Students entering the Blue Room last week might have spotted a new product on its shelves: soft, round waffle cookies with a thin layer of caramel at their centers. Inspired by Dutch “stroopwafels,” Van Wafels cookies are the product of one and a half years of work by Abhishek Pruisken ’10 and Erik Ornitz ’10.
The business that began with a $40 waffle iron now sells its product not only in the Blue Room, but in Blue State Coffee and the Meeting Street Cafe as well.
Pruisken and Ornitz had no specific product in mind when they first embarked on their entrepreneurial endeavor in spring 2008. They only knew that they “wanted to start some sort of business venture,” Ornitz said.
Amsterdam native Pruisken remembered that his college friends always fought over the samples of stroopwafels he would bring from home. Finding fresh stroopwafels locally was difficult, Pruisken said. The duo decided on this treat for their business, and — keeping with the Dutch theme — Van Wafels, LLC, was born.
The following fall, the two entrepreneurs hit the kitchen — with one small problem. “We had no clue what we were doing,” Ornitz said. Armed with recipes from the Internet, a small waffle iron and simple ingredients like cinnamon, eggs and butter, he and Pruisken made the first of many trial batches.
“It was very experimental,” Ornitz said, “trying to figure out a recipe.”
In the middle of October last year, they finally decided to give the public a taste of their product. After 11 straight hours of baking, Van Wafels held a sale on the Main Green and sold every last cookie — including the ones they prepared on-site. After a second successful sale, the duo began making plans to expand.
Stroopwafels, not your simple chocolate chip cookie
Pruisken spent winter break researching Holland’s stroopwafel factories and returned with an industrial waffle iron and a new source of advice — the Dutchman who sold Pruisken the iron. He offered Pruisken words of wisdom on how to “tweak (the) recipe and optimize the cookies,” he said.
Though Ornitz said he and Pruisken “get more efficient” each time they make the cookies, it is a “labor-intensive process” that they still take on themselves. The dough is baked, pressed in the iron and sliced so they can pour on the caramel layer and put the cookie’s two sides back together. “Every single one must be crafted by hand,” he said.
“We joke we should have just made a chocolate chip cookie,” Ornitz said.
At best, the duo can “make 150 cookies in an hour,” Pruisken said, adding that Van Wafels has begun to collaborate with the University’s Division of Engineering “to streamline the whole production process.”
Beyond bake sales
After moving to a bigger kitchen, obtaining a food license and building a following with three Main Green bake sales, Van Wafels started pitching to local cafes.
“Most places that we’ve gone to have been really receptive,” Ornitz said. “We offer them a product that’s really unique, and a brand and a customer base. It’s mutually beneficial.”
The team first approached the Blue Room. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to have a unique product in our unit,” said Linda Whittaker, assistant manager of retail operations for Brown Dining Services.
Pruisken brought samples to Whittaker and made the pitch that the cookies were “a unique product to the area, possibly even the country,” Whittaker said. “He really just had all his ducks in a row in order to present the product to us in a professional manner.”
Van Wafels cookies debuted in the Blue Room on Nov. 23 and sold out in two days, Whittaker added.
Blue State Coffee and the Meeting Street Cafe have quickly followed suit, introducing the cookies this week, and the duo has also reached out to the Rhode Island School of Design, Pruisken said.
While the fledgling business is “still in the red,” he said, they project that they will start turning a profit next semester.
More than simply students
Despite the challenges they have faced in balancing schoolwork with running a small business, Van Wafels’ founders said there’s also a silver lining in being students with a start-up.
“One of the cool things about being a young entrepreneur is that people are excited for you,” Ornitz said.
Van Wafels was the first student business to pitch to Whittaker, she said. “It’s so fabulous that they had the initiative to do what they’ve done,” she added.
“There are really no shortcuts when you’re starting from the ground up,” Ornitz said. He pointed to the added difficulty of being so young.
“When you’re older, you have credentials, you have financial backing,” he said. “At this age, it takes a lot more motivation.”
Pruisken said the business’s evolution was “very ad hoc,” citing the pair’s lack of experience. They’ve received advice and support from Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus of engineering, “since the very beginning,” Pruisken said.
‘Until the bitter end’
For now, Van Wafels’ founders are “taking it one month at a time,” Ornitz said. The two are exploring new opportunities — and even a chocolate version of their classic Dutch cookie.
“Our vision is pretty grand, but there are a lot of steps before we can realize that,” he said.
Pruisken and Ornitz don’t plan to let their impending graduation stop them from bringing their plans to fruition.
Pruisken said he plans to continue running the business. Where it will be located and how many people are on the payroll “depends on how things unfold,” he said, and “on funding.”
Ornitz, who will be working in New York after graduating, said he will “be involved until the bitter end” despite the change in location.
“That’s who we are, we’re waffle-cookie makers,” he said. “It’s not the next big health invention, it’s not the next big cure to a disease. It’s something simple that you enjoy in your life.”