Can you get bratwurst at the local Safeway? Sure. But can you get Siegi's Düsseldorfer Senf? Wawi Schoko-Reis? Schneeflöckchen Glühwein?
Not likely. For these, you need GermanDeli.com, the Southlake, Texas-based brainchild of Air Force veteran Jim Bowyer, his wife, Inga, and her sister Gina Green. Over most of the past dozen years, the online German food store's business has grown roughly 30 percent a year.
"We are giving people things that they can't get anywhere else," said Inga Bowyer, who describes herself and her sister as military brats.
About 10 percent of the store's orders ship to service members or veterans with nostalgic memories of their Deutschland tours.
Jim, a former computer programmer who left the service in 1969, helps guide the 50-person firm in its efforts to reach out to those still in uniform.
Packages addressed to military bases get the full treatment, he said. The deli "soldier sizes" its orders with freebies such as coffee, chocolate and cookies. Each order comes with a card hand-signed by the entire staff. "When those troops come back, if they have a hankering for anything German, we are probably going to be top of mind for them," Inga said.
The Bowyers have learned a lot along the way. Their advice for others thinking about trading boots and buzz cuts for the life of an Internet entrepreneur:
Keep it lean
If there's one thing Inga learned over the years, it's been to hoard assets.
"It's very tempting when you first start out to get the fancy chair and the fancy desk," she said. "Ask yourself: Is this really something I need to spend money on?"
That isn't always easy. "When you have been in the military for your whole career, you've never had to worry about the money to get things done," Jim said. "Now, when it's your money that has to pay for things, you need to be sure you have enough capital set aside for the rainy days."
In the past couple of years, sales growth has slowed, dropping as low as 4 percent to 5 percent each year from 2008 to 2010 thanks to the depressed U.S. and global economy. This year growth should hit 20 percent, and the company is going strong in other respects too, growing its inventory from 100 to more than 5,000 products.
Even as a former tech person, Jim knew he had no place trying to run the firm's IT infrastructure.
"That website is your lifeline, and if the technology is not available, you are not getting money," he said. "You have to ensure that site is always available."
Taking no chances, the firm uses Yahoo! storefront tools, invests heavily in Google advertising and keeps a full-timer on staff to optimize the company's search-engine rankings.
In its first attempt to go online, the deli put in a modest order for $3,000 worth of German chocolates.
Maybe not "modest."
Inga had planned to have the goods delivered to the Bowyers' home. Then it arrived — in a tractor-trailer. "I ran around like crazy trying to find a place that would accept the delivery," she recalled. By pure luck, she happened upon someone who knew someone with a forklift.
The chocolate went from truck to forklift to Inga's station wagon to the living room of the Bowyers' home.
The lesson: "You have to be flexible," she said. "You have to be ready to jump this way or that way. Just figure it out on the fly."