Like many before her, Hilde Lavrijssen was introduced to the humble Kiwi meat pie during a stint in New Zealand.
A marketer for the European HQ of the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board during the 1990s, she was invited to Auckland in 1996 to work on developing the Zespri brand. Over those three months she got to know Ponsonby Pies "pretty well" and squeezed in a month-long tour of the country before returning to Europe.
Fast forward to late 2012, when the company she was working for went bankrupt. Lavrijssen realised it was the ideal opportunity to put the plan she had been mulling over for 15 years into action - namely, to start a shop selling New Zealand food, including pies. She started concocting a business plan in April last year and opened Choice Pies in November. And so far, it's going smashingly.
"My gut feeling told me the pies would be a major hit with Belgian consumers, but of course I did market research (questionnaires, sampling actual pies with the various target groups) to back this up. As the pies are a foreign concept here in Belgium, I have started with well-known Flemish classic flavours for the fillings," she explains.
Two months on, she says, locals who've tasted Choice pies have become instant fans. Antwerp is flooded with Dutch tourists on weekends, which helps business at the store.
"The difficulty lies in getting people to taste the pies. We do daily tastings outside the store with the appetiser pies and this really works to get people into the store. Word of mouth is slowly picking up, and we are starting to get orders in from local businesses for lunch."
Choice pies are served with a salad or soup (of which she makes two every day) and the dessert menu includes lemon tarts, cheesecake and hokey-pokey ice cream.
Along with the core business of food, Choice also sells design-oriented items like books and souvenirs. She says these act as a teaser to get customers in the door. There isn't a big margin as she buys them from importers in Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK. "The ideal scenario is that I come to NZ to buy interesting products and fill up a container - but this requires necessary cash flow."
Lavrijssen hopes to start a franchise for Choice New Zealand, if she can find like-minded passionate people, or perhaps even similar Choice franchises for other nations (eg Choice Argentina). Selling overseas isn't on the cards for now due to logistics - though an ex-Zespri colleague in Vancouver informs her that her Kiwi bosses dearly miss their pie fix over there.
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