During her studies, Belgian Laura Verhulst developed a strategic plan for a plant-based pie business. Not much later, she officially founded Madam Bakster (Bakster means female baker in Dutch) and then won an award for the best business concept during her master year. She decided to not finish her studies and, instead, to go full on for plant-based entrepreneurship. Now, we’re two years later. Laura is 23, and among other things, she has her own beautiful coffee shop in Ghent, the town where I live. Her pies have names like Heidi, Raymond and Naomi. I talked with Laura about how healthy and tasty desserts can help us forward, about having your own business, and about how to sell a vegan cappuccino to an unsuspecting customer.
Vegan Strategist: You’re obviously an ambitious person. What’s your main drive to do all this?
Laura Verhulst: For me personally, it all started with a passion for healthy eating. That’s the way I got in touch with the whole plant-based thing. When I founded Madam Bakster, I wasn’t a consistent vegetarian, much less a vegan. Initially, I used yogurt in my pies. Later, I decided they would not have any animal products at all. Part of the reason for this was very practical: I was making all these pies in my student dorm room, and wasn’t well-equipped in terms of food safety. Eggs posed the highest risk, so I left them out. But just as important for the decision to go all plant-based was that I would be able to cater to more people with food allergies.
Have your motivations changed or evolved since you started your business?
Definitely. Now, when I give public presentations I talk about health, sustainability and animals, and I give each topic the same attention. Three years ago, the animal argument was hardly on my radar at all, and I never would have thought that I’d ever be speaking about veganism and animal wellbeing. So, you can say that this topic kind of grew on me.
Your business is very mission driven, but you seem quite subtle in how you approach people with your message.
Yes. I definitely want to help create change, but I don’t like to push my opinions and ideas on others. That’s just not my way. Looking at my own process, I found it easier to be open to the topic of veganism because no one pushed it on me. I largely did my own research. I was present in online communities of people who ate more or less the same way, for different reasons. So, I investigated their motivations. I believe that when people make choices out of their own free will because they want to be informed, they will come to interesting insights. It’s like a diet: you need to want to do it, and you won’t keep it up if it’s forced on you. I apply the same approach with our coworkers: none of them are vegan right now, but we each take turns cooking lunch, and it’s vegetarian or vegan by default. I see people open up this way to have a good conversation, which is really great.
While your products are entirely vegan, you don’t use the word vegan in your communication?
That’s right. Our target audience is not vegans as such, but people who want to eat more healthily. So, we use terms like “plant-based” or “without animal products”. They speak to a larger audience. People are triggered by those words, open themselves up for information and take a look at the why and how. Most of my customers are health-oriented. The only cue we give is that our logo and our window say Madam Bakster: the guiltfree bakery. That’s ambiguous on purpose: it can be about health, but also about animal welfare. Our aim is to talk to as broad an audience as possible. Everyone should be able to enjoy the same pie, whatever their motivations or values.
If you’re so subtle, I assume quite a few people who enter the coffee shop may not be aware that everything is plant-based?
Right, many people don’t know. We’re in the historic city center, and there are a lot of tourists walking in. When they order a cappuccino, I won’t say it’s vegan, but I’ll tell them that we make our milk ourselves, and that they can choose between hazelnut milk, which is more creamy, and almond milk, which is more sweet.
Do you feel you can make people see plant-based as an enrichment rather than a limitation?
Sure! Having to avoid something can be very enriching. You need to use new ingredients, new techniques… and a whole new world opens. You’re not stuck to the classic repertoire of recipes. Many people are curious about new things. When I tell them about aquafaba, for instance, they think it’s fantastic!
I don’t focus on the fact that something is right or wrong. It’s very important to me that a person’s first contact with plant-based eating or veganism is positive. So, I will try to get people excited about the alternatives and their qualities. I say that nut milks, for instance, are awesome: tasty, healthy and easy to make yourself!
How vegan are you yourself?
I’m vegan at home. Outside the home, I may be flexible at times, but I’m always at least vegetarian. For my boyfriend, it’s different. He is in favor of 100% consistency and prefers to rebel against any social pressure. It’s not rare that nights among friends end in debates that are not entirely enjoyable [laughs]. I experience very often how non-vegans want to control the diet of a vegan. They will talk about the risk of protein deficiency, about how soy or almonds are not all that sustainable either, etc. I definitely experience less hostility when the argument is health rather than ethics. Also, me and my boyfriend initially didn’t use the word vegan for ourselves, but since we do, we get more criticism. It’s kind of more liberating not to use it.
Speaking of vegans, what do they think of your business?
Some think we’re just not explicit enough about veganism. Many of them also don’t care much for the health aspect of it. In fact, it seems that quite a few vegans actually are proud that they don’t care about their health and that health is not an argument for them. But at least we reach those vegans who do think health is important.
You also give a lot of public presentations. What do you talk about?
I talk about entrepreneurship and marketing, and tell them my story about how Madam Bakster came into existence. But the biggest part is about healthy baking. I tell people that I analysed and then replaced the four staples in desserts: sugar, flour, butter and eggs. Why do we use them? We can we use less of them? I show the alternatives and their benefits. People go home with a wealth of new information.
You have a cookbook, a tearoom, a catering business, and you give public talks. That’s not bad for a 23 year old. Any other ambitions?
I don’t necessarily want to limit myself to desserts. Maybe we’ll try to sell the nut milks that we make here commercially in stores. I also would like to make my business more inclusive and in the future employ people who are in any way challenged in the job market. Maybe, I’ll want to open other coffeeshops. I think I don’t want to do just Madam Bakster as brand. I’d also like to found a non-profit with the same vision. I’m very interested in initiatives that promote people actually getting together, offline. I think social media has become a kind of opinion industry where we constantly judge people for all sorts of things. And that’s just not conducive to a good conversation.
How viable is your business economically, with ingredients that are more expensive than average and you guys making your own milks and putting in a lot of manual labor?
It’s a challenge. But I’m an entrepreneur first, a baker second. I find entrepreneurship super exciting. Yes, we have some expensive source ingredients. And I do find it important to keep everything affordable. So, there’s a lot of fine tuning of recipes. The profit margin is not huge, and employees in Belgium are very expensive. Perseverance, I think, will be one of the keys to success, and flexibility to adapt to the market. I hope to some day be able to get the fruits of my labor and invest the money in other projects.
What would you recommend to starters?
Be rational: Test. Listen to customers and other people. Have a sound business plan. Check if there’s sufficient demand within your niche. Pay enough attention to a healthy financial bottom line, no matter how much of an idealist you are. Financial sustainability is important when you want to change things. Some people seem to think that when you try to do something with a good purpose, you shouldn’t make any money off it. I don’t think that’s a smart way of looking at things.
Another important thing is to never lose sight of your mission. The bigger a business gets, the further away the boss is from the base. I don’t ever want to lose touch with my initial motivations, with the essence. I really want to get out of bed every day and know why exactly I am doing this. Every week, I receive emails from people telling me I made a difference for them. That’s very gratifying.
Read more about why health arguments are important in my new book How to Create a Vegan World, now available worldwide on Amazon.