When New York street favorite Wafels & Dinges opened its first shop on 2nd Street and Avenue B a couple weeks ago, it marked the end of a six-year detour for founder Thomas DeGeest, who had initially wanted a storefront for his Belgian “wafels” and variety of “dinges” (Flemish slang for “whatchamacallit,” and DeGeest’s word for toppings). Instead, in 2007, he made an impulse buy–a 1968 Chevy truck with a food vending permit–intending to “figure out the market” first.
In hindsight, DeGeest told Untapped, it was a “tremendous success.” The rusty Chevy allowed Wafels & Dinges to form emotional connections with its customers that couldn’t be inspired by a permanent store. The detour paved the way to Wafels & Dinges’ city-wide popularity, even if it came with a steep learning curve. DeGeest’s Chevy broke down so often that he resorted to towing it behind his car with a rope. He wasn’t at it long before he was hit with a ticket for illegal towing.
“It was a crazy time,” DeGeest said. But the loss of the Chevy led to DeGeest acquiring a new truck, which rapidly turned into two, plus another five carts as Wafels & Dinges acquired a strong fan base. (Food trucks and carts, according to DeGeest, operate under the same permits). With expansion, DeGeest learned both the written–demands from the city–and unwritten–etiquette among food trucks–rules of the street.
Street vending in New York is an increasingly uncertain task thanks to strict laws on parking and permits. This March, the city council passed a law that prohibits vending within taxi stands, forcing Wafels & Dinges to leave its well-known spot at Columbus Circle. Another waffle cart took the opportunity to set up shop there before the law went into effect a couple of weeks ago.
The truck serves two types of wafels: the fluffy Brussels wafel, and denser, butterier liege wafel (above).
By the time DeGeest returned to plans for a storefront in January 2012, Wafels & Dinges had won the 2009 Vendy Award for Best Dessert. Ironically, this success was somewhat of a roadblock in establishing the store. Customers had high expectations of the food and atmosphere the trucks created, and Wafels & Dinges needed to translate the trucks’ spontaneity and fun into a stationary location.
“What does Wafels & Dinges mean in modern language?” DeGeest asked himself. “We had to develop a whole new language, architecture, a whole new menu that would meet [customers’] expectations. It took a lot of work.”
It looks like the work was worth it, as the new shop bears many reminders of its mobile roots while standing as a unique space in its own right. DeGeest’s first parking ticket is framed on the wall, along with pictures of the trucks at various milestones. The bright yellow and white space is decorated with vintage waffle irons and pictures of the cycling team it sponsors, both nods to its Belgian heritage.
Many food-trucks-turned-stores face a choice in establishing their primary identities. For the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop–which now has two locations in lower Manhattan–the focus seems to be the store as its the truck is on hiatus this summer. Wafels & Dinges doesn’t want to make that choice.
“I like to think of Wafels & Dinges as a place where you go to have awesome freshly baked waffles… It’s authentic, it’s craftsmanship, it’s fun,” DeGeest said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a store or a truck.”
Still, a permanent space has its benefits, allowing DeGeest to get creative. The shop offers additional menu items not found on the trucks, like espresso, milkshakes, ice cream and packaged cookies and spreads. There’s also an expanded line of savory wafels. One highlight is the Oh Oh Serrano, a fluffy Brussels wafel with Serrano ham, melted gruyere, arugula, red onion and fig jam. Others include the Wake Up Grumpy, a wafel-biscuit with bacon, egg and cheese; a bacon and syrup wafel; and a classic lox wafel. Whereas wafels are seen mainly as snacks in Belgium, in New York, they’ve become breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between.
The sit-down location serves an expanded menu of savory items like the Oh Oh Serrano wafel.
DeGeest understandably hesitated in choosing his favorite menu item, but settled on the Spekuloos Split: spekuloos ice cream, crumbled spekuloos cookie and caramelized banana, all topped with whipped cream. Or you could stick with the basics and have a wafel topped with powdered sugar. It’s the tried and true combo that turned wafels into New York street food–and now, restaurant fare as well.
Get in touch with the author @catku.