From La Soupe to Taste of Belgium Waffles
A unique partnership between a community kitchen and commercial one.
by Rick Pender
Jean-François Flechet’s Taste of Belgium became a mainstay in Over-the-Rhine in 2010, one of the first restaurants to open on the revitalized Vine Street corridor shortly after he became known for sweet Belgian waffles he hand-made from a stand and then a Findlay Market stall. Eventually he expanded to The Banks, Corryville/Clifton, Rookwood Commons and beyond. Flechet, also an Over-the-Rhine resident, has built a sterling reputation for his business success, employing more than 260 faithful employees.
“We strive to take care of our employees,” he says. “We had health insurance long before it was mandatory, a 401K plan, extra benefits for non-smokers. One of our core values is ‘Healthy mind – healthy body.’ I think it’s best to take care of my team. We’ve always been progressive and community-minded.”
When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued a March 15 order for restaurants to cease eat-in operations, that required some serious reconfiguration of operations. Flechet temporarily closed his Over-the-Rhine and Corryville locations and shifted focus to online orders for pickup or delivery from Rookwood, The Banks and Findlay Market. “We do some delivery of waffles and beers from our website,” Flechet points out. He creatively expanded remote retail sales to locations such as Woods Hardware in downtown Cincinnati and caterers such as Bridgetown Finer Meats.
That preserved jobs for some of his team. Nevertheless, business as usual could not continue. “Our revenue is down 90 percent,” Flechet says. “We are trying to keep some people employed and continue pay for benefits for everyone. We have enough to cover that cost for April, maybe May.” Other expenses, such as rent, have to be temporarily deferred.
Flechet’s commitments to his team and the larger community have played out in his support for La Soupe, an innovative food recycling nonprofit. His restaurant-industry friend Suzy DeYoung, longtime operator of La Petite Pierre, a French restaurant in Madeira, launched La Soupe in 2014. She receives excess fresh produce in bulk from regional grocers and food distributors before it is delivered to landfills, where 40 percent of vegetables and fruit often end up. Her team transforms them into nutritious soups and side dishes, to be shared with “food-insecure” people throughout Greater Cincinnati. Working with more than 80 partner agencies, La Soupe has rescued tons of food converting it into more than 650,000 servings. The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has created greater demand for food, significantly testing La Soupe’s production capacity.
The need for healthy food has never been greater, but La Soupe needed help, and Flechet came to the rescue. His 8,000-sq.ft. commissary in Walnut Hills is next door to the production facility La Soupe has been developing. “It’s a unique food-processing facility,” he says, “not a restaurant kitchen.” Taste of Belgium and La Soupe will eventually share a loading dock, but currently it’s much more.
“Their emphasis is on not wasting food,” Flechet says. “There is a lot of demand, but no time to process. It’s a challenge to work with social distancing.” Taste of Belgium’s spacious commissary enabled workers to spread out and be safe. It also featured larger refrigerators and freezers not available elsewhere.
Some of Taste of Belgium’s team stepped up to supplement La Soupe’s workers. “One of our chefs,” Flechet says, “is working with La Soupe to prepare meals that are frozen for distribution.” More employees made it possible to create roughly 10,000 portions in the first week of April. “We’re trying to feed people as quickly as possible,” DeYoung says. “They are hungry today! If you’re a community kitchen, you take care of the community.”
She praises Flechet’s creativity. “He listens, processes and makes good decisions,” DeYoung says. “I told him if I could get one more kitchen going, I could do so much more. He understood immediately.” She says the way he quickly stepped up to collaborate offer was “really terrific in a big way.”
People with the fewest resources were being put at risk by the pandemic. “It’s about feeding people,” Flechet says. “Suzy can get food to those people’s mouths.” Flechet and Taste of Belgium are playing a role well beyond what most restaurants do. He steps up and makes things happen.
In the meantime, he urges fans of Taste of Belgium fans to place online takeout orders then drop by for pickup rather than use delivery services that charge restaurants steep commissions. He wants elected officials to be sure the restaurant industry is supported financially when businesses can reopen. Loans are important, he says, but the timetable for repayment needs to be carefully considered.
Flechet’s commitment to high-quality food and service as well as to community services such as La Soupe will help the city recover after normal operations restart.
OTR in Action:
Order Online through Taste of Belgium’s website. Jean-François Flechet suggests an online order and pickup, versus commercial delivery options to maintain the integrity of the restaurant’s systems. https://authenticwaffle.com/
La Soupe sells 15% of all soups made to support the 85% that they give. Donate today: https://lasoupe.org/donate
Rick Pender is a Cincinnati journalist, which includes work at CityBeat and WVXU, and the author of 100 Things to Do in Cincinnati Before You Die (https://www.amazon.com/100-Things-Cincinnati-Before-You/dp/1681062194). Until recently, he lived in Over-the-Rhine, and is eager to return and enjoy restaurants, theater and other arts performances there.