Delighting generations of Poles with its confections, the story behind the Warsaw-based Wedel chocolate firm is a bitter-sweet tale…
The story began in 1851 when Karol Wedel started producing and selling confectionary on Miodowa. In those days, sweets were regarded as medicine and the first products, cream caramels, were advertised as a treatment for chest pain. The people of Warsaw lapped up Wedel’s treats so much that in 1865 production moved to the eclectic renaissance building at ul. Szpitalna 8. The Wedel café, which has been serving hot chocolate more or less continuously since the building was erected, has become a 24-carat legend and demands a visit from any self-respecting visitor to the city. Those who do go can wonder if they are sitting in the same spot as literary greats such as Bolesław Prus and Henryk Sienkiewicz, who were choc-loving regulars.
In 1876, Karol Wedel gave the company to son Emil as a generous wedding gift. Emil proved to be a competent steward of the business and it was he who, in an attempt to foil would-be counterfeiters, added the famous E. Wedel signature to each package, a tradition that continues today. The next generation of the family business was represented by Jan, an innovative business man with a strong social conscience who developed the company’s export business as far as Japan and even bought an aeroplane in 1936 for speedy deliveries within Poland. In the 1930s, Jan moved the company to a state-of-the-art factory in Warsaw’s Kamionek district, where it operates today.
Jan Wedel had many ambitious plans, but the outbreak of WWII put a stop to those and production was taken over by the Germans. Jan remained in charge of the factory and made sure that his staff received food supplements despite the risk of severe punishment. The factory was damaged significantly during the Warsaw Uprising as a result of aerial bombardment and deliberate destruction; however, as early as November 10th, 1944, an 80 kg consignment of caramels left the war-damaged site for the National Liberation Committee in Lublin (a favour that was not returned).After the war, Jan set about rebuilding the factory only for the company to be nationalised in 1949. He would spend his final years sitting on a bench each day in Skaryszewski Park looking across Kamionek Lake at the factory he had built but was no longer allowed to enter.
A low point in the company’s history came in the 1980s when foreign exchange shortages in the Eastern Bloc meant that cocoa could not be imported and the factory was forced to produce unappealing fake chocolate products. The company’s fortunes have brightened since then, and despite being kicked around like a football from PepsiCo to Cadbury to Kraft, and finally to the Japanese Lotte Holdings, as well as claims from members of the Wedel family that finally ended in a multi-million dollar settlement, the business is thriving and doing what it does best: making delicious confectionary that’s become part of local lore.