She may have been on vacation, but Stine Aasland of Norway was at work.
Standing in front of the freezer case at a supermarket in the United States, she gasped at the sheer number of Eggo boxes lining the cold shelves. America, she realised, is a land of waffles.
That was good news for the Waffle Queen of Norway.
“I don’t want to talk bad about Eggos,” she said, referring to the ubiquitous frozen waffles. “But Nordic waffles have more flavour.”
Fast forward several years, and Aasland was once again at work, this time outdoors, under a tent in the parking lot of Mindekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church, in Minneapolis.
On this chilly Saturday morning, Aasland, now CEO and founder of Nordic Waffles, poured batter onto a massive lazy-Susan-style waffle-maker, fired by propane, that bakes seven waffles at once, each containing five heart-shaped pieces. She was there to preach to waffle eaters and their companions.
They didn’t need much convincing as they reached for Aasland’s waffle sandwiches: the thin specialty, almost like flatbread, folded over a variety of fillings, from lemon cream cheese and smoked salmon, to jam and cardamom-spiced sour cream.
At 34, she’s spent the past 13 years making waffles for a living. By her calculations, she’s prepared more than one million by her hands alone since she started producing waffles in Norway. And, yes, she still craves them.
Hers is a tale of perseverance and entrepreneurship that begins in Telemark, Norway, where she grew up. At 21 she bought into a gas station franchise, where she began to make and sell the Scandinavian staple. In Norway, gas stations sell fresh foods, so this was not as much of a stretch as, say, waffles prepared at a SuperAmerica station.
But first a few words on the importance of waffles for Scandinavians:
“In Norway, people eat waffles all the time. Not so much in the morning, but they eat them in between meals, as snacks,” said Aasland.
Norwegians eat the waffles cold, often packed into school lunchboxes or grabbed from a stand at a convenience store.
Aasland’s waffles were different from others, and customers noticed. She focused on premium ingredients: the best flour, milk and butter she could find. By the time she sold her gas station franchise at age 25, she was selling 25,000 waffles a year.
Then she did what any successful entrepreneur would do.
She started a waffle factory. “I knew I could do it,” she said with a grin. She expanded her waffle horizons and brought the snack to parks and amusement areas, to stores around her country, even to the top of mountains.
But after six years and 700 venues in Norway, she knew she wanted something more, something she couldn’t do in Norway, where she had been breaking waffle rules, to the consternation of traditionalists.
So she headed to the United States, to create a waffle empire, having spent multiple vacations in the country observing our food traditions.
“I came here to do it big. I left Norway because there are only 5.5 million people. For me, the United States is a big opportunity,” she said. “I want to be national. It’s fun to be one of the leaders with waffles. It’s good to have a dream.”
Aasland sold her shares of the Norwegian waffle company, rented out her flat and put her belongings in storage. Then, with two very full suitcases, she headed to the United States, travelling across the country alone, before landing at the Culinary Institute of Arts in California, where she discovered a universal truth.
“Every country has its own flavours,” she said. In the United States that meant cinnamon, cream cheese and bacon.
Eventually she ended up in Minneapolis. By chance, she drove past the bright blue Norway House in the city, and stopped by to say hello. That connection changed her life, as she was introduced to a network of like-minded supporters.
Soon after that, a stint at the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks provided the time for her to perfect and test her waffle batter and learn the lessons of US business. Once she found a packager who would work with fresh ingredients, she was set.
Today there are four in her company, which has two business strategies. One is to offer waffle “programmes” to coffeehouses, which are supplied with equipment and batter. The other focuses on making waffles at events, from graduation parties to weddings or fairs.
To clear up any confusion, Nordic waffles are not American waffles. Nor are they Belgian waffles.
The challenge, in fact, is to call it a waffle at all, given how thin it is. “It must be called a Nordic waffle,” Aasland said firmly. And it must be heart-shaped, as it is in all Scandinavian countries.
“I’m so impressed by America. They are so open to trying new things,” she said.
“In Norway, I was breaking the rules of tradition in two ways: a different batter and different toppings. People were very upset and sceptical.”
Today that has changed in Norway, where waffles now come with all sorts of toppings.
“I don’t like to take credit for it, but some people say it was me,” she said with a twinkle.
Aasland offers four recipes for Nordic waffles and 40 toppings in her cookbook, We Love Waffles, available through amazon.com. For information on the waffle company, see nordicwaffles.com. – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service
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