Building the Waffle House from Scratch

Jean-Francois Flechet has spent the last four years growing his business, A Taste of Belgium; The Authentic Waffle, from a single waffle iron in a produce stand at Findlay Market to four locations and 30 employees in two cities.

In May, the native of Belgium will move his headquarters from Findlay Market to 12th and Vine Streets in Over-the-Rhine, establishing his fifth location. From there, he plans to branch out and begin licensing the business he built on a recipe that has become a fixture at markets and events around Cincinnati.

Flechet's growing waffle empire has one major ace up its sleeve: a four-hundred-year-old symphony of sugar, butter, flour and yeast known as the Belgian Waffle, or more simply a Sugar Waffle. But his own business sense, managerial eye and amenable personality are what have allowed the business to become so entrenched in Cincinnati's food culture in a short span of time.
Flechet opens cafes in retail locations that will become prime real estate in a few years. He visits farmer's markets, festivals and special events around the city to build exposure. And most importantly, he is not afraid to act.

When the observance of the Martin Luther King holiday drew over 5,000 people to the Freedom Center in Downtown Cincinnati earlier this month Flechet, who recently opened a cafe in the Center that "nobody knows about" yet, was there to greet them with a waffle.

"We had waffle irons in the lobby," he said. "The whole Freedom Center smelled like waffles."

Most of Flechet's business is done in open-air markets where catching customers' eyes, ears, and noses is essential. But his cafes serve much more than waffles, including an extensive list of pastries, stromboli, and pizza. At his OTR location he plans to add other Belgian specialties like french fries, mussels and steak tartare. 

Flechet might be firmly entrenched in Cincinnati's new economy now, but his entrepreneurial story actually began over a decade ago in Philadelphia.

Twelve years ago Flechet was working on a PhD in theoretical economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

"By then I had been at university for nine years," he said. "I was like, I'm done with classes."

So he settled for his third masters degree, and moved to Cincinnati to design software that analyzed market research, "geek stuff," he said. He quickly grew tired of the work and began planning a hot food vending machine company with a friend. After receiving a green card, he quit his full-time job and devoted himself to the start-up. The project gained momentum but when the economy tanked, investors withdrew.

"To try to keep the project alive, I figured if I tried to start something on my own, that would free up more time to find investors," Flechet said. "So I thought, what can I start with very minimal capital?"

Flechet had never made a waffle before, but he had eaten hundreds and had a hunch that people here would want to do the same. The waffles that he got as a child, in a market near his hometown, were the best he'd had anywhere in Europe, he said.

"Jean Francois is from Liege, which is sort of the capital of Belgian waffles," one of Flechet's customer's, Karim Tiro said. Tiro is not only a fan of Flachet's waffles; he's also a sugar historian and history professor at Xavier University. "We're talking about a tradition that goes back in his native city, you know, four hundred years or so. ... It's a food that's associated with a place, like Cincinnati Chili."

Flechet traveled back to Belgium and returned to Cincinnati with a 50lb waffle iron. He asked his mother to contact the old man from whom Flechet bought waffles as a kid, and ask for his recipe.

"A lot of the people now back home get their dough from large manufacturers and take lots of shortcuts, using margarines and preservatives, and it's just not the same," Flachet said. "I wanted to make sure that I make it the way I remember."

The waffle maker agreed and sent Flechet his recipe. He spent a couple of days adapting it to ingredients available in the States (as well as importing beet sugar from Belgium,) with the help of friend and local chocolatier Jean-Phillippe Salnom. Another friend, Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel, allowed him to make the dough in one of his restaurants after hours.

Soon Flechet began selling the waffles at Findlay Market in Brian Madison's produce stand, where Flechet had been a long-time customer.

"When he came in talking about Belgian waffles, everyone around here didn't know what they were, and they were kind of skeptical," Madison said. "They weren't really interested in doing a lot to assist him in getting started. I said, 'well, Jean-Francois, I have a license for prepared food, let's do it in here.'"

After three weeks, Flechet outgrew Madison's location and moved to another space across the street on which Madison held a lease. Within three months Flechet had his own space at Findlay. A few years later, he was able to locate financing to open two stores in Columbus, one at the Wexner Center and one at The North Market. Then came the Freedom Center location early this year, and soon he will have his fifth in the Gateway Quarter.

He currently assembles his own waffle irons in Oakley, made from regionally-sourced materials, and just sold his first license to use the Taste of Belgium brand. He has also started a new endeavor, Les Macarons de Jean-Francois, selling the small, brightly colored sandwich cookies that he says are his favorite.

For the time being Flechet said he wants to stop opening retail locations so he can focus on expanding his business through licensing, but he said he might have room for one more cafe.

"Once the streetcar stops at the Freedom Center you can get a waffle there, you can stop at 12th and Vine and get a waffle, and you can go to Findlay Market and get a waffle," he said. "So whenever it gets the funds to go to Clifton, we'll put another one at the stop there."

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Jean-Francois Flechet at his new Freedom Center location
Baked fresh waffles at the Freedom Center
Vegetarian Crepe at Findlay Market
Jean-Francois Flechet at Findlay Market
Freedom Center reflection
Waffles with strawberries