Jucker Brothers: A Roundabout Route to a Pumpkin Empire
With a good measure of youthful frivolity and enormous drive, the young farmers Martin and Beat Jucker set up a pumpkin empire in the 1990s, which they came close to destroying a few years later with the same recipe. Today, the tireless brothers preside over a highly successful business with over 150 employees. In 2014, the pair was honored with the prestigious "Entrepreneur of the Year" award.
Martin Jucker walks barefoot across the courtyard. It is not summer but December, and the temperature is just above freezing in the picture postcard village of Seegräben in the Zurich Oberland. Streaks of mist hang above Lake Pfäffikon, a light haze obscures the otherwise spectacular panorama of the Alps. Martin Jucker walks past the artistic straw sculptures and enters the warm restaurant where it smells of freshly baked pastries. He exchanges a few friendly words with the staff and, still barefoot, climbs up the wooden steps into the dining room.
In Search of the Unusual
"Until a few years ago, this really was our parents' living room. Nowadays, they have retired to their own part of the farm over the road," Jucker explains. His father's business had already changed from being a subsidized milk and grain farm to a fruit-growing business where you had to sell your produce by yourself with no purchasing guarantee from the federal government. "We must have inherited our entrepreneurial way of thinking," Jucker concludes. In the 1990s, Beat and Martin Jucker took over their parents' farms, the one in Seegräben and another in Rafz. What was clear was that the two farms would not be enough to feed two families. So, what was the answer? Adding specialties to the lucrative farm shops? But what sort? Then, Beat Jucker came across a newspaper article: A farmer in France had planted 80 different varieties of pumpkin and exhibited them in a shopping center. "Pumpkins!" thought the brothers, and were keen to order some seeds straight away.
Surprised by Their Success
In Switzerland, in those days, there was just one variety of pumpkin seed, so Beat Jucker went to France to see the farmer in question. He returned with 80 little bags of overpriced seeds. "Without knowing exactly how to grow pumpkins, we sowed a test area of one and a half hectares. Shortly before it was time to pick the fruit, when we would have no time left for the pumpkins, we embarked on the pumpkin harvest: We had reckoned on 10 tons of pumpkins, but ended up with an amazing 50 tons," Martin Jucker recalls. His brother Beat, who has meanwhile joined him, adds: "Initially, we had no idea what we were supposed to do with them all, so we stacked the pumpkins by variety under the overhanging eaves in our farmyard." The idea after the fruit harvest was to test the different pumpkins one by one to see which would be worth continuing with. The clients were thrilled by the unprecedented diversity of pumpkins and commented: "What a wonderful pumpkin exhibition!" The reopening of the renovated farm shop was just around the corner. On the spur of the moment, the Juckers decided to include the serendipitous pumpkin exhibition on the poster and, one fine fall Sunday, were hoping for a few hundred visitors. There were 8,000. "We may not have been able to tell people which pumpkins could be used for what, and they didn't know either, but all the pumpkins had gone within two weeks," Beat Jucker remembers with a grin.
World Records and Superlatives
"Because we had produced much more than planned, we also sold much more than planned, and so we stuck to the same approach," Martin Jucker explains. For the following year, the brothers did a generous recalculation of the 8,000 visitors pro rata over two months and came up with a total of 100,000 guests. For this they grew 300 tons of pumpkins and, instead of starting the exhibition in the fall with 10 tons in the farmyard, they piled up 100 tons and advertised it as the "biggest pumpkin exhibition in the world." Breaking records was now the order of the day: There was soon a 12-meter-high pumpkin pyramid standing in the yard – 4 meters was the previous world record, and the biggest pumpkin in the world was flown in from the US to Seegräben as part of a media spectacle. By the end of the season, the Juckers had exceeded their ambitious visitor target by 50 percent. Their recipe "exaggerate in every regard" had worked once again. What followed was a sell-out Halloween party which, by the following year, was already filling the ABB location, along with supplying the retail sector and expansion to Ludwigsburg in Germany, where they organized the world's biggest pumpkin exhibition from then on.
