Waffle Cabin: The Best Waffles in America

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

When most people think of waffles, mediocre, soggy, batter-based pieces of cardboard like Eggos and IHOP come to mind. As a kid, I had all the household, toaster-made names. They were fine, as in filling, but with little desirable taste.

But in the mid 2000s, my family started skiing in Vermont, at Pico and Killington, the latter being one of the biggest mountains on the east coast. On our first trip to Pico, after a few runs down the mountain, I smelled something delicious emanating from a log cabin parched at the bottom of the trails, the size of a Cadillac Escalade. On the roof of the cabin, an unimposing sign read "Waffle Cabin." Like any kid, I made my way to the cabin as the delicious smell grew more intense and waited in line, for what would be a culinary-life-changing moment. When it was my turn, I walked up to the window and ordered a waffle, then took it over to a picnic table and sat down. I took a bite, and am pretty sure I said: This is fucking amazing. I was twelve. At that time, I didn't have a clue why these waffles were better. I just knew they were. I also wasn't sure why they were being served on a mountain in upstate Vermont. Yes, they were wonderful after taking a handful of runs down the mountain, but these would be delicious anywhere. With something this good, why weren't they being served in a shop on the streets of New York City, where they would surely do amazing, as similar specialty shops like Pommes Frites do. But as I would later learn, the ski resorts offered extremely desirable dynamics that many other areas do not. The mastermind behind these almost too good to be true creations is Peter Creyf, along with his business partner and former fiancee, Ingrid Heyrman. Living in Belgium, Creyf trained as a pilot but graduated two months after the first Gulf War, which he admits was "pretty bad timing." He then went into the computer business, which was one of his hobbies. In the meantime, Heyrman was working in data communications. Both had traveled to the US a few times because of their training, which "planted the seed" that made them want to return permanently. "We liked the United States [because] it was on a totally different level," Creyf told me. They realized in their thirties, "if we're not going to do it now, it's not going to happen." They talked more and more about moving, but there was one problem: they had no clue what they would do once they crossed the pond. Luckily, Creyf was incredibly open to anything; his stepfather had an idea. A pastry/chocolatier himself, Creyf's stepfather mentioned the waffle idea. "He got me into contact with somebody who knew somebody in the waffle business, and basically we got the ball rolling from there." "He got me into contact with somebody who knew somebody in the waffle business, and basically we got the ball rolling from there." This somebody, Leo Vermeulen, had been in the business for over thirty years, and mentored Creyf. On weekends, Leo would train him in making the dough (one of the reasons Creyf's waffles are better is because of the dough base, opposed to batter) in addition to giving him practical experience working in his retail stores. "He almost had the same setup [in Belgium] as we did, although not in ski resorts." After a substantial amount of mentoring, the pair moved to America. But before settling, they took a tour around the US, to figure out where to set up shop. After touring a handful of major metro areas, they landed in Boston, Massachusetts. The first two years were tough. "It basically didn't work at all," says Creyf. Sales were low and the numerous adjustments they tried to make didn't have as big an impact as they had hoped. Creyf attributes several reasons to the failure, primarily Boston being the wrong location, as well as targeting the incorrect demographic.

