It was another full house at Pakhuis de Zwijger*, Amsterdam during the 5th edition of the Indie Brands Event (9 December 2013). In anticipation of its 2nd year anniversary, Indie Brands celebrated in style by hosting a truly memorable gathering entirely dedicated to food and beverage. Featuring a feast of fascinating talks, food tastings and food-centric enterprises, the evening’s festivities highlighted the victories, trials and tribulations of the Dutch indie food scene.
Politics in Play
The relationship between food and business is a bond that has spanned countless of centuries. Over the past few years, the Netherlands has slowly developed a budding food movement –from new restaurant concepts and food trucks to craft beer brewers, slavery-free chocolate and vegetal ice cream– that fervently champions the principles of sustainability, fair trade and local sourcing. Be that as it may, it appears that the current regulations of the Dutch food industry have been less than conducive for small business growth.
“Holland is not ready for food trucks as we know it,” says Igor Sorko, co-founder of both culinary communications agency Mister Kitchen and annual food truck fair Rollende Keukens. “They stopped giving out [business] permits in the centre of Amsterdam […] In some cities it’s not even possible to organize food events like the Rolling Kitchen.” Indeed, outdated urban vending laws (unrevised since the 1930s) and supposed preferential treatment with regard to the issuance of food licenses are dealing a heavy blow to creative entrepreneurs who want to start food-related businesses.
“In Holland, street food is nothing more than hot dogs, oliebollen and patat…” adds Steff Veldkamp, chef-owner of vegetarian caterer Vleesch Noch Visch. “We want to have more diversity so [customers] can choose.” With traditional olliebollen stands generously being granted three months worth of permits and a 30-year waiting period for a food license at Amsterdam’s Vondel Park, it is quite obvious that some things need to change.
Politics aside, these entrepreneurs are convinced that food trucks and food-related business are the way of the future. “They could be a hype, but a long-lasting one,” explains Olivier van der Ree, co-founder of the Gastrovan food truck. “I think with all good concepts, they begin with an explosion.” Nevertheless, the road to success is not that straight forward. “You have to be good,” Veldkamp claims. “You have to be different than the others.”
David and Goliath
While food trucks are fighting for their rights, it is an age-old story when it comes to brewing beer. With almost 95% of the Dutch beer market being dominated by multinational brands, indie craft brewers are up against some serious competition. That being said, these underdogs have every opportunity to dare to be different and try something new. “Before we started brewing, we kind of had an idea of what beer is and what beer could be,” says Rick Nelson, co-owner of Amsterdam-based Oedipus Brewing. “There is actually a lot of very nice beer out there than what is [commonly] available.” Still, in order to penetrate this highly competitive market, local brewers are at a disagreement on how best to proceed.
“There are roughly 170 craft brewers in the Netherlands,” reveals Herbert Nelissen, proprietor of Butcher’s Tears. “There’s enough choice. We don’t have to compete with the big boys.” In his point of view, the remaining 5-6% market share is large enough to develop a thriving business. “We want to grow, but we don’t want to be too big.” On the other hand, product positioning alongside corporate giants just might work to a brand’s advantage. “We strive to make a good beer but not an exceptional beer,” maintains Henriëtta Waal, master breweress of Halbe Bier. “It’s a [political] statement and therefore it’s nice to have the big boys next to you so you have a choice.”
Beyond question, variety is what easily sets these craft breweries apart. As a matter of fact, they consider each other more as comrades than competition, collaborating as best they can on new flavours, methods and events with a view to revive brewing into the artisanal craft it was truly meant to be. “People want a choice, more variety,” Nelson affirms. “A lot of people started to brew beer and that’s a good thing. Choice is very important.”
Even so, variety cannot exist without volume. Since craft beer is often made in small batches, independent breweries are unable to capitalize on economies of scale and incur much lower profit margins when selling their products at well-known supermarkets. Moreover, the majority of restaurants, bars and nightclubs in the Netherlands are contractually obliged to patronize only one single beer supplier – usually a multinational brand.
Despite the myriad of complications, craft brewers remain optimistic. “We actually want to have our beer everywhere, not just in bars and supermarkets,” Nelson admits. “How great could it be if we can make it bigger? Again, we want to have a big variety and we’re slowly getting there.”
