In September of 2001, John Power became stranded in Belgium when terrorist attacks in New York grounded international flights for weeks. His trip, originally to research a potential real estate investment, resulted in the formation of a whole different type of business venture.
During his time in the small European country, Power began noticing waffle carts on every street corner. He noticed waffles are to Belgians as hot dogs are to Americans. He started eating the waffles three to four times a day, and soon he found himself researching the ingredients and the equipment used to make the waffles. He ended up bringing a small vendor cart, a waffle iron and some of the specialized nib sugar back to the states with the intent of starting his own business.
Waffle Brothers, Rod Dupen, and company work at a farmer's market in Denver.
Power was neighbors with Rod Dupen, who was also involved in real estate investment. One day the two got talking about food and John approached Dupen, about the idea of starting a waffle stand in Denver. Dupen was intrigued. From that point on, they began working on the recipe for their waffles, and the Waffle Brothers brand waffle went from concept to reality. “We took a lot of time just to get it right and then we tested it with friends and neighbors. Then eventually we did some charity events. We’d show up, work for free, donate our time and food, and that was actually the first indication that we actually had something,” says Dupen about refining their recipe and methods for preparing the waffles.
Dupen calls the mixture they use to make their waffles “dough” rather than “batter” because it is a much thicker mixture than most people are accustomed to when it comes to waffles. In fact, they have to use an ice cream scoop to dish it out onto the waffle irons.
We took a lot of time just to get it right and then we tested it with friends and neighbors.
The waffle irons combined with the imported Belgian nib sugar are the key to creating the perfect waffle. “[The irons] that we use weigh about 80 to 90 lbs. a piece…and they have a really heavy cast iron grill, or griddle, and combining that with the dough and the sugar and the temperature, when you lay the waffle into it, some of it starts to caramelize, some of it actually start to melt in the dough, and then some of it, for whatever reason, stays in its crystallized form…We’ve tried some of the other [irons], because we thought about selling the dough, and it’s not quite the same as when we make them on the heavier irons,” says Dupen.
The variety of toppings are on display at the concession stand.
Once they were certain they had a winning recipe that could not be easily duplicated, the duo began making the rounds at festivals in Colorado in 2007. Rod says the festival circuit initially helped them gain experience catering to large crowds and producing their waffles at a fast pace. It also helped the two get the Waffle Brothers name out to the public. Still, he maintains, he always has to be selling himself, the company and their products. “You really have to hustle.”
The company soon opened two vending carts at the outdoor mall in downtown Denver, Colorado where they continued to refine their menu. They went through numerous toppings on a trial and error basis. Dupen says they have tried out somewhere in the area of 50 to 60 toppings but have narrowed it down to the 12 toppings that are currently offered. “A lot of our beginning menu was named after people and what they ordered. The ‘Natural Born Killer’ is named after…a middle heavyweight, maybe heavyweight boxer that holds a title,” Dupen says. “He would come and ask for a Nutella and strawberry [waffle] sandwich with whip cream. So we made that up and we put him on the menu.”
They have recently paired with local TV personality, Dannette Randall, who hosts a program called “Dessert Diva” that is on every Monday morning. She has begun making several toppings for the waffles as well, which include a lemon curd and raspberry cheesecake topping. In fact, one of their toppings, the cranberry compote with marshmallow cream cheese, helped them win first place at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in 2008. The Waffle Brothers offer seasonal toppings as well as their standard toppings, but only when it is cost effective for their business.
"[People] are used to a funnel cake. They understand the concept of a funnel cake and a hot dog and a turkey leg. They’d never seen two guys out there, selling waffles.”
The duo have not experience the sweet taste of success until recently. The biggest challenge that they faced was “introducing [our] waffle to people that had no idea [what it was]. You know, they are used to a funnel cake. They understand the concept of a funnel cake and a hot dog and a turkey leg. They’d never seen two guys out there, selling waffles.”
A plate for two at Waffle Brothers.
Because the concept of a waffle stand was relatively unheard of in Denver, Rod says they had to start out with a price that was low enough that people were willing to risk spending their money on an unknown food. Dupen explains, “In the beginning, when we first opened up our first cart on the 16th Street Mall, we gave away about a thousand waffles.” Now that they have been around for a couple years and are starting to see some acceptance, they are slowly raising their prices.
The duo has also had to raise prices on their waffles recently due to harder economic times, but the prices are nothing compared to more metropolitan cities, according to Dupen. “I went back to Sydney recently, and there was a restaurant that made waffles similar to ours with strawberries and drizzled chocolate for 12 dollars. So they’re at 12, and we’re at four. It’s Denver, Colorado, you know. We could probably get a few extra dollars if we were somewhere else.”
Dupen believes that, although Denver may not have been the best city in which to start a street vendor business, concession vending was a great way to start getting his product out to the public for a low starting cost. But there’s no real room for error, and it is a fairly unglamorous line of work. “When you tell people that you’re a vendor on the 16th Street Mall that’s about the end of the conversation…I think people have a stigma about anyone who’s vending. Once you realize that the vending can only last for long, you have to start moving. Like, we’re moving into concessions and a store front. It’s a lot of work; it’s a lot of manual labor,” says Dupen.
There are, however, some upsides to being a food vendor, such as the small amount of money that you need to spend on food. There is not the level of food waste that restaurants have. Dupen says that you can go out on a Thursday or Friday and get all the ingredients you need for a weekend and have used it all by Monday without having to throw much of it away due to spoilage.
Chocolate chips melt in the heat of the sun.
"Anything worth doing takes a lot of hard work.”
Rod warns this job is not for the faint-hearted. “You don’t have a life. We’re up at five, five-thirty most days, seven days a week, and if you’re doing festivals, you’re not done until ten or ten-thirty at night.”
When asked what type of advice he would offer up to people starting up a vending business, Dupen doesn’t miss a beat. “Research it. Obviously come out with your best foot forward. Really test market your product first. Be prepared to change. Don’t be sour. Figure out what’s not working and change it really quick. Anything worth doing takes a lot of hard work.”
And the hard work has paid off for the Waffle Brothers, as they are currently looking for locations to open their first brick and mortar store in 2010. They have retired one of their street vendor carts and are focusing more on concession sales, once again at farmer’s markets, and catering private parties in the meantime.