So they moved and tried their idea in different locations. Along the way, they saw that business was slowly improving. Similar to the process of creating their waffles, finding the location where they eventually settled, and remain today, was a process of trial and error. "[We] put it all together and figured out why it was not working. By figuring that out, we came up with the idea: What is the antithesis of all of this?" The answer is ski resorts, which Creyf says, were "a clear bull's-eye." After this realization, he refocused the business and zeroed in on the resorts. But if you are looking to copy Creyf, you're out of luck. "There are other locations in the United States that will go well and have the same dynamics," he says. As for what those dynamics are, he declined to elaborate. Equally as important as the location, especially in the food industry, is the product. There were a handful of considerations that Creyf took into account in order to be successful in America. "I learned the hard way the difference between products in Europe and products here in the United States. Your flour is different"� so many things are different so we had to reformulate the recipe." Even after Creyf finished training with Leo, he relentlessly perfected the product. He went (and continues) to go to great lengths to understand every intricacy of the waffle. With dough, he says, "You got to feel it. Dough is something you have to learn to work with really really well." And that is what he did. Creyf happily admits he became so obsessed by it that he was "pulling at it, sniffing it, doing everything possible" to continue iterating and perfecting the dough. He also studied the scientific properties of the dough. "Every little thing you change and you see [what] it does, and you learn from it." The process of refining the dough is never over. Even after Leo mentored him, it took Creyf over four years to get it to a place he was happy with. "If you change the sugar content in your dough, you"�re not only going to change the sweetness, but also, you're going to change the creme structure, you're going to change how the dough is going to bake, because it will get darker, quicker, so it's going to affect the color." He knows his stuff. The goal of this never-ending expedition is to create the best possible sugar waffle, and then make it even better. "I keep learning and I read about things. Sometimes I read something and it's like "Now it makes sense." This all contributes to Creyf's over all goal of perfecting the dynamics, a word applied to all aspects of the business, which encompasses every detail and variable playing off each other, until they seamlessly mesh. He will happily go on about the vast array of aspects and changes that can alter the minutest detail, for better or worse. For the actual ingredients in the waffles, Creyf will not disclose them. The only one he mentions, when asked if the majority of ingredients are household items, is pearl sugar, which Creyf imports. He says the pearl sugar has desirable qualities on a few levels. "The pearl sugar is a hard nib sugar that you put in the dough. It stays in the dough until you cook it and what happens is on the inside of the dough, it melts and it makes sweet pockets, so every bite is not exactly the same. One bite is a little bit sweeter and you have one bite which is a little bit less sweet." This creates a nice change in the journey of eating Creyf's waffles, unlike other one-note products. "That's one thing people don't understand when they're cooking or baking something," Creyf told me. "If you have something that's very uniform in taste [with] every bite, it's actually less pleasant than when you have something that has a little bit of change throughout." The other benefit of the pearl sugar is how it interacts with the waffle iron. "It will actually caramelize - which creates a really really nice aroma. But the other thing is that when sugar is white, it's very sweet, it has little flavor. When you caramelize it, and go too far into the caramelization process, it will actually turn black - and even bitter." So anywhere in between, "you are going from sweet to less sweet, and you bring in flavor. So caramel actually has flavor to it where white sugar does not." "It almost looks kind of plain. So when they come up to the cabin and ask "What is this?" I am very happy because I get to surprise somebody in a very nice way." As for the waffle irons, they aren't custom built, but they are from Europe. However, the specifics of the machine are still important. Waffle irons differ mostly by cavity (the shape and layout of the inside of the iron). "If my cavities in my waffle iron, what they call the honeycomb, are too wide, my dough on the inside won't be cooked enough. But if I have a waffle iron that is very thin, it's not going to be chewy on the inside, it's going to be all crisp." The important part is that the waffle iron works well with your specific base, that being dough or batter. But once you have the right iron, it is entirely dependent on the quality of the base. When asked if people have ever hated the waffles, Creyf politely responded "No." He said once in a while, people say they are too sweet, but "99.999% just love it." He also points out, which I can confirm, that most people don't expect the waffle to taste how it does. "It almost looks kind of plain. So when they come up to the cabin and ask -"What is this?" I am very happy because I get to surprise somebody in a very nice way." Creyf tells customers "It's not your typical waffle. It's a little sweet. It has a crunch to it, but it's chewy. And then they try it, and go like -"Whoaa!" And then Creyf politely doesn't tell them how he does it. But it is understandable and often desired to keep it a secret. As cool as it would be to know the ins and outs of Houdini's tricks, once you know, there isn't any fun in it. It also gets people to focus on enjoying the waffle opposed to worrying about extraneous details. And once people try the waffle, they are hooked. "When they come and ski, the waffles have become part of their ski experience," Creyf says. Once again, I can confirm that. As for the future of the business, Creyf has some plans. They recently announced that they are going into franchising and hired an executive to oversee the operation. Surprisingly, opening an online store and the expansion of the internet hasn't hampered or bolstered the retail business. Creyf says the online store is mostly for "people who really crave the waffles and would like to have them during June or whenever, because we are seasonal." The opportunity to buy their waffles online is really for return customers who can't wait for winter to have their waffles. As for opening in metro areas, such as the emerging food truck capital of NYC or others, Creyf is open to the idea, but cautious about dynamics. "You have to know which parts and locations in those metro areas to look for, or you might just end up face-planting yourself." But even with the opportunity for franchises, Creyf won't relinquish much control. Overseeing the entire operation and the internal dynamics are paramount to their success. With these new additions in the pipeline, the central operation might need to expand as well. Currently, the dough is made at their 9000 square foot kitchen in Rutland, Vermont, blast-freezed, then brought to the different cabins where they store it frozen. But in three to five years, with franchising running at full speed, they might need to expand even more. To put this in perspective, Creyf still recalls his humble beginnings. "I can still remember starting in my 1,000 square foot bakery"� I see where we are today; it does give a sense of pride and accomplishment"" although that doesn't stop me from being relentless - it gives me more fuel to make it even better." This type of dedication and sheer will leads you to believe that Creyf could be successful in any given trade. But lucky for us, and our stomachs, he chooses to perfect waffles. I asked Creyf if he had ever had a good batter-based waffle, opposed to the dough base he favors. His honest response was, "Yes, mine." But other than his own, "I'm sorry to say - no." Here's why: "The Belgian waffle" is a copy of a Brussels waffle," which is totally different from their signature waffle. "However the real Brussels waffle is made with yeast," which is what he uses when he makes them at a (lucky) friends party. "Yeast not only makes the dough rise, but it contributes in taste on different levels where there are bio-chemical reactions in the dough that result in a richness of taste that you cannot get any other way. And unfortunately, once you taste the real deal, any copy of the real deal that uses shortcuts for ease-of-use (such as using baking soda instead of yeast which is harder to control) ends up tasting just so-so at best." Creyf admits to being a tough critic, but it's easy to understand why. Think Larry King ordering the same breakfast every day for most of his life. Or having the best mozzarella in Italy. Or eating the best bagels or pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Once you have tasted or experienced it, what ever it may be, there's no going back. The majority of things in the world float in a sea of mediocrity. But when you find the products that are truly wonderful, they easily rise above. Go ahead and add the Waffle Cabin to the latter list. If Creyf's unparalleled knowledge of every aspect of baking doesn't do it, a bite of his waffles will.

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