A Bio adventure
I recently sat down with the founders of The Barn, a bio food market in the vibrating heart of Brussels. Their main goal to have a direct impact on their immediate surroundings is a unique thing in today's World where mass production and never ending growth are the main goals.
How did you guys meet?
Quentin: We got to know each other at the age of 18 in Namur, a city in Wallonia. We were both in University and shared an apartment. That’s now 10 years ago. I got a degree in Law and additionally studied General Management. Julien studied International Politics, Relations, and Diplomacy. He even worked in Israel for a while.
After completing University, where did your paths take you?
Quentin: Julien had been working at Decathlon (a large France-based sporting goods store chain) and convinced me to join him there. We soon found ourselves each put in charge of starting up a brand new physical store. Our original plan was to work there for a while and both leave at the same time in order to start our own businesses, individually. However we ended up enjoying working there so much that we stayed much longer than expected. When we finally did take the leap in October 2016, we decided to go into the adventure together instead of each on our own. From there we set our goal on opening The Barn Bio Market in May 2017.
What experience did you gain from working at Decathlon?
Julien: We started out working at existing Decathlon locations in Flanders and Wallonia. Over time we both eventually worked our way up and into Managing Director roles. From there I was tasked with starting up a brand new Decathlon location in Ghent, and Quentin was asked to do the same in Evere just outside of Brussels. Each new store took around 6 months to get off the ground and running smoothly.
Quentin: I had to hire around 200 people for the new location in Evere. You can’t do that singlehandedly, so in order to fully build it out I had to put people around me whom I trusted could then turn around and help hire even more people. It was an exciting opportunity that I learned a lot from, and ended up helping us a lot when starting up The Barn.
How did you begin defining the concept that would become the The Barn Bio Market store?
Julien: We were very familiar with this part of Brussels and we’re both consumers of bio products here, so we had a basic understanding of what was already available and what was missing. We also knew we wanted to have a direct impact on our surrounding community.
Quentin: Julien and I also debated an online store, but decided that the physical store and real products you can hold and smell, plus interacting with the actual customers walking through the door, would give us far greater satisfaction.
Why did you choose Brussels?
Quentin: We recognized that the demand for bio products in Brussels was increasing but that the offer was not sufficient enough. We live in the neighborhood, so we also both wanted to influence our direct environment while ensuring a healthy work-life balance for ourselves. We now see this foundation of The Barn as a playground for many years to come, one where we can initiate projects, replace them, innovate, and continue to evolve. Having an impact on the World is crucial for us. When I look at the previous generation, I often feel like many people simply started a business just to have one. We don’t think like that, there has to be deeper reasoning behind it. We felt that way from the start. So every customer at The Barn feels like a little victory to us. We’re helping them with healthy food while also supporting local bio producers. This project changed our vision on the entire World, and through it we’ve met a lot of people who think and live in a similar way.
Brussels is a city most-known for politics, economy and business. How has an initiative like The Barn Bio Market been received?
Julien: The first day we had 500 customers and it’s grown ever since, confirming that there’s a demand for bio products. We focus on volume rather than margins, and our customers clearly notice our commitment to keep the quality of our products very high. Our prices are affordable so that everything is in reach, which ensures that we have quick rotation and optimal freshness. For example, our salads are harvested every morning and delivered direct to our store for sale the same day. Not tomorrow.
Quentin: Yes the salad producers are another bio startup located not far from here, two guys who also launched this year. It’s been great working with them and seeing their business also evolve.
Julien: We also help out social care organizations by giving them any food that is more than one day old. Food that cannot be donated goes onto our very own compost heap. The Barn compost heap is also accessible to everyone in the neighborhood — we have plastic containers that people can keep in their homes, fill up, and then bring to the compost heap once full. It’s very unique in a city the size of Brussels. Our staff includes a specialist who’s uniquely trained in composting and advises customers on how to handle and optimize it.
When you reflect on starting up The Barn Bio Market, what was one of its most positive impacts?Julien: For me it was important that the store’s interior and infrastructure was made out of recovered materials. All of the wood on the walls is reclaimed from houses, renovations or from other people we know who simply did not need it anymore. We removed nails, screws, paint and so on. The big table we’re using for our daily fresh bread was originally used by painters to stand on when painting houses. Our fruit and vegetable stands are all constructed from used pallets. We even created the large window in the roof so that daylight falling in would reduce our overall energy consumption. We went to the minimum in order to give the maximum feeling to our customers that we care about the Planet.
Quentin: Our customers and employees also expect that from us. Jerome, our compost specialist that I mentioned before, is also considering to create an educational wall that illustrates all of the things we do from an ecological standpoint and how we go about maximizing the quality of our products daily. I really enjoy the close collaboration we have with many of the producers of our products. Before we started we spent the day off-site with the entire staff, spending the morning with one of our farmers and the afternoon at Interbio, our main supplier of products. Everyone seemed to enjoy that day, as it showed us all firsthand how much care goes into producing the bio products that we sell. We’re now thinking of ways to bring that feeling closer to our customers as well.
How do you see the future?
Julien: Having an impact on our immediate environment stays the main focus. It’s still early to define exactly where we’re going but we certainly want to take this further and let it grow. Sustainability and quality products are extremely important. We are even considering converting a piece of farmer’s ground into bio farming ground in time, in order to produce more products ourselves.
Quentin: It’s difficult to say something about the future since we’re the kind of people who want to be sure that we make promises we can keep. We’re very careful in making predictions. We’ve bounced around a lot of ideas, from home delivery to letting our employees work at the farmers to experience firsthand what it’s like to clean the weeds between fruits and vegetables while sitting for hours on your knees. We have new ideas every week, so it will just be a matter of the right idea, right moment and right people all coming together at the same time.
Julien: Yes, there are more than enough growth opportunities and ideas for the near and far future. Our main focus right now is to make this store to a success. Fine-tuning the concept and continually evolving it. And, of course, enjoying the adventure we started.
Founders Quentin Labrique (L) and Julien De Brouwer (R)