Co-founders of WaffleWaffle, a gourmet Belgian waffle manufacturing business that blasted off a year after the guys graduated from college, the company’s products can now be found in almost every state in the Union – in supermarkets, specialty stores, restaurants and convenience stores.
“Sam and I were friends in college. We’re both from New Jersey, and we had met at the University of Wisconsin,” says Samuels. “During my junior year, I was studying abroad in Barcelona and these waffles were everywhere. At the same time, Sam was skiing in Vermont, where they were selling these same kind of waffles. The one constant, regardless of location; people were waiting 25 to 30 minutes in the freezing cold for them. The thought that came to mind was ‘Either these people are crazy, or something really good is going on here’. We leaned heavily towards the latter being the truth, and after trying them we both agreed they were delicious, and that it was a winning product we could make the staple of our futures.”
Now, of course, we’re not talking about your typical diner waffle, which is really just pancake mix poured into a waffle grid, but something called a Liege-style waffle (also known as the “sugar waffle”). Named after the region in Belgium – Liege – where it was first created, a Liege waffle incorporates a unique blend of sugars in order give its eaters the perfect balance of crunch and caramelization in every bite. This atypical sugar, known as pearl sugar, is mixed in with a yeast-raised dough in order to create an amazing dining experience. The result is a waffle that is sweet enough to enjoy without syrup, whipped cream, or dressings of the like. As I’m sure you can imagine, the final product is golden and crispy on the surface, with a flakey and tender crunch within, like a baguette, only richer.
“We explored the idea that summer, going into senior year” says Samuels. “Once we fine-tuned a recipe, the initial plan was to open a mall kiosk, but after taking a closer look at the overhead and expenses, it didn’t seem feasible at the time. So we decided to go the manufacturing/retail route. There was a Dunkin’ Donuts commissary in our neighborhood, and in its downtime, from 5 to 11 a.m., they let us come in and make waffles. We had three waffle irons. Sam would cut the butter. I would measure the flour. We’d make everything by hand; wrap it by hand, seal it by hand. Then Sam would go right, I’d go left, and whoever sold the most waffles that day was the self-proclaimed winner. It was not a sustainable or profitable way of doing business, but it did prove that there was a demand for the product.”
As their business continued to grow, one day Sam went into Whole Foods, where he happened to see an employee stocking the frozen shelves. “He said, ‘Would you like to try our waffles?’ The guy was curious, and after tasting them he said ‘Hey, these are really good, where can I buy them?” Sam said, ‘Well, that is why I am here. Our waffles are not yet in the store.'”
A short time later, the guys were able to get a meeting with corporate. “They said, ‘We’re willing to try you as a local vendor.’ We were given a test-market of two stores, and had three months to get our ducks in a row. We didn’t have packaging. We had to scramble to get something out there. But we were able to do that, and slowly we went from two stores to four stores to seven, and in correlation, from three waffle irons, to five, to seven to 10 doing our own operations and assembly.”
Shortly after that, the business moved to an incubator kitchen in the Bronx. “It was pretty small but it gave us a little more space to do what we needed to do. After a six-month stint in the Bronx, we then moved back over to New Jersey with 25 waffle irons,” Samuels remembers. “It was still limited capacity and profitability because we were doing it all by hand. But after we added more Whole Foods stores, Sam and I went to Belgium. We had proven the concept to ourselves; we knew where we wanted to go. So we were able to purchase larger equipment to streamline the process, make it slightly more automated, where we now could make 1,000 waffles an hour. We continued to hit the pavement and add retailers, and in a corresponding move, added more equipment in order to churn out 4,000 waffles per hour. We continued to make strides towards legitimizing our business; we were adding more chains, more regions, and since we had the ears of retailers, utilizing our products in a foodservice application was a natural next step.”
In addition to packaging the waffles in retail boxes and stocking the frozen foods shelves, the business was able to put out the larger quantities needed for the foodservice markets starting in 2012. “Whole Foods offers waffles on their hot bars, and packages them in-store for sale in the bakery. Ice cream shops serve them with ice cream and toppings. In the colder months of winter, our waffles make for a great compliment to ice cream or frozen yogurt, and serve as a great stand alone treat! They drive customers into the stores during a time that is usually considered ‘quieter’ for frozen dessert businesses,” says Samuels.
