You come across them everywhere: Dutch entrepreneurs abroad. Why did they ever leave with the northern sun, and is the grass really that much greener across the street? This week: Edwin den Hartog, who opened a fries shop in the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai.
What is French fries? "No idea. Wait, I'll ask a colleague," says 39-year-old den Hartog on the phone. The entrepreneur pur sang opened his Royal Patat chip shop in mid-June in the largest city in China, Shanghai (26.3 million inhabitants). "And this is just the first one. I want to open many more."
Den Hartog has been in the land of the rising sun for fourteen years. He once started printing cans of Red Bull, later it became USB sticks and promotional gifts with a logo. And now a fries shop. "So much is happening there, it's a very inspiring market."
"The fries dropped like a soft balloon" Edwin den Hartog, owner of Royal Patat
On one of those inspiring business trips, he ordered a hamburger with a fries in a beautiful area. “It was very dirty fries. If you held one between your fingers, it would drop down like a soft balloon. "
Photo: Edwin den Hartog (right) with the chemistry student who became a fries baker.
Den Hartog discovered that the fries market in China is booming, but that they are all frozen fries. "So I wanted to sell fresh French fries. That idea got a bit out of hand."
Chemistry student who became a fries baker
He knew nothing about fries, let alone the potato. So Den Hartog went to "the best chip shop in Amsterdam". Behind the frying stand was a then 24-year-old fries baker and (still not graduated) chemistry student. "That boy knew everything about starch, sugar, fat. He can even tell by the sound during pre-frying that there is too much moisture in a potato."
Photo: The Royal Patat team.
Long story short: the fries baker and Den Hartog went to visit the former CEO of Aviko and made a detour through the ice-cold north of China to bake a fries for the country's biggest potato farmer. After a month-long search for the perfect location, the time had come.
"Even if you have clear agreements, something that you did not expect always happens" Edwin den Hartog, owner of Royal Patat
"People always think that you need a Chinese business partner to do business in China, but that is not the case at all," says Den Hartog. The big difference with doing business in the Netherlands is that he is constantly putting out fires. "You have to deal with problems creatively, because even if you have clear agreements, something that you did not expect always happens."
Such as potatoes that are not stored at the right temperature and therefore have become unusable. Or the boss of the building who seizes every opportunity to send a hefty bill and threatens to evict him otherwise. "In China you have to be able to cash in well. Your patience is put to the test every day."
Between the 'big boys'
Royal Patat sits at the exit of the metro, in the street with "big boys" Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Häagen-Dazs. "Around 700,000 thousand people walk by every day," according to Den Hartog. Of those passers-by, a few hundred ordered fries in the first month, which they were given in cones with pockets for three of the eighteen types of sauce.
"A fries with chocolate or strawberry sauce goes like a train" Edwin den Hartog, owner of Royal Patat
There is of course Joppie sauce and mayonnaise, but also homemade sauces with a Chinese twist, such as duck egg and spicy mango. "A fries chocolate sauce or strawberry sauce goes like a train. The Chinese are true sweet tooth." Also striking: how the Chinese pay. "Wait, I'll take a look at it today. Yes, but 5 percent have to pay with cash. Almost everyone uses Alipay or WeChat Pay."
How much money has Den Hartog actually put into the business? "A lot. A lot." He would prefer to live in Shanghai, but his girlfriend doesn't like that. He is working full time with Royal Patat and gets on the plane several times a month to the East - "Hopsa, sleeping pill in it, after two days you no longer notice that jet lag."
After the telephone call, Den Hartog sends another app: " Shu tiao ." French-style fries.