Why Juile + Arnaud rock: owners of vive la tarte, a savory and sweet Belgian home-style pie mobile bakery that delivers straight to your door!
Who is Julie?
J: I’m coming from a small country in Europe, Belgium, which is country of chocolate and beer! So we were already born and living in a food scene. Before starting vive la tarte, I was on a corporate career track, as a management consultant close to 6 years. Then I discovered that it was absolutely not what I liked to do.
I was passionate about creating a small business with an impact on people in a sector I actually really enjoyed—which is food. Why food? Two reasons, a part of my family, my great-aunt wrote a great recipe book, which I was really inspired by. Second part is that I feel food links people, shares happiness, going around the table and enjoying food. I really like that— the community aspect.
A: What Julie forgot to say about her, she studied engineering. Engineers are very precise people. I think that is one of the key things she applies in pastry. It’s not complicated, but there’s a lot of precision. You know, if you add too much sugar to the flour, it’s not going to be the same. By using this skill in food is a great asset.
Who is Arnaud?
A: I’m coming Belgium as well. Also stuck in the corporate world and just realized I couldn’t really use my talents. I wanted to be more creative, but the market was not ready for that. I was happy to find this project. I see life as a number of projects. I think vive la tarte is the first project that we are doing in a very independent way. But I would like to think there will be other projects in the food industry and in some other things. I like a lot of things. I like real things. I like to be in front of people who are true to themselves, not afraid of being what they are. Same for food. I don’t need to have most fancy food, if I’m sure about the quality in there. That’s the rule that I apply for everything I do.
How did you both meet?
J+A: We met in high school.
A: We’ve been together for 13 years, we met when we were 17 (I’m 30 now). We were best friends and then things happened, and yeah… [laughs]
J: And got married last year…
So your honeymoon was in San Francisco?
J: In California. We did a classical tour starting in LA, going along the coast, going to Yosemite, Grand Canyon… and we stopped for a long time in San Francisco.
A: The idea for the honeymoon was that we knew we both wanted something else and to move out of our country, where we were stuck in the Belgian dream…
J: Work a 9-5 job…
J+A: Buy a house…
A: … have 3 kids and live a very repetitive life. We knew we wanted to do something else, but didn’t really know what. By doing this in California, we saw a lot of options. As Julie, mentioned, it’s the openness to new things that is amazing, especially in San Francisco. Another thing is also that you can be young and succeed. In Europe, there’s a tendency to say that you need grey hair to be taken seriously.
So what made you choose San Francisco as a location for your business?
J: It was the spirit of the city, the people we met and the quality of produce we could find here. It was a great combination.
A: I also think it was a good choice as San Francisco is closer to Europe than other cities in California. People know a lot about Europe; there’s a closer connection. For us, there are two food poles in the U.S. There’s New York, the establishment, and first stop for most Europeans. Then there is definitely San Francisco, with a focus on organic quality food. It’s less about the fanciness and more about what’s really inside.
J: It’s the authenticity of the city we liked and it’s human-sized. That’s really why we felt at home really quickly in this city.
Have you both lived abroad prior outside of Belgium?
J: I studied in Canada for 6 months in Kingston…
A: I did a student exchange in Connecticut for a few months. We both traveled quite a bit for work… Julie around Europe. I traveled to the U.S., Singapore, Bahrain and so on. Anyway, we like it here… a lot!
So how did the idea of vive la tarte come about?
A: I think it actually came from a craving, especially from Julie. In the afternoon we like to sit down, chill out a bit, have a piece of pie, and drink some good coffee. We could find good coffee. We could find a lot of pastry, but not the taste we were looking for. So, the day after, we started touring the city to taste all kind of food! At the end of these two days, while looking at the Golden Gate, we were like, okay, we’ve eaten from all these bakeries in the city and no one is doing what we would like to do. There was an opportunity and so it was like, okay, let’s go!
You both did research and tasting, but what was the preparation process?
J: When we came back from our honeymoon, I quit my job to dedicate myself to vive la tarte completely. It was a process of 8 months, and 3 months here on location. We did a few different things, which was, first the VISA and other administrative stuff (legal set up, creating the entity)… and you have to do those things right. I also went to speak to potential clients to see what they liked, what they needed, what was missing. I also went to a number of potential suppliers to see what they could provide us. The most important aspect was product development. We had a number of recipes at home that we tested in Belgium. The challenge was testing out those recipes here with local ingredients and have it taste like home.
