Nine-thirty on a Saturday night, Second Street and Avenue B exudes a bright yellow glow and unmistakable aroma of fresh waffles. Although a line weaves to the front door, which bears the company’s crossed-waffle-iron crest, from the industrial counter, the first customer can’t help but burble with enthusiasm. Will it be the signature “de baconana,” or classic “liege waffle” piled high with ice cream and nutella?
“We always say we aren’t here to make waffles, we’re here to make the best part of your day,” the founder of Wafels & Dinges, Thomas Degeest, said with a Belgian accent and smile.
After nearly six years of providing authentic Belgian waffles from food trucks and carts throughout the city, a crowd of waffle fanatics is nothing new to DeGeest and his fun-loving employees. What is new, however, is it’s brick and mortar waffle outpost, which opened last July.
The waffle company decided to set up shop in “up-and-coming” Alphabet City. “We didn’t want to go to a location that was already oversaturated,” said Steve Lipschutz, general manager. The company’s goal is to expand to other cities as well. “Wherever we go we want to improve the neighborhood as opposed to just joining in to some madness.”
Determined to retain their signature funky-food-truck vibe, Lipschutz said the key question was, “How do we remove the tires but keep the unique experience the same?”
“We have these big windows, so the waffle smell permeates out of the store- we’re trying to draw in customers by smell!” declared five-year-employee Joe Kurtz, theatrically gesturing to the floor-to-ceiling windows of the façade. Like the trucks, the café holds a quirky charm thanks to small décor details such as panels of silly phrases like “the proof is in the dinges” and “all the world is a wafel and all of us are merely dinges.”
Naturally, some elements of the food-truck model needed tweaking. “To be a ‘destination,’ the menu has to be beefed up a lot,” said DeGeest pointing to the new items on the café’s colorful menu board. These include speculoos (a Belgian gingerbread cookie), milkshakes, and chicken and gravy waffle sliders, which DeGeest admitted is his new favorite. “But we stick to the core: good things Belgian.”
That’s been DeGeest’s goal since he started Wafels & Dinges in 2007. The idea was sparked when his then-fiancé wanted to leave New York and move to Brazil. He joked and told her if they moved there he could leave his management-consulting job at IBM and start a waffle stand. “You know, since I am Belgian,” DeGeest remarked with a chuckle. Even though the couple never moved to Brazil, “the idea stuck.”
Initially the truck elicited many “what the heck is a dinges?” inquiries (it’s Belgian slang for “whatchamacallit” and the company’s lingo for “topping”). “Confusion was good,” said Kurtz with a grin, “it made us memorable.”
The company’s quirky personality was well suited to social media and it has nearly 20,000 Facebook fans and 33,000 Twitter followers without spending a cent on advertising. One of its social media signatures is the “Free Dinges” offer, which challenges social media followers to do something wacky, like write a haiku about waffles to earn a free topping.
DeGeest considers his authentic Belgian roots a factor in the company’s success. “It definitely adds quality and credibility,” said DeGeest. Back home in Belgium, DeGeest has access to “world-renowned experts in waffles” who provide him with top-notch waffle irons and a special kind of “sugar pearl” used in their liege waffles. From a branding perspective, DeGeest said with a chuckle: ”I’m Belgian, I speak with a Belgian accent. It adds to the effect. This is the real deal!”
At the end of the day, DeGeest is certain that the biggest reason for his company’s growth is a combination of the quality of the product and the people.
Alex Apostopolis, loyal Wafels & Dinges fan, attested to the quality of the wafflers. “They’re funny people and they always make it fun for you to order. It’s great when you’re having a bad day.”
That’s Joe Kurtz’s goal every time he scoops some doughy goodness into the waffle iron. Said Kurtz: “I think about it as trying to please all of the senses with your experience. Between the lively music that we play, the smells we make, the waffles that we give, and the experience of interacting with us. I want this to be your own private Disney World in a waffle. It should be the whole package.”