The smile beaming across Beatríz Fernández’s face seems impossibly bright as she welcomes a handful of family and friends into her latest brainchild, a breezily modern eatery in the Rosales neighborhood of Colombia’s capital. Her expression is no simple nicety, however. The co-creator of Crepes & Waffles, an international franchise and one of Colombia’s most successful companies, exudes nothing but joyous enthusiasm for her deeply personal business as she prepares to open a new restaurant focusing on the raw elements that turned a small family crepe shop into a gastronomic powerhouse.
“The new concept is artisan, a return to our roots,” said Fernández of the Crepes & Waffles Arte-Sano restaurant opening in the heart of Bogotá’s Zona G. The name, a play on the words “artesano” (artisan), “arte” (art) and “sano” (healthy), refers both to a more rustic flavor and a focus on the aesthetic and nutritional aspects of dining.
The new location boasts a bold design by prominent Bogotá architect Guillermo Fischer, with floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding diners on all sides, and dark wood and concrete lending the chic dining room a modern but earthy feeling. Fernández suggests that the open, warm space reflects gradual changes in the company’s philosophy and is a physical representation of her ideology and personality.
Original recipes, exclusively served at the Arte-Sano location, also pay homage to the restaurant’s foundations, particularly a new crepe recipe straight from Montreal, where the journey began. The new offerings also use little or no sauces and include generous portions of vegetables and exotic flavors from tamarind chutney to olive tapenade. The chain’s famous ice cream makes an appearance as well, albeit with some new twists such as a focus on gourmet popsicles. Indeed, the opening of Crepes & Waffles in the Zona G – the G refers to gastronomy, as the swanky district houses some of the nation’s most notable restaurants run by internationally renowned chefs – signifies an arrival of sorts for the franchise. But moving in alongside icons of haute cuisine could hardly be further removed from the restaurant’s humble origins just a few blocks northwest.
“When we started, we were just a hole in the wall serving food on plastic plates,” remembers Fernández of the first restaurant near the corner of Calle 85 and Carrera 11, which opened in 1980. “But it was more than the idea of starting a large business. When we create something with love, it just flows.”
The idea for the restaurant arose while Fernández and her husband and business partner, Eduardo Macía, were studying abroad in Montreal and Switzerland respectively. Fascinated by crepe culture, the two decided to bring the French treat back to Bogotá.
While not a trained chef, Fernández gathered some business acumen from her father, an importer of liquors and other goods. Her father played a key role in starting the business, having asked Fernández to return home from Canada so that he could spend more time with her, and later helping her choose the location for the first restaurant.
“I didn’t know anything about cooking. I loved to eat, but I had no idea what I was doing in the kitchen,” said Fernández, who found some of her first recipes in an English cookbook and based some of the crepe fillings on meals prepared by Eduardo’s mother.
Despite a lack of experience, the young restaurant seemed to stumble upwards, finding fortunate surprises around every corner. “For me, Crepes & Waffles is an example of maintaining our feet solidly on the ground, while always looking up,” noted Fernández of her unique business philosophy combining big ideas with a steadfast emphasis on staying true to moral ideals and working out of love.
Thirty-three years later, that philosophy is as alive as ever and literally shines through the businesswoman as she discusses the franchise as if it were her child, an extension of her being. Fernández considers love central to her business success and strives to never lose emotional touch with the people surrounding her. The approach comes naturally to her, although her somewhat non-traditional managerial style did face challenges at the start.
“I read that leaders could not show emotions. They should never cry when things go badly or smile when things go well. So I put on my mask. That only lasted for about a week, though, because I just can’t hide my emotions,” explained Fernández. Since then, the entire marketing and business phenomenon that is Crepes & Waffles can be summed up in one word, according to Fernández: “love.”
The entrepreneur doesn’t hesitate to admit that basing an entire business strategy on love “sounds ridiculous,” but her company’s actions consistently back up her words. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Crepes & Waffles is a profound dedication to social responsibility. The international chain hires exclusively female heads of household as cooks and waitresses and helps them with living conditions and health plans in addition to providing a livable wage. About 3,200 Colombian women work in 126 Crepes & Waffles restaurants around the country.
All of the ingredients used are also produced under the strictest possible standards, preferably from small farmers using organic or environmentally responsible techniques. Much of the lettuce used, for example, comes from Silvia de Lievano, a small farmer who was left to take care of a plot of land when her husband died. Crepes & Waffles helped her turn the land into a massive farm growing internationally certified organic lettuce. “She [de Lievano] told me, ‘Thanks to you, I have all of this and I learned this philosophy from you, this spirit of happiness that is incredible,’” said Fernández of the role her restaurants played in helping lift a small farmer up to become a successful small businesswoman.
Stories like de Lievano’s are not uncommon, given the Crepes & Waffles emphasis on building up underdogs. Nonetheless, Fernández remains humble and realistic in regards to her role as a force of change in Colombia, despite her company’s dedication to improving the socio-economic situations of its citizens. “Colombia’s future depends on what one believes, tolerates and accepts, and I just focus on doing what I can do,” she said. “If we don’t change the small things that are part of a bigger picture, then we will never solve our problems. The future of Colombia and anything else depends on the individual.”
Of course, Crepes & Waffles has already changed, directly or indirectly, the socio-economic situations of thousands of individuals, but their contributions to Colombian society stretch far beyond the social arena. By offering new and often foreign flavors to segments of the population otherwise unable to experience a gourmet meal, Crepes helped to democratize gastronomy in Colombia, a significant achievement furthered by opening a reasonably priced alternative in the often expensive Zona G.
“People from all areas and social strata could enjoy the same plate and the same glass of wine,” points out Fernández of her restaurants’ contributions to Colombian food culture. “It was gastronomy with exotic flavors, but accessible to everyone.”
No empty words, Crepes & Waffles restaurants are unequivocally accessible and welcoming, traits reflective of the company’s friendly and down-to-earth co-creator. From opening up new food experiences to building local agriculture and improving the lives of thousands of women and their families, Fernández and Macía’s restaurants have enjoyed so much more than financial success.
But the businesswoman takes it all in stride, giving thanks for the opportunity to make even the smallest of differences in the lives of those around her. “We never imagined this success,” she said. “I never would have dreamed that our small seed would grow to change the stories of so many in this country.”