Jean-François Flechet is the owner and founder of Taste of Belgium, a successful restaurant enterprise based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. He and his restaurants have been featured on The Food Network and Serious Eats, and in 2016 he was named honorary ambassador of the province of Liège in Belgium, where he grew up. Flechet now owns four full service bistros and two satellite locations within farmers markets, but it all started with the waffle.
Flechet arrived in the United States to earn his third master’s degree (he has one in social sciences and two in economics). With that accomplished, he worked for five years in statistical applications before deciding to give up the day job for a venture in Belgian waffles – thick, doughy, and with beads of sugar that caramelize in the waffle iron.
You started out on your own with a single 120-pound cast iron waffle maker in 2007, and now Taste of Belgium has 280 employees across six locations, four of which are full service bistros. What was the idea or inspiration that started it all?
It all started with the waffle. I didn’t know where this journey would take me. I kept on adding products, more based on necessity than on choice. Findlay Market [a farmer’s market in Cincinnati, OH] expanded mandatory hours of operation and I needed other products than just waffles. I added sweet and savory crepes, and then a full bakery. The reason for the first restaurant was that we were out of space at Findlay market to do all the events and farmers markets we were doing at the time.
What was it like working as a solo entrepreneur in the beginning? Were there any unusual challenges or advantages?
It was lonely at times and at the beginning I was doing this part time as I was pursuing another venture. I was building a hot food vending machine with a friend, and I was looking for a new group of investors. I would work on that project most of the time and on Fridays I would make the waffle dough in the basement of a restaurant, load it all in my car early at 6 am on Saturday morning to be ready to sell at Findlay Market by 7:30am. Everything was a challenge. I had no background in food and I had no idea what I was doing. I learned everything by doing. I had never baked a waffle in my life before I started Taste of Belgium. Some of it was a blessing in disguise as I had no problem early on to delegate some of the day to day activities, and I did not have an emotional attachment to baking like other professionals would have. I had to hire people who knew what they were doing as I didn’t.
Starting out as an entrepreneur, what were some of the biggest time management challenges you faced? What were your strategies for keeping up with the work of both running and growing the business?
Strategy. What strategy? I had no strategy. The original plan was to do this temporarily until I could find a group of investors for the vending machine. I was only doing this on the weekend to cover my mortgage and keep going with the other project. We could never get the second round financed and over time I spent more time baking waffles. The “strategy” was simply one of not letting an opportunity go by unexplored. I baked waffles everywhere in Cincinnati and in a very short period of time many people knew about Taste of Belgium, long before we had a restaurant and before I had a permanent spot at Findlay Market. I was doing all the farmers markets and going to many different parts of town. I was also doing a lot of different festivals. I didn’t have a food truck. There were no food trucks at the time. I would load everything into a van, then set up shop under a tent.
Growing from a single waffle iron to six locations is a significant feat of scaling a concept. How have you dealt with challenges associated with growing and scaling the Taste of Belgium business?
Originally there was no concept. There was just the waffle. I think the concept started to take shape with the first bistro in 2011. The opening was quite rocky. I didn’t know what I was doing. I kept on trying to hire better people and fine-tuning our offerings. I realized there was an opportunity with brunch in Cincinnati. Everybody was doing brunch on Sunday. We were closed Sunday so we offered brunch on Saturday. We then won best Sunday brunch from Metromix even before we had officially opened for Sunday brunch. I opened one restaurant at a time and since before we opened Rookwood (the third bistro), we began to build the corporate office and hire higher caliber people. We are now working towards the next phase of growth, patching the foundation, rewriting the operation manuals, and defining the growth strategy. Scaling is only possible if you have the right people on the bus.
What personal time management tools and/or strategies do you use to keep up with the busy life of an entrepreneur?
Over time, I have tried to define more rules and less options. The key to me is to spend time away from the business. The number one rule that I applied soon after I opened the first bistro was to work ON the business and not IN the business. It’s important to stay healthy; I’ve run 4 marathons in the past 3 years and that something that helped me a lot focus. I ran with a team and we have set schedules. I never missed a training. If you have options, not rules, you always have the option to do something else. I try to create more routines; it helps to get things done. But as the organization changes and my team grows, my role has changed a lot and that’s a work in progress. I’m constantly trying to be better organized. It’s tricky as it’s not in my nature. I don’t work a typical 8 to 5. I’m home most nights to put my son to bed and read him stories. Once he’s asleep, I finish emails, read etc. I don’t have cable network because it’s a time suck. I gave that up 10 years ago.
How do you define success for yourself as an entrepreneur? What metrics do you use to measure success?
I like to think of success as being able to achieve a balanced life and have the business run without me. If I don’t need to be there and things go well, the business is successful. There is always room for improvement and the biggest enemy of success is complacency. So I’m not saying I am not involved in the business as we are constantly trying to get better. But it’s good to be able to step away and know that things are not going to collapse.
What is the top quality or value that you feel helped you become a successful entrepreneur/restaurateur?
Resilience (you have to keep trying, running a business is not easy and there are plenty of failures, as someone said success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm). If you let me pick two, I’d add adaptability. The business I’m running now is totally different from what I had in mind originally.
What has been your best day as an entrepreneur? Worst day?
Difficult to pick one but two things have happened several times. When someone comes to me and tells me that I was the inspiration behind them starting their own business. The second one is whenever we promote someone from an hourly position to a management position. I get teary when I think about a few people who totally turned their lives around, started working for Taste of Belgium has they had no idea what to do with their lives, and then found a purpose a career and grew as cooks and managers. One guy went from delivery driver to dish, prep, line, lead line, sous-chef to executive chef and is now running his own kitchen. We have another young guy who’s now running his own kitchen and started with us a cook; I don’t think he knew how to cut an onion when he started with us.
Worst day: December 23rd 2016 when my loan officer called me to tell me that due to internal issues the bank never submitted my SBA loan and they had been giving me updates for six months about a loan that had never been submitted. The implications were catastrophic and I almost lost everything.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs starting out in the restaurant business?
Think of your restaurant as a business and a collection of processes, not as a restaurant. Many people will open restaurants because they’re great cooks. Build processes and make yourself redundant; too many people end up failing as they try to tackle everything. Try to work as much as possible on the business and not in the business. If you’re a manager and you’re stuck at a station you’re screwed as you can no longer manage the restaurant. Same goes for a business owner. At first you have to do it all, no doubt, but it’s not sustainable in the long run.