A: I think that when you start a business, there are two ways to do it. You can start to analyze everything and honestly, you don’t have the time for that. I think people ask too many questions. If you feel like something is a good idea and a few important facts to confirm that, then at the moment you have to go for it. And that is exactly what we did. Julie quit her job; she took this recipe book from her aunt, and started to do the recipes with a baker friend of ours.
Can you describe the vive la tarte business model?
A: So the idea with vive la tarte is to start with traditional recipes and reinterpret them in the present. We call this concept— contemporary home-style baking. It’s home-style because it’s coming from the family and handcrafted… contemporary because we’re playing with current flavors and our pies have a minimalistic look.
From a business model perspective, the first priority was to have stable revenues, because when we came here, we sold every thing we had. All our belongings have been invested into our business, there are no banks behind us. So in order to make sure we didn’t burn all the cash after 6 months we needed to have a stable revenue base. The approach was to start wholesale: hotels and restaurants, and of course see if any of these guys were interested. Next to this wholesale model, we are definitely interested in retail model. Right now, since we don’t have a retail spot, we deliver at home or people can meet us at the Upper Haight Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays. The next step is to find a great place where we can open a retail spot.
J: One thing to add, vive la tarte is a home-style bakery, but also we call it a virtuous food circle. We source our ingredients locally, sell locally, and whatever we don’t sell we give to a local food bank.
A: …which is part of our mission. Something to add, in the corporate world, there is a corporate social responsibility department that’s being paid to do campaigns to show their 1% of doing good. Julie and I were a bit sick of this type of attitude and wanted to have a real positive impact. Today we are small but we are already bringing a few pies a week to the San Francisco food bank.
How did you take advantage of the Twitter business model for your business?
A: One of the constraints was that we couldn’t really invest in a full-fledged e-commerce website. When you look at social media today, these are fantastic tools you can use in many ways. Although Twitter is primarily a conversation tool, through conversation, it can be used for many things such as transaction. Through Twitter’s direct messaging, you don’t need to show everyone what’s doing on with your order. I mean of course, I’d like to have your phone number so I can actually call you one day, but Twitter is a nice way to communicate. We’re trying to use what’s at hand, but sometimes when you are stuck in your ways, you don’t want to look at the solution. But when you step back you realize, you can do this and you can do that. We are using Twitter to take orders and then have them delivered to your home or pick them up at the farmer’s market. Even at the farmer’s market itself, we don’t want people to stand in line, so maybe with Twitter they can tweet their order before and we can prepare the order for them.
Has the feedback with ordering through Twitter been positive? Are people using this tool successfully?
J: It’s a process. Without a retail location, people need to just get used to it… once they use it, they’ll really like it, and start using it more. It’s more a step to get them to that point.
A: I think our generation is really cool and most orders we get are from our people age. I realize that a lot of people who have families or who have a few kids like to email. Then there’s another generation who’s more into phone calls. Every segment has it’s own approach, so we want to keep options open. But I would say the whole Twitter aspect is amazing, and I think that is why we think Twitter chose us for their commercial.
Who are your clients?
J: From a wholesale perspective, we work primarily with hotels and restaurants in the city. We also cater start-ups, with our breakfast, brunch and lunch offering including breakfast quiches, organic fruit yogurts, organic fruit salads… We also like to contribute to events for a few organizations like the fundraiser at the firehouse…
A: A fundraiser for aids LifeCycle, which is coming up…
Just back tracking a bit, how did you come back to creating name—vive la tarte?
J: Oh, good question!
A: I’ve been helping people selecting brand names for a while and my advice is to just make a list with a hundred names. Of course you’ve got to come up with some cool names. Then you just start crossing and then you come to about 10. So once you have a short list, test it out. People we surveyed said vive la tarte was great. We like “vive la tarte” for different reasons. Even if it’s in French, it has the same structure as, “Viva Las Vegas” … and positive aspect of saying, “Long live the pie!”
J: It’s a celebration!
