Taste of the future
There is a subtle shift happening in the world of food: More and more young people are starting businesses that not only provide you with healthier food options but are determined to work sustainably while doing it
Entrepreneurs of healthy fast food are discovering the challenges of sustainable business
Every weekday morning, Mieke Dumortier mounts a sturdy cargo bike and begins her workday. Between 8.30 and 12.30, she makes a 50-kilometre trek around the Singel area of Antwerp to deliver half-litre refrigerated portions of soup – come rain or shine. After her round, Dumortier, known better by her business name Soepmie, locks herself away in her kitchen and begins making soup for the next day – always vegetarian and always with seasonal and organic produce.
“I want to do this as ecologically as possible,” says Dumortier (pictured). “For every aspect of Soepmie, I ask myself: ‘Is there a green way or a greener way to do this?’”
This ethos makes her one of a handful of young Flemish entrepreneurs determined to offer more healthy food options to consumers on a tight schedule or budget – or both. Combining an idealist streak with a nifty business approach, sustainable entrepreneurs like Dumortier share a desire to help Flemings eat more healthily and brand their products as a green and local alternative to industrially produced foods. From vending machines that dispense organic snacks (Coolbox) to weekly subscriptions to vegetables direct from the farm (Nieuw Vriesehof), these food-related start-ups and small businesses target consumers looking for shortcuts to a healthy and nutritious diet.
Many of the entrepreneurs behind these ventures are in their 20s and 30s. They represent a generation that is rebelling against business as usual, says Céline Louche, an fastfood has received a sustainable upgrade. The Natuurfrituur in Ghent offers only organic fries in addition to vegetarian grub like spinach nuggets, “vol-au-veggie” and “not dogs”, all made with local and organic ingredients. It was nominated for the Grote Prijs voor de Toekomstige Generaties (Grand Prize for Future Generations), which puts sustainable initiatives in the limelight. In December, Lucie Evers, who runs Natuurfrituur, told a local paper: “If you can make a Flemish staple like fries in a sustainable way, you can make everything in a sustainable way.” Soepmie, meanwhile, has grown from a quaint one-woman start-up to an established small business in two short years. First, Dumortier branched out by adding salads and other light dishes to the menu; later she began catering events and parties and hired her first employee. Finally, she opened a lunch spot in the Antwerp North area. She doesn’t feel like this trajectory has in any way betrayed her modest beginnings: “You try to stay small, but you sort of grow automatically.” Pointing out that most of the changes came in response to customer demand, she says: “It’s a constant struggle for balance – what do you and what don’t you take on?” When asked if she would expand to Brussels or Ghent, she sighs emphatically. “There are hundreds of opportunities. But I like doing my rounds. When you expand, you’re doing something else. Then you’re managing.”
Like Dumortier, many of the entrepreneurs behind these small-scale food businesses struggle to strike the right balance between the sustainable and business dimensions of their projects. “That’s the Achilles heel of this project,” says Hans Cardyn, one of six volunteers running the non-profit Ministry of Ideas. This grassroots online platform aims to give more visibility to eco-pioneers and currently has 36 “ministers” whose portfolios have oddball titles like happy bees, food woods and solar cooking. “It’s something we haven’t really figured out yet,” Cardyn says of the tension between business and sustainability.
Some time ago, Cardyn linked up one of their ministers, Bruno Van Haudenhuyse, with a consultant. Van Haudenhuyse had found a way to grow fungi on recycled waste materials like coffee dregs and cardboard and had used them to make croquettes. The consultant’s business plan required Van Haudenhuyse to sell those croquettes at a very high price to turn his project into a profitable business – a deal breaker for Van Haudenhuyse. With the fungi, he had found something he enjoyed doing, something he hoped would inspire others. But he recoiled at the idea of becoming a manager and building a money-making enterprise.
That has been an issue for several of their ministers, says Cardyn. “If the idea is just to do things in a greener way, but otherwise adhere to the traditional business route of growth, growth, growth, then maybe we’re not doing this the right way.”
Since March last year, Smartmat has been offering weekly grocery home deliveries with accompanying recipes. With these ready-to-cook meal kits, Smartmat founders Anders Åsarby and Dirk De Maeyer wanted to relieve busy customers of the weekly visit to the supermarket and the what’s-for-dinner stress.
Åsarby, who brought the concept from Sweden (where it is known as Middagsfrid) says that with Smartmat he wanted to go against microwave culture, which he describes as “just barely food”. Insofar as possible, the recipes steer clear of additives, artificial sweeteners and preservatives, and the dishes should be ready in 30 to 45 minutes.
One evening in late January, Åsarby gave one of his customers a call. Earlier that day, she had posted a piece on her food blog in which she raved about the Smartmat concept but took Åsarby to task for the groceries’ excessive plastic wrappings. “I, too, hate plastic,” he told her. “But for now, we can’t do it any other way.”
Smartmat, which is based in Antwerp but delivers across Flanders, had grown so much in the previous 10 months that they had to outsource the wrapping of their groceries, he explained. Plus, they were required by law to individually wrap the ingredients, even that one little red onion.
That was then. Today, Smartmat, has more subscribers – and more clout. As they have grown – with currently 450 subscribers across Flanders, up from 300 in March – Åsarby has increasingly been able to nudge the companies they work with to take a greener route. “When you tell your suppliers they have to start offering organic carrots, and you only have seven customers, that’s not very impressive,” he says – adding that the groceries are now wrapped with much less plastic.
Åsarby has been pushing his customers, too. Emphasising that Smartmat tries to educate its subscribers, he says: “We help people discover new products, like bulgur and quinoa, and learn new ways of cooking.” He has had “zero pressure” from customers to provide organic produce, but in recent months he has gone the extra mile to obtain labelling from Certisys, the chief certification body for organic products in Belgium.
“We chose to do it this way,” he says, “because to help people to eat a little bit better is important to me. Sure, it’s a job – but we’re also trying to make the world a little bit better.” Together with these small ventures, a host of businesses have cropped up that offer a more natural and health-conscious take on fast food snacks. Consider Hopdog, for instance, a gourmet food truck in Brussels that sells modern variations on the traditional hotdog with menus called Eco and Healthy, or Keep on Toasting – also in Brussels – with its grilled sandwiches made from organic bread. In Ghent and Antwerp, Moochie offers a low-calorie alternative to ice cream with “moochies” made from organic frozen yoghurt.
Louche is doubtful if businesses like these, with thin claims to sustainability, are here to stay. “If it’s just a marketing gimmick, then in a couple of months or years they will be doing something else,” she says. But she does believe that Flanders needs both the honest believers and the skin-deep sustainable entrepreneurs. “If you want to reach a critical mass to make a change in society, you need everybody to embark on these endeavours so that, rather than a niche, sustainability will become a more mainstream behaviour.”
Soepmie delivers a half-litre of fresh, organic, vegetarian soup to the door of your home or workplace. For €3. You read that right. They also do quiches, salads and pastas and even offer catering. If you prefer to pick it up or enjoy lunch at their cute eatery, head to Oranjestraat 94 in Antwerp. www.soepmie.be
Smartmat delivers groceries to your home together with recipes to use up everything in the packet. Once a week delivery gives one person enough meals to last the entire week. At least 25% of the food is organic, all is from local sources, and they deliver to most addresses across Brussels and Flanders www.smartmat.be
Natuurfrituur serves organic and vegetarian fries at its permanent home in Ghent at 5 Tinkstraat and also as a mobile frituur at events. You might think that fries are vegetarian, but the oil used to fry them is usually beef fat. www.tiny.cc/natuurfrituur