GROCERY CHAIN PROSPERS ON FORMERLY DISDAINED EASTERN GERMAN FOOD

GROCERY CHAIN PROSPERS ON FORMERLY DISDAINED EASTERN GERMAN FOOD

With his desk-side bass guitar, his sandals and his Hawaiian shirts, Andreas Lamla is not your typical German corporate president.

But the surfing motif particularly suits the blond 36-year-old. His discount grocery stores are among the few local businesses to ride out eastern Germany's wave of economic devastation.The chain, known as ParkMarkt, has prospered by selling formerly disdained eastern products at cut-rate prices to increasingly nervous eastern consumers.

Mr. Lamla, a former political prisoner in the East, says ParkMarkt's ups and downs track the region's cycles of hope and hardship, from the post- reunification euphoria of 1990 to the fear and depression accompanying today's 17 percent unemployment.

"At first, people wanted to throw out all the old," he said. "But now they cannot afford the new. And they are sensitive. If one tries to tell them that up to now everything about the old ways was only bad, they will cling even more tightly to eastern products."

For a few months in 1990, it seemed possible. Western deutsche marks replaced the worthless eastern currency, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed for political unification with promises that within three years, the East would be a "blooming economic landscape."

Hardly a street lacked at least one shiny new Volkswagen, and western grocery chains flooded the eastern market with western foods in similarly shiny packaging.

A native easterner, Mr. Lamla knew enough about capitalism to understand that the ecstasy could not last. He had lived in West Germany after his 1984 expulsion for trying to escape the German Democratic Republic, and had prospered in a small way by trading with the Soviet Union.

After the Berlin Wall opened, he returned home, thinking a few steps ahead of the unification process.

From his travels, Mr. Lamla knew where millions of people would leap at the chance to buy eastern German sausage or pickled tomatoes. He bought warehouses full of eastern goods at fire-sale prices and sold them to the Soviets.

"For a while, we had trucks leaving every day to the Soviet Union," he said.

This was before the collapse of the Soviet ruble, and Mr. Lamla's profits were handsome enough to finance ParkMarkt's launch in early 1990. Leftovers

from those eastern warehouses became ParkMarkt's first stock in trade.

From the start, Mr. Lamla's stores were widely known as museums to the eastern economy. Bare metal racks bore boxes of $2-a-bottle Bulgarian red wine and Soviet champagne, 30-cent tins of conserved German fish, huge bottles of generic gurka pickles and abrasive communist toilet paper at pennies a roll.

There also were supplies of fresh local goods: Camembert cheese from Hainichen, beer from Zwickau, fruit, vegetables and baked goods from all over, and delicacies such as Thuringen sausage.

Initially, Mr. Lamla was one of the few businessmen eager to buy from traditional eastern suppliers. Western firms seemed keen to sell to eastern Germany, but loath to buy or produce there.

As a result, unemployment rose steadily. By this winter one in six workers was officially unemployed. The state of Brandenburg, one of eastern Germany's richest, produced only $6,875 worth of goods a worker last year. That is less than Portugal, the most destitute member of the European Community.

"We are sliding into Weimar-like conditions," said the state's social minister, Regine Hildebrandt, pointedly recalling the pre-Nazi depression.

Soon Mr. Lamla had more than a dozen stores, with a reputation for low prices, in and around Berlin. He now has 25.

Mr. Lamla attributes his success partly to easterners' devotion to the foods they have always eaten - often fresher than western goods, and less stuffed with sugar and preservatives. "It was a matter of taste," he said. ''Eventually, people returned to the things they knew."

There was also a question of political taste, he added. "It is an example of re-awakened self-esteem, and of secret resentments."

Shopping beneath the new Ost-Gemachtes (Eastern-Made) banners became a gesture of solidarity for some "Ossis," the nickname for eastern Germans.

Shoppers also say pragmatism drives them to the decidedly unattractive stores.

"It is something I am doing so that my neighbors who make and sell these things can keep working," Sabina Laake, 35, said as she shopped in eastern Berlin. "The people who are making these products, they are not bad. They deserve a chance."