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One tough cookie: the business and branding of the Verkade biscuit company

135 years of history of the Dutch baking company Verkade

Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

Windmills, cheese, clogs and coffee shops: a handful of words painting a picture of an entire country. Yet for the Dutch themselves, their most outstanding national icon might just be a crispy treat: the Verkade biscuit.

The Dutch baking company Verkade is not only a staple of industrial heritage but also epitomizes the hospitality and conviviality The Netherlands are known for. 

In this blog, we stroll through 135 years of sweet success, with extraordinary stories that will leave you stunned as to the innovative spirit of this food industry giant.

Baking beginnings

Founded in 1886 by Ericus Gerhardus Verkade, a former oil trader with no baking experience, the company started out as a factory producing steamed bread under the name ‘De Ruyter’ (the horseman).

Referring to a windmill that was located at their Zaandam factory site, the horseman was used on packaging from early on and still features in the company logo today.

With its large-scale production processes and goods targeted at a rural population, the factory received heavy resistance from artisanal local bakers, who dropped their prices even lower and sold substandard bread branded as Verkade.

As price margins were narrow to begin with and a new law in 1919 prohibited bakers from working night shifts, Verkade soon stopped its bread production line.

Cease the day

This could have been the end of the story. But a forward-looking disposition and the use of high-risk strategies saved Verkade from ruin.

Its mere existence was rooted in the industrial development of the Zaan region, which had become derelict in the 19th century. As a new canal opened up a gateway to the sea and thus international trade, Ericus Verkade saw the low capacity of artisanal bakers as a unique business opportunity and ventured the gamble.

Next, he rose to the occasion of conquering a very different market. His son-in-law Morris Fowler sold him a patent for 'waxine' - a brand that would soon became synonymous with tealight candles. In 1898 Verkade became the first producer of waxine lights in the Netherlands. Only in 1991 was this part of the company sold to a specialised manufacturer.

In the meantime, Verkade had turned another opportunity into a blooming business.

Making use of the heat left in the oven after baking bread, he started producing biscuit rusk. World War I only enhanced Verkade’s entrepreneurial vigour and the factory’s focus on crispy bakes. As the import of English biscuits was no longer allowed, Verkade’s revenue between 1913 and 1918 jumped from 132,000 guilders to almost a million and a half.

EXPLORE MORE: The industrialisation of World War I

Yet by the end of the war, supplies of yeast and flower grew thin.

Now led by Ericus Verkade Jr., the company started focusing on 'suikerwerk' (confectionary) as sugar stocks were still high. Out of this activity a lucrative business branch producing toffees and chocolates arose, resulting in the construction of a new factory with state-of-the-art machinery in 1937 and a quadrupling of revenue in the next three years.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery of vintage chocolate advertising

After having gained the epithet 'Koninklijk' (Royal) in 1950, Verkade continued its streak of success throughout the 1960s, among others introducing Knäckebröd to the Dutch market and supplying the government with 'emergency biscuits' to be distributed in case of war.

In the wake of the Cold War, many people bought their own tins of life-saving cookies, supposed to last for a couple of years. To this day, untouched packages are still being found in attics and cellars across the Netherlands.

Building a brand

Apart from venturing risks with regards to production processes and capacity building, Verkade’s success owes a lot to its dauntless marketing strategy.

As a pioneering example of guerilla advertising, the company employed a dedicated designer as early as 1923. Cornelis Dekker would go on to head the advertising department for 30 years and developed many of its iconic packings, often featuring blushing children with a cookie at hand: an image imprinted in the minds of many generations of Dutch people.

Yet it didn’t stop with colourful campaigns, clever imagery and catchy slogans. The Verkade brand was promoted via a wide range of merchandising, mostly directed towards children.

A board game was launched at the occasion of the 1934 MacRobertson International Air Race from England to Australia. The game was dedicated to the victorious Dutch team, flying a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines DC-2, that came second in the race but won the handicap prize for best performance.

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Sticker albums were Verkade’s most successful marketing idea. Books about nature, landscapes and fairy tale figures could be completed with stickers found in Verkade products. Even today, the 30 albums produced between 1903 and 1940 and the 5 volumes issued after 1965 are collectors’ items.

Verkade Girls

The 'Verkade girls' form a distinct and unique part of its history.

As early as 1891, six young women were employed by the Zaandam factory to clean the company trucks. From 1900 onwards, their number rapidly increased - to quickly surpass that of male workers - and their duties shifted to the production halls, where their fine fingers and gentle hands were regarded as highly beneficial for sorting, packaging, dipping biscuits in chocolate or unpicking cherry stalks.

Unfortunately, the women’s wages were lower than men’s, so the company would have also had a monetary benefit from higher female employment.

Still, at the time, it was highly unusual for companies to employ women as they were expected to focus on family, and in turn would have been wary of getting compromised in a predominantly male environment.

Verkade made maximum efforts to alleviate those concerns. Male and female workers had separate canteens (the female one boasting fine porcelain plates and luxurious cutlery), used different flights of stairs, and even travelled to the factory in separate train compartments.

The company also offered perks to make up for the harsh working circumstances and monotonous production processes. During summer, Verkade girls could enjoy breaks in a garden with swings and carousels. A drumming band provided musical distraction, while cooking courses, sewing lessons and childcare facilities made for a better work/life balance.

With its female-friendly policy, Verkade lived up to the high expectations provoked by its recruitment motto: 'Girls, come and join the Verkade workforce. And please: bring your mother!'.

EXPLORE MORE: ‘A woman’s work is never done’: women’s working history in Europe

The Verkade girls continue to be an icon of Dutch culinary culture and industrial heritage.  

If this doughy adventure has whet your appetite, you can discover much more by visiting the Verkade Experience on your next trip to the Netherlands.

EXPLORE MORE: Stories of working lives and industrial heritage

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

Food Netherlands food and drink industrial heritage working lives Europeana