Reclusive billionaire co-founder of discount chain Aldi dies at 88

Theo Albrecht, the billionaire co-founder of budget supermarket empire Aldi, last seen in public after his release from kidnap nearly 40 years ago, has died at age 88, the firm said Wednesday.

Reclusive billionaire co-founder of discount chain Aldi dies at 88
Theo Albrecht in December 1971. Photo: DPA

The publicity-shy joint creator of the international supermarket chain with estimated annual sales of €50 billion died on Saturday in the western German city of Essen after a long illness, the company said.

Albrecht was the second wealthiest man in Germany, after his equally reclusive brother Karl. Forbes magazine has described the pair as “more elusive than the Yeti.”

“Aldi mourns a person who was always decent with his business partners and employees and always treated them with respect,” the company said. “We are losing our highly respected founder and a upright person.”

According to the latest rich list by Manager Magazin, the Albrecht brothers were the two wealthiest people in Germany, with Karl amassing a fortune of €17.35 billion and Theo €16.75 billion.

But almost nothing is known about the two, with Theo’s last public appearance dating from 1971, the year he was kidnapped for 17 days and then released for a ransom of seven million deutschmarks (around three-and-a-half million euros).

His kidnapper reportedly demanded he show his identity papers, unable to believe the normal-looking man in simple clothes was in fact the billionaire he aimed to abduct.

One of the rare photos of Theo in existence, from the 1980s, shows a nondescript-looking man with grey hair and glasses. Shunning the limelight, he is rumoured to have preferred collecting old typewriters, orchids and golf. He reportedly had his own private golf course.

He is survived by his brother and by children, but as with his other biographical details, it is unclear how many.

The two brothers owed their wealth to their pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap Aldi chain, short for “Albrecht-Discount,” that sprouted up all over Germany and is now in nearly 20 countries after first appearing in the 1960s.

According to company legend, Karl and Theo were born into a modest family, and their mother opened a small shop when their father, a miner, became too ill to work.

Upon their return from World War II, the pair built up their empire from this one shop.

At the end of the 1970s, they branched out abroad, investing in US retail chain Trader Joe’s, with 350 stores specialising in organic and fair-trade foods.

They had previously carved up their German operations between them, with Theo running the business in the north, his brother in the south.

Weakened by illness, Theo long ago handed over the reins of the operations but he reportedly continued to go into the office on a daily basis until a very advanced age.

According to an old profile by daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, he “always turns out the light behind him, insists that colleagues write on both sides of a piece of paper and always checks where the emergency exits are in hotels.”

“There are very few people who have dominated an entire section of the economy,” said the German retail association, the HDE. “Theo Albrecht did so.”

Der Spiegel magazine said on its website that Albrecht was buried on Wednesday in a small private ceremony.

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Only in Germany: McDonald’s begins offering ‘Spargel Burger’

Amid Germany's famous 'Asparagus Season', the fast food chain has begun offering an unusual twist on typical ingredients.

Only in Germany: McDonald's begins offering 'Spargel Burger'
A basket of Spargel in Kutzleben, Thuringia marked the start of this year's season on April 14th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Martin Schutt

How do you know that you’re definitely in Germany? One sure fire way: when you check the menu of a McDonald’s in the springtime and see a ‘Spargel Burger’. 

Germans are so enamored by the ‘white gold’ –  special light-coloured asparagus which is much thicker than its North American green counterpart – that it’s now a featured fast food at McDonald’s Germany, and with classic Hollandaise sauce and bacon to boot. 

On Thursday, the popular American fast-food chain restaurant – which counts nearly 1,500 outlets in Germany – published a photo of the “Big Spargel Hollandaise” saying that it would be available at select restaurants. They assured customers: “Yes, it’s really there.”

But its release was met with mixed reactions. “We absolutely have to go to McDonald’s sometime,” wrote one. Yet another called the unconventional creation “perverse.”

Another commenter showed skepticism: “Hollandaise sauce on a burger? Does that even taste good?”

Others weighed in on social media to point out that the product is a sign of Germany’s fascination with the vegetable. 

The burger is the latest to join the asparagus craze, with a phallic-shaped Spargel monument in Torgau, Saxony capturing the public attention – or bewilderment – earlier in the week.

An annual tradition

Every year, Germany typically celebrates ‘Spargelzeit’ (asparagus season) from the middle of April until June 24th, which many dub ‘Spargelsilvester’ (Asparagus-New Year’s Eve). 

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Spargelzeit

The beloved vegetable, harvested heavily around the country, usually has its own special menu devoted to it at restaurants, and is sold in supermarkets – or road-side stands – next to jars of the classic Hollandaise sauce. 

The top states which grow the crop are Lower Saxony, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, but Beeliz, Brandenburg is also synonymous with Spargel in Germany. 

In normal years the tiny town hosts a sprawling festival to mark the start of the season, anointing a Spargel king and queen.

READ ALSO: Here’s why Germans go so completely crazy for asparagus