Taking over a company in the middle of a worldwide crisis: you have to be one hell of a daredevil to do that. While the number of bankruptcies has increased in recent months, due to the Pandemic, sisters Annabel and Liselotte van Kuijk took the plunge, quit their day-jobs and started their own business, together.
At the beginning of September 2020, the Kuijk sisters took over one of the leading companies in the Netherlands in the entertainment and hospitality business. Meisjes met Smaak (Dutch for “Girls with Taste”), known for their most famous concept: Oyster Girl, specializes in mobile culinary entertainment and brand activation in the food & beverage industry. According to the young female entrepreneurs, the crisis is the best time to look for opportunities. And so, they did.
“we can both have a completely different view on certain topics, but we trust each other’s judgement and I believe that precisely because of our differences, we complement each other perfectly.”
Two young, vibrant and energetic young ladies welcome me at the door of their corner offices in Amsterdam West. They took over the existing space from the previous owner, which now looks quite empty, as they had to let go of all of the staff.
Despite spending most of the time practically alone in their Amsterdam headquarters – which normally houses 10 office employees – the girls have still managed to produce a series of events during the month of September, as lockdown regulations slightly improved for a short period of time. Plus, they came up with a food-box delivery services as a way to start their re-branding and keep business flowing during these unsettling times.
It’s a ballsy move to take this step whilst in the midst of a worldwide Pandemic. However, Annabel and Liselotte are unapologetically passionate about their new acquired business. If necessary, they will hop into a car to host an event themselves. Annabel: “The last thing you want is to do is tell your customer you can’t do it.”
Although neither of the girls are real foodies – they don’t have an Instagram page full of well-dressed tables and perfectly photographed dishes – they both have a knack for good quality food and an unbreakable love for pasta. In addition to their love for Italian cuisine, the sisters share an undeniable passion for hospitality. After surviving the first three months in business, how are the girls hanging in there? how are they experiencing being (first time) business owners, and what are their plans for the future?
What prompted you to take over an events company in times of crisis?
Liselotte (24): I used to work for the company while I was still in college. In fact, I even wrote my final thesis about it. It’s very funny to read back by the way. I’ve always knew it was an amazing concept. To be able to take over the company one day had certainly crossed my mind, but that always seemed very far away. After I graduated, I started working as a real estate agent. The real-estate world may seem a lot different from the hospitality industry, but it actually has many similarities. I worked in the highest segment, which really is a totally different ballgame; the customer is always king – no matter how demanding.
It’s quite funny to think about how Annabel and I used to joke about how much fun it would be to start a business together. We had already discussed how our different qualities would complement each other if we were ever to run a company. Then, suddenly the opportunity arose to actually do it.
Annabel (30): Until recently, I worked as an employment agent in technical personnel. After working for an employer for a number of years, I ran my own employment agency. I learned an awful lot from that and wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. In fact, at the time I always had a helmet and construction boots in the back of my car. I did that for 2.5 years, but it became quite lonely. At some point, it was just no longer satisfying my needs. Luckily, my previous employer was happy to take me back. But then…well then we fell into a crisis. When Liselotte called me to tell me that she had heard via a former colleague that Roderick Kuijpers (the original founder and previous owner of Meisjes met Smaak) might – if there would be a suitable candidate – consider selling the company, I was beyond exited.”
What are you working on at the moment?
Liselotte: “We started in September, when it still seemed as if we were on the right path heading out of this Pandemic. Little did we know we’d go into a second lockdown a few weeks later. But September actually was an exceptionally good month where we ran almost 25 events.”
Annabel:” Events and trade fairs that usually hire us, such as TEFAF, PAN and other major events at the RAI (one of the biggest event spaces in Amsterdam), are now at a standstill. Which is why we focus more on private customers: small weddings, store openings etc. But to be honest, for now we just have to be creative. For example, we recently started to offer luxury food-boxes that we deliver at home. We have one with fresh oysters, a bottle of white wine, hams and cheese. You already have a box for 2 people for € 32.50. And we deliver them to people’s doorsteps ourselves! It is a good way to promote our business and to remain visible. And it’s working: We’ve been approached by quite a few large companies already who want to gift the box to their employees, instead of the usual Christmas dinner.”
Good to know: The boxes come with a special oyster knife. Tip; If you’ve never opened oysters before, check a YouTube tutorial beforehand to avoid losing a finger (or two)!
How did clients react to the acquire?
Annabel: “We have taken over the existing customer base and the responses are very positive. I do believe that it makes a difference that Liselotte has already worked for the company in the past. It seems as if that has created some form of loyalty from our clients and confidence on their side that our actual goal is to propel the concept; to move forward, and not to get rid of it.”
