“Birdhouse gave me the drive and the confidence to really go further.
Kristl De Loose was working in her dream job as a consultant, until sudden deafness turned her life upside down. She could no longer perform her job and was forced to push her career in a new direction. The enterprising Kristl did not leave it at that and looked for inspiration in Italy. She found it in the fresh pasta. She decided to produce the delicacy in Belgium with the help of custom company Aarova. Pastati was born!
On the day we interviewed Kristl, Belgium had just been in lockdown for a few days due to the Coronavirus. So we didn’t meet at her office in Melle, but via conference call. As with many entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry, Pastati’s work has been halted. “My production is entirely in the customised workshop(formerly beschutte werkplaats, nvdr.) and everyone is at home there. In addition, my customers, mainly the hospitality industry, are all closed down as well”, Kristl outlines. “I use this time to get the administration in order and to think about the future.”
Star chefs and the Red Devils
Pastati makes fresh pasta according to authentic Italian recipe. It is available in the CRU stores of Colruyt and can also be obtained via Voedselteams.be. However, the start-up mainly supplies the catering industry and caterers, including star chef Benoit Dewitte. Also, her pasta ended up on the Red Devils ‘ plate. How did that work out? “I just called them! I said: you eat a lot of pasta, so you should definitely try mine. Very simple really, the cold prospection of old.”
This is the way Kristl approaches her prospects and customers. “The hospitality industry employs people who are not yet in tune with the new era. They even fax! For many people, placing an order online is still a long way off. So I keep calling, faxing or dropping by. The latter still works best, because a cook is always at his stove.”
“I want to give people with a distance to the labour market a chance to work.”
The complete production of Pastati lies in the hands of the custom-made company Aaroova in Oudenaarde. A dedicated team, led by two chefs, makes fresh ravioli and other pastas here, using a four pasta machine. “I want to give people with a disadvantage on the labour market a chance to work. It makes me happy to see the employees shining with pride, in their flower-filled aprons.”
Kristl first encountered the social economy in the 1990s. At the time, she was working as an office manager at Interlabor(now Randstad) and came across a vacancy for a general manager at a custom-made company. She applied immediately. “Someone from the Board of Directors told me at the time that it wasn’t worth doing any more, because all the men with serious experience had applied. They shouldn’t have told me that, because I became a director there anyway!”
For twelve years she then managed over 300 employees, who produced for customers such as Banksys and Colruyt. As the job became more and more technical, Kristl decided to become self-employed as a consultant and coach. She remained active in the social economy. “I got a lot of energy out of supporting and resilient people. As a consultant I gave management support and worked on reorganisations. That was a really cool job that I wanted to do until the end of days.”
Then disaster struck. Kristl was 53 when she suddenly went deaf one dark day. The medical world still knows little about the condition. “My right ear is still ten percent functional. With a hearing aid, I can still understand something.” She was forced to quit her job. What followed was a turbulent period. “The guidance I had given to others for years, I now had to apply to myself,” Kristl explains.
To find peace and inspiration she moved to Piedmont in Italy. “I wanted to do something with social economy, but I didn’t know what. Then at the local market I saw the fresh pasta stalls and thought: that’s it!” The idea proved to be a lifesaver for Kristl, and she flew right into it. “I took training courses with Italian companies, restaurants and grannies to learn all about the business and the product. Then I bought machines and chefs from Italy flew over to Belgium to get everything going.”
Meanwhile, production at the custom company is running at full capacity, allowing Kristl to focus on operational matters and new product development. For example, she’s working on making fillings for her raviolis with surplus food. This is still done on a small scale. “I prefer to buy my ingredients from small farmers, growers and cultivators in Flanders to keep the link with the short chain.”
Refuel confidence at Birdhouse
In 2019, Pastati landed in Birdhouse’s accelerator program. “That was a very instructive period for me. Before I joined Birdhouse I was working my ass off, but kept making losses. It made me doubt myself. During the accelerator program, it became clear that I needed to turn more volume. That’s where most food companies get stuck. In addition, Birdhouse helped me strengthen my foundation, both financially and in marketing.”
Kristl also learned to maintain her focus at Birdhouse. “I have thousands of ideas, but what it comes down to is focus. First you have to make sure that everything is in order before you bet on five horses at once. For example, I once drove 30 kilometres by car to pick up two kilos of mushrooms from a farmer. I thought I was saving 20 euros. But in the end, of course, it cost a lot more than that. That’s a mistake I see many young entrepreneurs make.
“Birdhouse has given me renewed enthusiasm and confidence to really move forward.”
Kristl looks back with satisfaction: “Birdhouse has given me the desire and the confidence to really go on. That’s really something that I think: wow, I’m glad I did that. The doubt is completely removed.” Now she is getting further guidance from Birdhouse Services. “They help me analyze my numbers monthly and adjust budgets. That’s not where my talent lies, but is obviously very important.”
Through Birdhouse Services, Pastati recently took out a win-win loan of 50,000 euros to scale up. In addition, talks are currently underway with investors. In addition to finding and maintaining financial balance, the challenge for Pastati lies primarily in the product area. “I want a fresh, non-pasteurised product with a shelf life demanded by the market. But then as a clean label, without added preservatives. In consultation with the chefs, I will continue to develop this.”
In addition to the commercial assistant she just hired, Kristl hopes to hire an operations person soon. She is also developing an innovative pasta. A hint? “It will be a pasta without flour, which actually doesn’t exist in fresh form yet. It will not be a wheat pasta. We want to market it in Belgium first, and then in the rest of the Benelux as well. We are now working mainly from the Ghent area, but we would soon like to have a presence outside of that as well!”