Imagine defying the odds and launching a successful business while still in college. Well, that’s exactly how WaffleWaffle came about. Sam Rockwell and Justin Samuels were still students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison when they were inspired to start their own innovative waffle company in 2009. Shortly after, Justin’s cousin Brian Samuels joined the team. You may recognize these delicious waffles from the cafe at your school’s Barnes & Noble College store, or from your local grocery store.
We were certainly curious about this ambitious team of young entrepreneurs, and we felt many college students would be inspired by their story as well. Luckily for us, Brian agreed to talk with us and answer some of our questions about the journey behind WaffleWaffle. Keep reading to see what he had to say!
The idea for a waffle business stemmed from a waffle stand at a ski lift in Vermont and a study abroad trip in Europe – can you elaborate on that?
BS: To make a short story long… While studying abroad in Europe, Justin noticed these very unique waffles (known as Liége Waffles – in homage to the region of Belgium in which they were created) being sold on street carts everywhere! They were on every street corner, similar to the way pretzels and hot dogs are vended in Manhattan. Recognizing their popularity, Justin knew he had to try them and see what all the buzz was about. Upon trying the waffles, Justin had a new found passion and appreciation for the one-of-a-kind “dining” experience. Around the same time, Sam had been vacationing in Vermont, and noticed the very same Liége waffle being sold in waffle cabins along the mountains. After witnessing lines amounting to 30 minute wait times in the brutally cold Vermont winter weather, Sam drew the conclusion that either the people in line were crazy, or something amazing was going on. Either way, he knew he had to find out for himself, so he decided to brave the cold and wait on line for a waffle. His experience was no different than Justin’s – he knew he had come across a very special item. When the two friends came back from their travels they shared their experiences with one another and were amazed to find they both had discovered this incredible product in different corners of the world. After further discussion, they decided that together they could shape their futures around the Liége waffle, and WaffleWaffle was born.
After developing the waffle concept, what first steps did you take to put your ideas into action?
BS: The very first step was coming up with our own unique recipe. Although we had developed a passion for the Liége waffle, we didn’t want to move forward with the same exact waffle. We wanted to take that nostalgic European treat and somehow make it ours. Thus, we created a “WaffleWaffle” – a Belgian waffle with an American twist. We took many of the properties that define a Liége waffle (yeast-raised dough, rather than liquid batter, and chunks of pearl sugar that gives consumers the perfect balance of crunch, caramelization, and sweetness in each bite!), and married them with the taste profiles American consumers enjoy most! In addition to the “Original” or “Vanilla” flavor most associate with the Liége waffle, we developed countless fun and exciting recipes: Chocolate Chip, Cinnamon Roll, Blueberry, Red Velvet, Chocolate Cocoa, Maple, Bacon Maple, Dulce de Leche, Pumpkin Spice, and even savory offerings like Jalapeño… Just to name a few. We did not have any culinary experience, and subsequently, months were spent in the kitchen utilizing trial and error in order to come up with a recipe we felt would be universally enjoyed.
How long did it take before WaffleWaffle started experiencing some level of success? Was there one moment you can remember when you realized it really was going to be a hit?
BS: Our goal is for WaffleWaffle to become a household name throughout the country, and I don’t know that we’ll view ourselves or our company as “successful” until we achieve that goal. Having said that, we were able to get our products into our first Whole Foods Market in May of 2011. Sales proved to be reasonably strong, and we were able to leverage our marginal success into entry in Whole Foods Markets throughout the entire region. Within a couple years we had distribution reaching all of Whole Foods’ Northeast stores. I think at that point we realized that we had created something unique and delicious, and were able to substantiate that there was a demand for it (to retailers and ourselves). Cut to today, about five years later, we currently have WaffleWaffle programs running in eight of Whole Foods’ 11 regions throughout the country in various capacities; frozen grocery, prepared foods, and bakery department. We also service Kroger, ShopRite, and have frozen grocery programs set to launch in Sam’s Club within the next couple of weeks, and Walmart this coming June.
What are the most challenging aspects of running your own business? When you face these challenges, where do you find motivation?
BS: For me personally, the mental aspect has proved to be the largest “challenge”. There are some days that are absolutely incredible; you get a huge win, and you feel like you’re on top of the world, but there are certainly plenty of tough days where things don’t quite go your way. Staying levelheaded and making sure I never get too high or too low is one of my toughest challenges, and frankly, one of my most crucial in terms of being an effective leader. It’s important to be able to remain a few steps ahead and not get too caught up in celebrating day-to-day victories, and just as important to stay positive and seek solutions to problems rather than put your head down and sulk when the chips don’t fall in your favor. You must accept that you cannot control everything, and have contingency plans in place for when things don’t go as envisioned. I stay motivated by keeping our big-picture goals in focus. As I said before, our goal is to make WaffleWaffle a household name, and while it’s important to stop and smell the roses, make sure you don’t take the growth process for granted, learn, and have some fun along the way. Keeping my eye on the prize is the approach that seems to work best for me. Lastly, it’s a corny platitude, but it’s something my father always has said to me and seems to help keep me going: “If it were easy, everyone would do it”.