Teetering on the Brink
Because most consumers were fascinated by the pumpkins but had no idea how to prepare this new vegetable, the Juckers produced a recipe book. "We knew even less about books than we did about pumpkins, and when we were asked about the print run, someone said 100,000. When three trucks with trailers fully laden with books drew up in the fall, we wondered where we were going to put them," Martin Jucker recalls. A barn was now filled with books instead of pumpkins. At the end of the season in 2000, the Juckers may have been able to boast new record numbers of visitors, but all the business's liquidity was tied up in a barn between thousands of book covers. Beat Jucker shakes his head about their own inexperience at that time and says: "This book order was fatal for us – we had miscalculated hugely." At the same time the new economy bubble had burst – the banks were suddenly acting more cautiously. Conventional loans, venture capital, crowd funding – nothing worked any more. Kurt Pfister, an acquaintance of the Juckers who had just retired from the management of Migros, was prepared to have a look at the situation: "He told us straight out that he had never seen such an appalling mess created in just a year," Martin Jucker recalls. They were lucky: Pfister was prepared to put his now idle capacity at the disposal of the start-up. He took the restructuring in hand and it was thanks to him that the Juckers obtained loans again – but to a more modest extent than planned, and the expansion across half the globe was halted for the time being.
Two tough years of restructuring followed: "We were spurred on by the fact that the banks didn't believe in us any more and we wanted to show them," says Beat Jucker, with hindsight. And the ideas kept coming; but now they were implemented with greater moderation. Once the Jucker Farm was back in the black again, conflicts with the authorities started to threaten the business: "As a farming business, we operate in a tightly regulated field. For example, company events were not allowed to be held in buildings in the agricultural zone, and we also had problems with a small section of the population of Seegräben, who were unhappy with the traffic to our farm shop," Beat Jucker explains. These conflicts were solved with a cantonal design plan and a traffic concept. In future, clients had to park 200 meters below the farm, which was not ideal for a business that mainly sold apples, potatoes, and pumpkins. The authorities' prognosis was a drop in earnings of 20–30 percent, the Juckers allowed for 60, but in the end it was actually 80 percent. To make up for this, the new design plan offered relatively generous opportunities for the restaurant trade and so the innovative brothers shifted their focus from the retail business to serving guests.
Innovation à la Jucker
"We're always being portrayed as incredibly innovative, but we're not at all. In contrast to others, we just put ideas into practice that are lying around untested. We just try things out," says Martin Jucker about their approach, adding that, if you try out lots of things, the chances are that one of them will probably work. Every year on the Jucker Farm, they try out about 40 new ideas, of which about ten percent are a success. Today, it's an adventure farm, and that seems to be in tune with the spirit of the age. The Jucker Farm is especially popular for wedding parties and company excursions, but at weekends it also draws families from the whole canton to the pumpkin or straw figure exhibitions, which are designed and arranged by professional artists. The children can stroke the goats, get lost in the apple tree labyrinth, and let off steam jumping and climbing on the straw fortress, while their parents enjoy the idyllic Lake Pfäffikon over coffee and cake.
Putting Dreams into Practice
In 2007, the Bächlihof farm in Jona was added, where the same concept is on offer, and the Juckers have recently signed a contract for a farm near the airport. The Jucker Farm also continues to work internationally: They have been running the biggest pumpkin exhibition in the world for more than ten years in Ludwigsburg in Germany, have been renting pumpkin and straw sculptures to farms and adventure parks in Germany, and building up a business in Taiwan, where you can work with pumpkins during the quiet season at home. But even in Switzerland, there's no shortage of ideas. Beat Jucker explains: "Our goal is to get as close to being self-sufficient as possible, which is something that fascinates us, and our visitors too, it seems. At the moment, we're building a bakery with a mill where our own grain will be ground and will be baked in an oven burning our own wood. And the straw from the wheat is used to make the sculptures and straw fortresses that everyone can enjoy." And you take the now very experienced Jucker entrepreneurs at their word when they say: "We take huge pleasure in the idea of the grain-bread-straw cycle – this sustainability is the most important thing for us – ahead of any desire for profit." And when asked what they would do differently today, the two are agreed: "With the experience we have today, we would certainly do a lot of things differently, but then we might not get to where we are today. Our mistakes are part of our development, they were right. We have no regrets!"