Immigrant Business Statistics: Name: Thomas DeGeest Country of Origin: Belgium Emigrated to the U.S.: 1997 Launched W&D: 2007 Annual Revenue: $5 million Jobs Created: 100
Thomas DeGeest traded in his six-figure IBM job, escaped PowerPoint hell and followed his dream of bringing authentic Belgian waffles to the streets of New York City.
Thomas DeGeest had a six-figure job at IBM when he came to America from Belgium. But, hungering for change after 12 years at the company, he decided to pursue his dream of running his own business and opened Wafels & Dinges, a food truck in New York City in 2007. Today, the business is thriving, with over roughly 100 employees who keep its operation running seven days a week, at least 14 hours a day. Featured everywhere from the CBS Early Show to Gourmet magazine, the growing brand is now available at eight brick-and-mortar locations in three cities and 8 mobile units—and DeGeest is achieving his American Dream. “People come to America for a reason,” he says. “They want to achieve something. New York is the epitome of this.”
Foulis Peacock, publisher of Immigrant Business, interviewed DeGeest, seeking his tips for other immigrants on how to build a successful business around foods from their native country. Here are some key takeaways.
People come to America for a reason. They want to achieve something.
Tap Your Immigrant Advantage
When DeGeest’s wife was contemplating a move to Brazil, he looked for a business he could run successfully without the ability to speak Portuguese, the native language. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I open a waffle store?’” he recalls. The move never happened, but when the idea kept simmering, he realized it was also an ideal venture for him to run in New York, as a native Belgian. “I can start a waffle store anywhere in the world because I have ‘street cred,’” he says.
Customize Your Product to Local Tastes
“Americans love Hollywood. They love a lot of bells and whistles,” DeGeest realized as he traveled around the country for his corporate job. On that theory, he made sure to offer a lot of toppings to jazz up the waffles, from whipped cream to maple syrup. He also offered savory waffles with bacon—an “absolute no-no in Belgium,” and pulled pork. “You learn from the country you visit,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the South—Louisiana and Texas.”
Don’t Skimp on Quality
DeGeest relied on equipment and waffle mix from Belgium because he was confident they were the best. And he never relied on frozen waffles, although it was acceptable to sell them in Belgium. “New Yorkers are a much tougher audience,” he realized.
I always tell my personnel, ‘We sell people the best moment of their day. We’re there to make them happy.’”
Prepare for the Unexpected
DeGeest economized in building his business by investing in a waffle truck, rather than a store. However, the aging 1968 step up truck proved costly to maintain, and he quickly burned through his savings—at one point resorting to towing the truck behind his car to move it around New York. “We didn’t have a risk mitigation plan in place,” he says in retrospect.
Dish Up Some Magic
To capture the imagination and hearts of customers, DeGeest concocted a colorful story about being sent by the government of Belgium as a special envoy to address the deplorable state of waffles in America. The rest of his branding flowed from this. “We don’t sell waffles,” he says. “I always tell my personnel, ‘We sell people the best moment of their day. We’re there to make them happy.’” It’s also important to make sure the design elements of your business are engaging, he says. “Just food by itself is not necessarily going to be enough.”
You’re going to have to build economies of scale, to support multiple units. That’s where you really start making money in this business.
If you want to run a food-truck business, realize that your most important asset is your vehicle, he says. “You have to put that asset to work as much as possible,” he says. His team keeps the truck running 18 hours a day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. “In New York City at any given time of day, there’s always someone who’s going to buy your product,” he says.
I can start a waffle store anywhere in the world because I have street cred
Build a Scalable Business
To add to his sales, he has done some limited wholesaling and branched out into catering and retail, selling products such as a Belgian spread called Spekuloos, which resembles peanut butter but tastes like gingerbread cookies, on his website, wafelsanddinges.com.
Originally, DeGeest’s goal was to build a brand that extended far beyond his original truck. “Eventually, you’re going to have to build economies of scale to support multiple units,” he advises others who would like to follow his path. “That’s where you really start making money in this business.”
Today with his 8 trucks operating around the city, and his five brick-and-mortar locations, he has achieved his goal, and Wafels and Dinges has become a New York City fixture.
Update – 2023
Since this article was originally posted, there have been a number of major developments at Wafels & Dinges.
According to DeGeest, the most important development is that the company has been “transformed into the child of a true immigrant family, with the involvement full time of my wife and business partner, Rossanna Figuera. A native of Venezuela, Rossanna has been a Diplomat to the UN, a banker, an executive coach, a headhunter, and a successful entrepreneur, prior to joining the company full-time in early 2012.
Fast forward to 2023, they operate 8 brick & mortar locations across New York, Minneapolis and Colorado, run multiple trucks, cater events & offer nationwide shipping They’ve been named New York’s Best Food Truck by three different organizations; and they’ve beaten celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a throw down on the Food Network.