A: We want people to not just celebrate on their birthday or on their wedding day… we want people to celebrate every day!
What kind of people did you meet along the way?
A: We’ve meet so many great people and they just want to help you… bakers with 30-40 years of experience, who like our product and say they want to help with material and advice.
J: Even friends in high-tech companies, who are like, “Oh you need help with your website?” because we’ve been struggling with some coding. What makes or break a business is the people. Being around good people is really important, be it your team, your employees, your friends, any stakeholders, your suppliers…
A: Friends and family are been key.
J: Suppliers are really important. We’ve worked with suppliers with great product but the attitude was wrong or the connection wasn’t there. We just stopped because it doesn’t make sense.
A: That’s the thing with having your own business— you can make your own decisions. It’s also stressful, because you have to make decision every day (what you want to do, who you want to work with). You’re not at the mercy of anything.
You touched based with the people you met along the way who jumped in to help, did that play a part of developing your brand identity?
J: It’s funny because, brand identity was that most interesting yet challenging to get to a point where we placed the visuals to match what we felt inside for the business.
A: We had so many ideas about what we wanted to incorporate in the brand, but at the end of the day, even if we have 10 dimensions (young, organic, this and that), you have to choose 1 or 2 that really drive your business. Our business is about simplicity, essential flavors and subtle textures, using organic ingredients. We just want to buy organic because it tastes much better and makes sense in the whole virtuous cycle. The other challenge was finding a medium between contemporary and the past together. We have a brand that is almost a reinterpretation of vintage. For example, we like to bring our products in crates…
J: Like the milkman
A: It’s also about the people you work with, the clients you want to support, the suppliers you work with… it’s complicated…
J: Since the start we wanted something simple, but nice and looking vintage. Certain color schemes we liked, something you can find in food but still contemporary… a little flashy but not too dark. So we picked orange. First we came up with a logo, then reiterated it what we didn’t like and then again from the reactions from our clients or people who see us.
A: I think what our current logo, vive la tarte, kind of vintage but very simple. Under vive la tarte, we have Golden Crust. Golden Crust is a reference to two things, first is our dough, which is almost a family secret. We take three days to prepare it. The second reference is the day we decided to start vive la tarte, we were in San Francisco looking at the Golden Gate as tourists. The round circle symbolizes the [virtuous food] cycle and the pie.
J: Round is round, it’s about bringing people together.
A: The color orange is energy and the whole celebration of vive la tarte. Finding the right orange was also an interesting process.
Did you develop the logo yourself?
A: We started working with people in Belgium, and futher worked on it here, by downloading fonts to Illustrator and playing with it.
So a lot of DIY projects it seems…
J: When starting a business, it’s really great to do it yourself. You learn how to do it and realize how long it takes to do it… realize what you do is really what you want. Rather than having someone else do it for you. With time of course, we would love to find people who can translate what we have in our minds for us. Though we didn’t have much luck in the process, I would definitely recommend working professional people when you have the budget for it.
A: When you do it yourself, you get to cover a lot of areas. When you sit at your desk in your corporate office, you’re just sending emails and attending meetings. When you launch a business you work on your logo, work on packaging, work on your delivery truck. Your fridge doesn’t work… you got to find the solution to that. You basically learn a lot and that’s really cool.
Just stepping back a bit, prior to launching, were you both social media savvy or has this been a learning curve as well?
J: Personally, a little bit. In Europe, Facebook is developed but not really Twitter. I had a Facebook account and I heard a lot about Twitter.
A: A: It’s definitely a learning curve. I was more on Facebook and less on Twitter. It has been a learning curve. We are trying to balance what you talk about. You can’t always just talk about your projects. You can connect with customers and share advice. But shouldn’t feel the pressure to tweet too much, because too much information can ruin it. Also, I just discovered Storify…
J: Storify is a platform that allows people to actually write a story to integrate tweets or Facebook or whatever to link to the subject you are writing on.
A: We like it a lot, though we just started.
You said you have your aunt’s recipe book, but what is really signature about Belgian style pies?
