Interview Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 - Koen Houwen
Koen Houwen: “Entrepreneur of the Year” 2019
15 November was the Day of the Entrepreneur (DVDO), organized by MKB Nederland. Holland House Mexico celebrated entrepreneurs in Mexico through the election of the very first “Entrepreneur of the Year”: Koen Houwen, owner of Holland Wafels. HHM Manager Carin Verbree visited Koen to speak about his project at his bakery in the colorful Colonia Juarez, Mexico City.
Congratulations, Koen! Thanks for having me at the bakery today. I believe this is only a small part of Holland Wafels, correct?
Indeed, we currently have two Holland Wafels stores in Mexico City and a number of franchises in Toluca, Tabasco and Mexico City. Another in San Cristobal de las Casas is currently being discussed. We also cater for events, where we bake fresh stroop-waffles for companies and organizations, for example during expo´s at Dutch pavilions and Dutch parties such as the annual Sinterklaas event. Right now, we´re working on Christmas gift baskets for companies.
Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? How did you become a Dutch waffle baker in Mexico?
I first came to Mexico in 2005, to study an MBA and MA in International Relations in Mexico City for 2 years. Through the university, I was invited to help out at a local youth shelter in one of Mexico´s toughest neighborhoods; Tepito. The often desperate guys and girls at the shelter were roughly my age, mostly drug addicted, pregnant and/or with young kids and no perspective. This shelter was the last place that would take them in.
Myself a fourth-generation baker, I felt encouraged to try and help these guys through a social entrepreneurship where I would exploit a for-profit bakery hiring and instructing the youngsters. During the first 3,5 years I started up a philanthropic foundation in The Netherlands and collected roughly 2 million pesos which were invested in the shelter, that was literally falling apart. After that, the bakery project began and ran for 3,5 years. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be a sustainable project. Many of the guys and girls in the program would drop out, stop showing up, be placed in rehab, etcetera. So there was no continuity in staff meaning I could only sell what I could produce myself per day.
In 2014, my wife became pregnant and I decided it was time for me to focus on my own family and career. I figured that selling stroopwafels was still a good way to make a living (“who doesn´t get a smile on his face from a stroopwaffle!?”), so that year we started selling waffles from a food card that we would take around the city to different events and festivals. With the profits, I was able to open the first waffle store at Mercado Roma, a hipster market in Mexico City. In the aftermath of the September 2017 earthquake that effected the city, we decided to move the business to Colonia Juarez, to the shop right next door. We currently rent both shops and use the old restaurant as production center.
How did you scale up your business from one shop to a preferred provider of Dutch goodies in Mexico?
My father is a very hard-working man, I aIways remember him working. From early in the morning to late in the evening, never giving up. I think that´s what you need to be a successful entrepreneur. Don’t let anything put you down. You sometimes need to take risks, and I have taken them too. That means that you have to take a loss every once in a while. But even in the event of difficult circumstances outside of your power, such as the earthquake, you need to be able to let it go. Work hard again to get over setbacks, keep moving forward. I also think you need to analyze situations; what works well and what didn´t work at all? You need to keep adapting.
Thank you very much for your time and sharing your story, Koen. Any recommendations for other entrepreneurs?
Make use of the Dutch business network in Mexico! Not only are they strong allies, but many have committed the mistakes that you could make. Get to know fellow entrepreneurs, listen to there advise.
Hungry for a waffle?
Visit one of the shops:
Calle Versalles 78, Colonia Juárez, CDMX
Calle de la Amargura 5, Colonia San Ángel, CDMX
Or find the nearest waffle stand on social media: