At times craftsman, at others entrepreneur, the fine food merchant of tomorrow will need to stay true to the founding principles of his art whilst at the same time remaining open to innovation. A constant learner at heart, he will need to contribute to the betterment of his clientele, making transparency, passion and authenticity the keys to his success. Here, in an exclusive collaboration with Atrium, we draw on the personal experience of five fine food business owners to reveal five success factors key to the future development of the trade.
These tips for budding entrepreneurs and professionals are available on Atrium Brussels’ recently-launched blog atrium.brussels/blog
Pair authenticity to modernity
Baptiste Maurel has travelled the world. After having honed his skills at “Les Compagnons du Devoir”, this Frenchman worked in New Zealand, then in Sweden before finally settling down in Brussels to start “Gâteau,” a bakery and pastry shop in Etterbeek. Even more surprising to the craftsman’s resume is his stint as an executive at Carrefour. “I always knew that I wanted to be my own boss. I knew my trade as a baker and pastry-maker well but felt I was missing certain skills in terms of management and communication. My time at Carrefour was a real learning curve: I was able to improve my shortcomings whilst having the time to refine my project. Certain craftsmen are steadfast against the industry without seeing the innovation potential that it allows our trades to gain. I’ve seen tradesmen refuse to use Excel to manage their stock under the pretense that it was a technique meant solely for supermarkets.” On the contrary, Baptiste Maurel believes that tomorrow’s merchant will have to be a jack-of-all-trades. “The success of a fine food craftsman will rely on his ability to pair these seemingly contrasting paradoxes: combining the authenticity of his product and his know-how with modern techniques, management and communication.”
Become a teacher
Last August, Karim Baza opened Balkis Gourmet in Molenbeek, the city’s first bio-halal delicatessen, an idea he owes to his meeting Fayçal Dali. A Belgian who lives in Sierra de Aracena, near Seville, Fayçal founded a business three years ago that seeks to adapt traditional butchering techniques to the salting of high quality halal soil. “If I’d have wanted to simply open a business, I’d have opened a snack.” Indeed, before becoming something of a precursor, Karim Bazah was a teacher for ten years. And, for him, his new career isn’t so different than his old one. “What really interests me with Balkis Gourmet is this duality of purpose: on one hand, to educate the Muslim community on the importance of eating well, and on the other to break down the barriers between communities by promoting new, authentic and affordable flavours.” And Baptiste Maurel agrees. In his view, the merchant has a real role to play in terms of education. “The success of culinary programs on TV or on the web attests to a real interest on the part of consumers for gastronomy and food-related crafts.”
Combine different types of business
With Les Garcons Bouchers, Mathias Leuliette and Clifford Basedern are intent on giving a new life to the old butcher shop Crabbé, located on 54 Chaussée d’Alsemberg. A true institution in the Brussels neighbourhood of Saint Gilles, Crabbé recently closed up shop, only to be acquired by the Commune in order to preserve the area’s retail variety. Following a tender they won, Les Garcons Bouchers will be opening what they’ve dubbed “A butchers to eat” in a few months. The concept? A “table d’hôtes” that sits next to the meat counter and where clients can, at lunchtime, choose their cuts in the window front, ask for them to be grilled then eat them on the spot. More original still, in the evenings a gastronomic menu with all-you-can-eat grilled meats is proposed on the shop’s first floor. Truth be told, this kind of hybrid commerce isn’t new. On the contrary, for Matthias Leuliette it is more of a return to the essence of his trade. “I have fond memories of my butcher at the countryside where we used to have a drink on the counter. In our cities, we’ve lost this relationship that used to be the backbone of small businesses and it is precisely this that we seek to bring back: conviviality and a human touch in the act of consuming.” And, when it comes to hybrid concepts, Les Garçons Boucher aren’t short of ideas. Indeed, in order to occupy their premises before getting all the necessary paper work in place, they’ve decided to open a pop-up ham bar next summer.
The added value: transparency
For Baptiste Maurel, transparency is the factor that will always be the winner over supermarket chains. “Contrary to mass retail, the craftsman has the time, and the skill, to explain his philosophy and the history of his products to his customers…In my bakery, the workshop is open and I’ll gladly show my customers around. They’re always surprised to see that everything is produced in-house, even though it’s not exactly revolutionary. Matthias Leuliette agrees: “By-passing the intermediary, that’s really the only way the butcher, or the restaurant-owner, can create a quasi-direct link between the producer and the client. I cannot stand the opacity and the aseptic character of the meat stalls in supermarkets. It renders our profession inhuman and makes it difficult to appreciate the value of its talent and history.” The aim for added transparency constitutes a red line that all these entrepreneurs follow. Nicolas Dehon, Starter Manager at Atrium Brussels, explains: “The trend points towards most food professionals wanting to bring their work spaces, where production actually happens, closer to the retail space. This drives towards more transparency even reaches the realms of interiors design, with the shop floor being increasingly open to the backrooms.”
The challenge: The experience, the real one
All the rage in the world of retail, notions of “experience” tend to loose their shine if overused. Indeed, the term implies that by mere surprise and originality, a retail concept elicits the unconditional loyalty of customers. And it is precisely this shortcut that risks putting too much emphasis on the concept to the detriment of quality and authenticity. To be true, the experience doesn’t create itself but rather it is transmitted, handed-over. Therefore, the real challenge for the food professional, and any other professional for that matter, lies in his ability to implicate himself in the business and relate his passion for his choice of life. Baptiste Maurel is clear: “Before even considering opening up a business, the key question to ask oneself is ‘why’. If it is merely to earn money, forget about it. If it is to provide satisfaction by satisfying yourself, go for it.”