A: The Belgium cuisine is very much influenced by the French cuisine, definitely. The difference is that in Belgium we have more room to innovate. French food is more traditional, which is great. Belgium cuisine is high quality ingredients and in terms of style, it’s French with a touch of innovation. For example, adding the same recipe with another fruit…
J: Then there are some recipes that you can’t really explain, like some farmer came up with this idea, or produce that typically come from Belgium, such as Brussels sprouts.
A: Also the chocolate. This is the one ingredient we buy from Belgium. We have to, or otherwise, our great-grandfathers would turn themselves into their grave.
When and where was your first launch/sell?
J: It was in September to a local coffee shop in Berkeley and then one week later at the Clift hotel.
A: Our approach was very simple, we didn’t want to do a long speech because no time for that. We met and spoke about it for one minute, left the product and hoped that he called back.
J: We realized that executive chefs were the key decision makers and would really push for it. We were surprised by the quality of chefs we met and how receptive they were considering how small we are.
A: I think the chefs made us succeed, especially for the first few months. Thanks to these guys we got started… that they gave us a chance. They are still very important clients for us.
J: That was the break-through.
Has there been one particular savory and one sweet that been hot?
J: For the savory, I’d say the classical quiche Lorraine… and signature spinach goat cheese or spinach with blue cheese. On the sweet side, the sell-out is our San Francisco cheesecake. It’s our interpretation of New York cheesecake that is softer, lighter. The crust is made with a Belgian ginger and cinnamon biscuit. Also lemon meringue, everyone tells us that it has the perfect balance sweet and tartness.
A: That is what we strive for, the settle nuance that doesn’t just stop there…
Given all the feedback, cold calling, people you’ve met, has there been something that’s proven to be most challenging in developing and executing your business?
J: Challenges? Of course. Like I said before, people can make our break your business. There are some people you come across that are not always easy to work with. Be it your client or supplier. Also finding the right supplier or products. For example, farmers… they are really small but sometimes it’s challenging to connect with them individually.
A: You got to believe in your idea. You’re going to have fantastic days and some bad days. Maybe you lose a customer because the chef is gone, but the next day you have to go for it. You have to be strong.
What have been the rewards that make you think, okay, I’m going to sleep now and today was a good day?
J: There are things that make a good day. The most rewarding thing, though having great clients and having an order, but it’s when a client calls back and says they want to reorder because they like the product and enjoy working together. It’s a confirmation that we are doing something good. Also, when we are in the kitchen working together and come up with new ideas and it works well. Being in the kitchen, working together and having a good time. Even if I had to wake up 4-5am, I still had a great time.
A: We found some great people, they’re young, generally nice, efficient and cool… we’re stoked to be working with these guys!
Your operation is not just you two, you have a team of people who are working with you in your commercial kitchen?
A: We are moving to a kitchen in Lower Nob Hill [from Richmond] with a team of four. When you make 5 pies a day to 100 pies a day, you need to build a program that is efficient.
J: We were really surprised by the quality of people we were able to find [via SimplyHired and Craigslist]
What is the vision for vive la tarte in the future?
A: In the short-term, in the next year, we’d like to find the first retail spot. We are very picky about the spot… a place with outdoors. We want a space that is very minimalistic but still warm. Basically, a spot where people can have great breakfast and lunch that is healthy and tasty at the same time. Also, that people take the time not just grabbing something (though yes, there will be take-away). Eat sit down, have a chat, take your time…
J: The idea would be to still continue to do wholesale, as we evolve to retail. One of the retail spots can act like an atelier where it is an open space where people can sit with an open kitchen. We want people to see what goes on; it’s all transparent.
Any advice for people who want to start their own food business?
J: My advice, though we just started, haven’t done it for 20 years, don’t have the background… Be sure you have a product you are proud of, have a concept and a business model. Not just a product… have the whole set up, go for it, and fight!
A: Don’t be afraid to come out with a new product, I see a lot of people who have something but not confident to go all the way
to put a unique product out in the market. Don’t copy others.
Okay! Last words…
A: Go for it! Don’t ask so many questions. Only maybe 5% go and that is why they succeed. Also, some people have great ideas but just don’t do it.
J: Trust in what you believe! A lot of people will tell you not to do it, a lot of people will tell you how to do it, a lot of people will say “I’ll help”… just trust yourself! Don’t think others will do the work for you.
// photos courtesy of vive la tarte and by fareandsq //