Unfortunately, there is a significant challenge that comes with choice. With an endless collection of cookies, beer and tea (among other food and beverages) available in the Netherlands alone, there must be more to an indie food brand than just being indie. “There are no guarantees that when you set-up your business, people are going to like it,” says Mike Smith, co-founder of British confectioner Peppersmith. “It’s terrifying. It’s gut wrenching. It’s an enormous rollercoaster and you don’t know where it’s going.”
Although indie brands have mastered the art of storytelling and creative marketing, when it comes to food and beverages, there is no denying that taste matters most. On the one hand, a product’s flavour has to appeal to a broader audience to ensure greater sales volume. On the other, its taste ought to be unique enough to stand out from the rest of the competition. Unlike with most businesses, taste is the key factor in any food-related enterprise. “If your product doesn’t taste good, they’re going to buy it only once,” explains Erik van Gangelen, owner of healthy snack company Just Nuts. At the same time, brands should find ways to encourage new customers to take that first bite.
“The emotional trigger of the perceived story is generally, really important for getting someone to taste the product,” argues Pepijn Ornstein, proprietor of vegetal ice cream maker Professor Grunschnabel. “To get the people interested, to get that first taste, storytelling is important.” Having said this, Ornstein will be the first to admit that his approach to branding is the not the most seamless of strategies. “It’s an impossible brand name,” he confesses, pointing out that only the Germans can pronounce it correctly. “Everything that could be wrong with the brand name is wrong.” Howbeit, Ornstein is quick to add that a complicated moniker is in fact a memorable one. “You won’t be confused with other brands that sound like it.”
Keeping at it
Regardless of the complex hurdles that are inherent to starting a business, indie entrepreneurs are still going strong, pushing the envelope through innovative concepts, products and business models. The creators of the beloved macho aperitif Bello Limoncello, for example, are putting their signature spin on yet another Italian classic with their latest venture Let’s Go Brusco. Set to launch in 2014, admen Lard Breebaart and Frank de Ruwe have focused their attention on perfecting a full-bodied lambrusco, fit for any man to drink.
Meanwhile, the pair behind John Altman cookies (and the now defunct As Good As New) has recently completed a crowdfunding campaign in order to make Rainbow Popcorn, the most delicious popcorn in the world. In cooperation with De Regenboog Groep –an Amsterdam-based foundation committed to helping people who live in the margins of society– The John Altman Organization aims to provide employment to former homeless individuals, reintegrating and empowering them in the process.
“If you keep doing it long enough, one day you will have success,” says Onno Lixenberg, one half of John Altman. In his many years of experience, he insists that there is no better approach to establishing a winning business than to try and try again. “If you think your product is really good, you’ll find a way to make it work,” believes Kirsten Toeset, founder of biological baby food brand De Klein Keuken. “If you really want to make a big change, you need a lot of people to know your story.”
Indeed, scale has always been a major point of consideration for independent businesses. Since consistent, overall growth is a main goal of any enterprise, going mainstream is a path that some brands are easily willing to take. “I wouldn’t mind being in bigger chains, to be honest,” reveals David Holscher, co-owner of Mr. Jones teas. “There’s nothing wrong with earning money. As long as you keep with your original values, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Still, being able to make you own decisions and not succumb to the authority of the larger retailers is part and parcel of remaining indie. “We’re still independent. We make our own choices. I think that’s the basis of being independent,” Holscher says. “If money is the only reason for growing then they’re doing it for the wrong things.” Nevertheless, he maintains that the relationship brands have with smaller stores should never be forgotten.
“I have loads of respect for the individual retailer,” Holscher claims. “They do loads of work and they should be supported of course.” In reality, most indie brands owe a great deal to small, independent retailers who took a chance and helped establish their business. “The mistake you can make is that you neglect the smaller indie shops that helped you develop your market,” adds Rob van Erven, partner at organic baker Donny Craves. According to him, more focus should be given to the smaller stores who helped them along the way.
No matter the type of business, indie brands share a common thread of going against the grain. Despite the cavalcade of complications in running their own enterprise, these ambitious entrepreneurs are able to rise to the challenge, choosing to do what they love and doing it their own way. In the end, Peppersmith’s Mike Smith says it best, “The hardest bit about getting started is getting started. Just make sure you’re doing it because you enjoy it.” In the case of indie brands, passion, purpose and persistence are the crucial elements that ensure a thriving business. ✌
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