The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Lino Van Molle and Nouchka Nemes

Lino Van Molle and Nouchka Nemes

Founders, Koffie en Staal (1986 & 1988)

Can you describe what you do?

A good two years ago we started a coffee-shop-cum-diner, set up with jewellery and furniture that we design and make ourselves. We’re firm believers in the power of self-making: this way, everything’s in our hands, and we can stand confidently behind our products. We’ve applied this ethos into what we offer at Koffie en Staal, too. Everything is home-made; primarily using pure, top-quality ingredients in both our food and furniture. We enjoy constantly challenging ourselves here at Koffie en Staal, looking towards how we can progress even further. For instance, our regular customers often note on how regularly we update the interiors and menu. Furthermore, we feel very committed to the environment and want to inspire others as much as possible by setting a positive example. Environmental concerns affect the choices we make, the products we work with and the way we live.

Koffie en Staal is located in the centre of a neighbourhood with relatively little foot-traffic. A diverse area, featuring rows of small houses and larger residential complexes – each with their own little communities – you’ll easily come across both students and retirees, social housing and luxury apartments. This diversity is reflected in our coffee-bar – even if we would love to see more of this. We were wary of starting our business in the centre: we believed that if we managed to create a pleasant space and spend a lot of time on our craft, our clientele would come find us. The fact that this has been a success is a beautiful confirmation, for which we are very grateful.

It’s also a university city, so there’s now a lot of commercial potential to be found amongst the student population.

How do you perceive Leuven? In your view, what kind of city is it?

Leuven’s a small town, with familiar faces in every nook and cranny – this makes for a cosy city. It’s also a university city, so there’s now a lot of commercial potential to be found amongst the student population, especially in regard to catering and hospitality. Students also tend to stay on even after completing their studies, so the student impact is definitely a force to be reckoned with here. Leuven is finally beginning to discover itself and open up to tourism: you can find plenty of initiatives which seek to bring a breath of fresh air to the city. On a cultural level, the city isn’t falling behind – both the City and private players frequently organise cultural events which help create a pleasant atmosphere.

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

The fact that Leuven is no longer dormant – only awakened by its students during the academic year – but is rather up-and-running the whole year round. When we first decided to open Koffie en Staal, we asked ourselves if it would not be wiser to set up a shop in Brussels or Antwerp, benefiting from a more “European” scene. In the end however we decided to settle down close to home, with the intention of contributing to a better and livelier Leuven through our love of coffee. We’re not the only young entrepreneurs on the block though, and we’re all creating a broader urban rhythm in our own ways. All complimenting the city’s historical side, while also providing an alternative to your purely commercial areas.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

Leuven’s always been the backdrop of our personal lives: we both went to school, and did most of our growing up here. It’s now also the setting for our careers. No matter where you turn, your hometown will always be where you feel most comfortable and at ease. We once upon a time dreamed of moving southwards, and eventually moved to Lisbon a few years ago. Sure, at first glance Lisbon might appear preferable to Leuven thanks to its climate, the wide river providing the city with space and oxygen, and the shining azulejo tiles in the morning light – but we feel it wouldn’t be fair to make the comparison in the first place. End of the day, we chose to come back and set up a business here – and that should speak volumes about Leuven’s attraction. The nice thing about Leuven is that it’s a modest city in size, but also in its population. We don’t jump the gun over here, but rather focus on doing our bit little by little. The city’s currently under development, and that’s precisely what makes it so fascinating.

We hope that the City learns to rely on its small players, rather than look elsewhere all the time.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

Leuven is arguably most famous for its local beer, Stella Artois, with its old brewing factories located on the outskirts of the city. The City only realised its full potential once it was too late though, so it’s unfortunately fallen into the hands of project developers. The beautiful old buildings are now to be replaced by residential new-builds – and every time a building’s torn down to the ground, our hearts bleed. The plans for the remaining buildings are not yet clear (at least for us citizens), but let’s hope that Stella’s history will be preserved in a creative manner. We hope that the City learns to rely on its small players, rather than look elsewhere all the time.

Additionally, the recently developed Vaartkom neighbourhood is considered to be the creative hub of Leuven – yet there’s not much to see asides from OPEK and De Hoorn, for the time being at least. There are the promising initiatives of Noordoever and inLevel5, but these are made up of individuals who have already established a career and thus the sufficient financial resources. Because this site is being taken over by project developers – with the support of the City – many young start-uppers who generally don’t have the means to set up in a pricey neighbourhood sadly remain absent. The alternative is, of course, to look for another empty and abandoned space, to create another, more intimate area.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

Nothing beats having a local show you around their city. Why? Because they’ll know all the authentic yet lesser-known spots, rather than the tourist traps you reach about in guide books. We would go for an urban promenade along the different streets, through the parks, past the Groot Begijnhof beguinage, and other historical sites. For dining and shopping, we would head to the more concealed neighborhoods, because they are less commercial and so much more authentic than the common districts. Of course, the Oude and Grote Markts are sights to be seen, even if (fortunately, at least in our eyes), this doesn’t actually represent the city. Finally, we love all the hidden corners and alleyways of our city.