Šeřík" ("The Lilac"). "Diplomat" was an aftershave water. And "Lybar" was the nearly unique hair spray for women, also on shelves now. In the mid 1980s, it was impossible to buy toilet paper in Czechoslovakia for some weeks. West Germans had lots of fun about that fact. But as the commie criticized in the song at the top says, "what are 62 models of the toilet paper for 1 hole good for?". Well, he has a point. In many cases, the selection seems excessive and perhaps unnecessarily confusing, at least when it comes to some product types.

Next time, they may be saying some "botas" shoes. "Bota" is a shoe in Czech so the brand almost literally meant "shoes" but it may have been chosen due to the coincidental similarity with "Baťa", the famous Czechoslovak shoemaker who (well, the grandson of the founder Tomáš Baťa) had to emigrate to the West.

The most important brand of bikes was Favorit ("The Frontrunner") – I had one or two of these very thin products, too. The link argues that someone recycled the brand and restarted the production of Favorit bikes in 2011. It is an accident that the first post-Velvet-Revolution car produced by Škoda was a Favorit, too.

(Similarly, your option for kid bikes was known as Pionýr, "The Pioneer". Trucks were either "LIAZ" or "Tatra". Full-fledged motorbikes were Jawa and Čez. The moped of your choice had to be Babeta – I own Korado, an update of it. The Czechoslovak buses were Karosa. You had 1, at most 2 brands for "almost everything". Communist Czechoslovakia was a remarkably self-sufficient economy, except for some natural resources we had to import. Most of those products became uncompetitive when the trade barriers collapsed. These transformations since the early 1990s have reduced the self-sufficiency of the Czech economy but they turned it into one of the most open, trade-dependent economies in the world.)

For Lidl, the organization of the Retroweek is almost certainly a much more difficult task than e.g. the Greek week. When we have the Greek week, Lidl just tells their German producers to send a couple of Greek products – almost all packaged "Greek" products are produced in Germany, of course. ;-) And these products exist, may be located by a search, and some of them are sent to Czech supermarkets although it's not usually done so.

But before the Retroweek, Lidl has to contact lots of Czech (and Slovak) producers and urge them to restore the old design. In some cases, especially when it comes to meat products, the producers have promised to return to the exact old original recipes, too. It may be true that the other products have been updated and they're not "identical" to those in the communist era. I sincerely hope that in that case, we are being sold better products these days, not worse ones. ;-) It's still sort of amazing that the Retroweek is just a job for a few P.R. folks in Lidl – given the fact that the consumers may now buy almost all the products that we could have bought 30 years ago! :-)

While the organization of the retroweek must be tough for Lidl itself, it can't be too hard for the producers to start to produce the old products again. They must know the recipes and their current ability to produce "anything" according to a "recipe" must be much better than it used to be. In some sense, all the current products they are making are some "generalizations" of what they used to make. So adjusting it to the "exact old thing" must be just about a change of some parameters that they may perhaps enter to a computer.

Food processing and food industry is surely one of the examples of an industry that has made a huge progress in the last 30 years. It may be much harder e.g. for NASA to organize a Retroweek on the Moon – to do all kinds of old-fashioned things they did in the 1970s.

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