There is one particular aspect of the foodservice applications WaffleWaffle has to offer that Samuels is particularly excited about; their fresh dough program. “We’ve put together a comprehensive program in which we procure the waffle bakers needed to bake off our products, and supply them along with our dough to retailers. Ultimately what we’ve done is created a unique customer experience that engages all five senses! Customers love having the opportunity to watch the waffle press at work, and hear the sizzle of the dough as it bakes. Not to mention the incredible smell our products give off while they bake. And in my humble opinion, it tastes great too,” says Samuels. He adds “The irons do not take up much space – a little over a square foot – so the program requires a very minimal footprint in order to participate, and subsequently, allows retailers to ensure that every single square inch of their existing infrastructure is income producing. And whether it’s at the bottom of a ski mountain, at your local Whole Foods or grocery store, or at a nearby froyo shop, they make fresh waffles and waffle cones. The fresh waffles and waffle cones are dipped in sauces, enrobed in chocolate, dressed with sprinkles, Nutella, fresh fruit, or anyway the customer wants it. Suddenly it’s no longer just a waffle. It’s a customized WaffleWaffle. It’s John’s waffle, Jill’s waffle, Tommy’s waffle…what kind of waffle are you?”
Samuels says the fresh foodservice program is the fastest-growing part of the business. And in retail, it’s become so big that Whole Foods is now building waffle bars for which WaffleWaffle supplies all equipment and products directly into the infrastructure of brand new stores (Whole Foods of Portchester, NY, and Whole Foods of Hyannis, MA). The fresh dough program is just one of the many things WaffleWaffle has done to try and remain cutting edge, and ahead of the curve.
“We had the frozen retail packages, however, we also developed a shelf-stable product line. We designed a shipper-display unit, and began individually wrapping and labeling our products so they could essentially be grabbed ‘on-the-go’. It allows us to work with convenience stores now, but also, makes it easier to approach some of the supermarkets we want to work with. Whereas a frozen foods buyer may not have the shelf-space available to stock our items, our shipper displays can be set-up in store aisles without encroaching on the limited facings retailers can offer to their consumers. They can be eaten directly out of the packaging like a cookie or a muffin as a snack, or heated up for breakfast or dessert,” explains Samuels.
While WaffleWaffle has worked hard to develop its brand vertically (the different applications from frozen retail to foodservice), it has allocated just as much time, energy, and resources to expanding horizontally (in terms of the flavor it offers). Samuels says he and his partner were concerned with how much the American and European markets differ from one another. “There’s only one flavor in Europe. It’s very traditional; it’s plain, and if you dare to throw try any new flavors you’re a pariah. But American consumers love variety. So we developed an entire arsenal of flavors; red velvet, cinnamon, chocolate chip, pumpkin, maple, chocolate cocoa. We have even fine-tuned tofu-based vegan products, and are currently R&Ding with gluten-free”.
WaffleWaffle also works with restaurants to come up with special one-of-a-kind flavors. “We’re working with a restaurant in the North Carolina area; we had started supplying them with our original flavor, however, the restaurant was looking to do something different during the summer months. They wanted a Bananas Foster and a Key Lime waffle. So we did it!”
Samuels notes that the company works with a number of distributors, including UNFI, C&S, U.S. Foods, Bozzutos, Mt. Pleasant Ice Cream, and others, and services numerous markets, restaurants, and ice cream shops in the New York and New Jersey area directly.
“We love working directly with our customers, so long as they are within arms reach. We like to say we’re partners. Not vendors servicing clients. Partners. It’s not ‘Here’s your iron, here’s the dough, and good luck to you.’ We’re constantly checking in and touching base, and making sure that everything is as it should be. If it’s not, then we are right there with them every step of the way to troubleshoot any issues and be better moving forward. We’re not in this to make sales, we’re in this to make customers. If they are not happy, they are not coming back,” he says.
And the name – WaffleWaffle? “If you’re hungry, you grab a waffle. If you want an experience, you grab a WaffleWaffle,” he says. “So nice we named it twice.”