The “Oyster Girl” is by far your most famous concept. Tell us more!
Annabel: “What makes this concept unique is that the oysters are opened and served from a belt at the table: It is mobile, culinary entertainment. This original concept has evolved and now, we no longer only do this with just oysters: It can be used in several ways. Whether we serve sushi, oysters, champagne, or even crème brûlée, the idea remains the same.”
Liselotte: “Sure, things go wrong every once in a while, but our boys and girls are well trained. It has happened that girls drove two-and-a-half hours to an event on a Sunday afternoon and upon arrival realized they had forgotten the oysters. During moments like that, you have to improvise.
When thinking of new concepts, do you look at current trends?
Liselotte: “Definitely, we are working on different concepts related to sustainability and veganism. In fact, the Humus Girl already originated from this. This was done at an event outside of the city, where humus is not as ‘worn out’ yet as it is here in Amsterdam.”
Annabel: “In addition, we get all of our products from different supplier. For example, Peking Duck can be quite different in quality and taste, depending on where you buy it. We always aim for the best of the best. Therefore, we often arrange tastings with different suppliers, which is one of the best things about our job.”
“The advantage of working with family is that you quickly get to the core, you can just cut the bullshit of being overly polite and get straight to the point.”
The girls always look spot-on during events! Do you ever have to deal with sexism?
Liselotte: “It doesn’t happen often; people know what to expect from us. It sometimes happens that during an event, men, who’ve had a few to many drinks, make some obscene comments, which is one of the reasons why it is so important that our girls are intelligent. They have no trouble silencing them, without insulting them.“
Annabel: “Although we did have a phone call the other day from someone who wanted to hire us for a company-event, which at first sounded very interesting. Until the question was asked whether a number of girls could sit at the bar, in addition to the girls who served oysters ‘Just for show’. We have of course declined this request. We recruit hostesses, not sex symbols.”
What qualities do “Girls (or boys) with Taste” need?
Liselotte: “Important qualities are that they are spontaneous, open, witty, and they need to have a sharp tongue. Our clients book our girls for high-end events that they themselves have to go to there by car, so a certain degree of independence is also very important. In addition, we think it is super important that they have an affinity with hospitality and have an interest in food.“
Annabel: “Knowledge of products is really a must, and we always make sure to provide our hostesses with the right information upon events. These are all smart girls who are well educated. You can tell from how they present themselves that these are intelligent young women. We find this high standard important, because they are a representation of our company. And yes, we do have some boys in our team as well!”
What’s it like working with your sister?
Liselotte: “It’s a lot of fun! We did take a moment to sit around the table beforehand and discuss all the thing that could possibly go wrong, in addition to: What are the differences between us? What are we afraid of? And so on… We’ve given it quite a lot of thought. Of course, we can both have a completely different view on certain topics, but we trust each other’s judgement and I believe that precisely because of our differences, we complement each other perfectly.”
Annabel: “We also trust each other completely. We know each other’s and our own strengths and weaknesses. Communication and being able to admit when you were wrong about something, that is also crucial. In addition, the advantage of working with family is that you quickly get to the core; you can just cut the bullshit of being overly polite and get straight to the point.”
Is it a fact that work and private life are now intertwined?
Annabel: “I do notice that, now that we are already spending at least 40 hours a week together at the office, we are less likely to have dinner together three nights a week as well. It is like finding a new way of interacting with each other. Often when we walk out the door, the subject switches from business to leisure.”
What do you like most about your job?
Liselotte: “The connection with people is what I value most. Whether that is with our staff, suppliers, or other stakeholders. That personal touch, finding the best supplier and the perfect girl (or boy) for the job.”
Annabel: For me the best part of my job is being able to work towards something together. What does our client need and what role can we play in getting it done? Brainstorming with clients about all the possibilities and creating a concept that exactly matches their wishes. Setting up, planning and organizing, and making sure everything perfectly comes together, that truly does make me very happy.
How do you feel about the future?
Annabel: “We are more than ready to get back in business in 2021. Of course, we don’t know what the future will bring, but we certainly have faith that things will turn around for us after this crisis has passed. Nevertheless, I am very proud of how Liselotte and I embarked on this adventure together. We support each other unconditionally and lift each other up in challenging times like these.
Our ultimate goal for the future? Although we have worked on projects outside of the Netherlands in the past, our biggest dream is to do more on an international level and cross borders on a regular basis. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen next year, but it is certainly in our 5-year plan. It is an exciting goal to work towards.
Interested in ordering a food-box or just want to know more about the girls? Visit www.meisjesmetsmaak.nl.