It’s often said that you shouldn’t go into business with friends, but you guys seem to have found success working together. How do you balance your professional relationship with your friendship?
BS: This is a very good question. I think we’ve reached a point where we’re not just friends, we’re family. Anyone who has siblings can attest to that relationship’s dynamic – there are times when you have disagreements or different points of view, but at the end of the day there’s no one you’d rather go to battle with, and the strength of our bond trumps any conflicting opinions or disputes. The amount of trust and value placed in one another’s opinions always wins out, and I think that’s why we decided to go into business together in the first place. I don’t think going into business with friends is for everyone, but I wouldn’t trade my partners for the world, and I’d be willing to argue that succeeding alongside your closest friends can be more rewarding than doing it by yourself or amongst colleagues you wouldn’t have otherwise chosen to work with.
We imagine there’s a lot of fun that goes on behind the scenes of such a delicious business. What are some of the perks of your job?
BS: “Research and Development” is a big time perk. We’ve worked on a lot of fun, delicious, and creative concepts for a variety of different retailers, and sampling the products is always a treat. Travel is a nice perk as well. Between visiting retailers with home offices all over the US and walking and participating in various trade shows, we have had the opportunity to see most of the country over the past five years. Circling back to the previous question, in our particular case I’d consider showing up to the office every day with some of your closest friends to be a really great perk as well.
Many students hoping to pursue their own businesses are probably wondering – what are your day to day tasks as business owners?
BS: Our day-to-day has changed quite a bit over the years. When we first started the company, our tasks were simply “Justin melt the butter, Brian crack the eggs, Sam set the yeast, and we’ll all meet back at the mixing bowl”. Today we still like to work together on in-house recipe development, only in a slightly larger and more highly certified kitchen. We’re still a pretty tight-knit organization, so we all wear many hats, but Sam and I tend to focus more on administrative and sales roles, while Justin really owns inventory management and production. This upcoming week for instance, Sam and I will be traveling to Cincinnati and Richmond, VA to visit customers and put together sales and marketing plans, while Justin will be at HQ forecasting and planning with our raw material and packaging suppliers, as well as in our manufacturing plant overseeing production and order fulfillment.
Starting a successful business in college is certainly impressive. What advice would you give to current college students that dream of starting their own business as well?
BS: I think different business models require different advice, so I’ll paint this question with a broad brush. I think Nike said it best, “Just do it”. You have to start somewhere. When we began, we had just one waffle iron and a vision. There’s a saying I’ve heard multiple times in this industry since WaffleWaffle’s inception, and that’s “It takes 20 years of hard work to become an overnight success.” So just do it and don’t be impatient! Respect the process and enjoy the journey. And not to beat a dead horse, but when things don’t go as planned, remember that if it were easy, everyone would do it!
If you hadn’t started WaffleWaffle, what do you think you would be doing instead?
BS: That’s tough to answer. When we started WaffleWaffle, the economy was in the throws of a recession, and all we knew was that we wanted to take control of our own destinies. Having started it while still in college, it’s hard to say what any of us would be doing instead and I don’t think anyone of us can really imagine doing something different at this point. For whatever it’s worth, Justin graduated with a BBA in Real Estate and Urban Economics, Sam with a degree in Risk Management & Insurance, and I majored in Journalism with a minor in Creative Writing.
Are there any exciting future plans for WaffleWaffle that you can share with us?
BS: Right now we’re spending a lot of time and energy gearing up for our Sam’s Club and Walmart launch. That’s the most exciting opportunity in our foreseeable future. We’re introducing some really cool applications and flavors we’ve never done before; we’re hitting Sam’s Club shelves with a mini chocolate chip waffle – we call them “Waffle Poppers”, and one of the flavors we’re most excited to retail in Walmart is “Berry Patriotic”, an original waffle packed full of strawberry and blueberry flavor! Sam’s Club and Walmart will have our products in-store in April and June respectively.
It’s safe to say you three are now experts when it comes to waffles. Can you give us some recommendations on waffle pairings?
BS: Chicken and Waffles is a current trend that’s pretty delicious. The sweet and savory combination is an awesome sensory overload! Ice cream is a more common pairing that you can’t go wrong with. Nutella is a winner too! One of the things that makes our waffles so unique are its incorporation of “pearl sugar”. You get a really nice and natural sweetness in every bite, so while there’s no wrong way to eat it, there’s no syrup needed, and you can get really creative with the pairings.
We don’t know about you, but we’re definitely craving some waffles after talking to Brian! Make sure to check out your school’s Barnes & Noble College cafe for availability.