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150 Years of Stroopwafels

Can you imagine starting a business today that is being run by your great-great-great grandchild 150+ years from now?

Ever tried a stroopwafel?

(If you haven't tried stroopwafels you really need to - delightfully simple, with two thin wafers made from baked dough that are placed together with some caramel-cinnamon syrup in the middle. Quite a treat!)

But back to my are 150-year-old businesses and stroopwafels connected? On a recent trip to The Netherlands my family and I had the pleasure of meeting Mike from the Van Den Berg Stroopwafel Bakery in Gouda, Netherlands. Mike is the sixth-generation owner of a bakery business that was founded in the 1860s. He told us he has 55 employees (40 full-time) and still operates from a single location in Gouda. His bakery makes 20,000 - 25,000 waffles per day. And he still finds time to do a few workshops each day, where visitors learn a little history about the craft and get to make their own stroopwafels.

That history, by the way, includes stroopwafels originally being made from scraps of dough that were left over from the "real" bakery items. Apparently, the good stuff was sold to the wealthy at the front of the store, while the scraps were turned into stroopwafels and sold to the poor at the back of the store.

Mike is clearly very proud of his family's history ("we're bakers") and legacy. Willing to share his story with 30 or so strangers several times per day, he even showed us photos of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather - each working in the bakery - after the workshop ended.

As soon as Mike said, "sixth generation" (AKA G6) my mind immediately went to how many owners there must be (usually a lot by G6!) and how they've managed the succession process over the decades. Turns out number of owners is not an issue, as ownership has remained with those who are the bakers and work in the business. But that doesn't mean that succession has been easy. On the contrary, Mike readily shared some very familiar stories:

  • Mike's conflict with his father about business expansion...Mike's father wanted to stay local. Mike saw an opportunity to expand relationships and sales beyond Gouda, and he's done that. But initially there was a lot of resistance from his father, which lead to some temporary strains in their relationship.

  • Mike's conflict with his brother about working in the business...Mike's brother worked for two years at the bakery, and it did not go well, ultimately resulting in Mike's brother leaving the bakery. Personality differences are hard to avoid when you're together for 70-80 hours every week.

If you're a first-generation owner with siblings, or G2 or G3, you'll probably be very familiar with these issues. And in our experience things tend to get even more complicated as company stock is passed down to G4 and beyond.

One critical decision Mike made recently: the hiring of professional management, in the form of a CEO. Not bringing in someone to grow for the sake of growth but bringing in someone to handle day-to-day business. The CEO runs sales, manages vendors, and oversees employees. Mike and his father control the story, decide who they will do business with (or not), and do the baking ("we're bakers!").

It's important to know yourself and your talents and have the courage to let go of the parts of the business where someone else can be more effective.

I admire Mike's passion for his craft, devotion to his family legacy, eye for the future, and willingness to work through the issues that are inevitable in a family-owned business.

Nobody can be sure that the business they create will make it to G6. But by staying true to the business mission as you and your family work through inevitable bumps in the road, you can design something that is built to last.

Hey, who took the last stroopwafel?!


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