Five years of Founded: Catching up with Bojan Aleksander

We’re celebrating five years of Founded in Groningen! And as part of this five year milestone, we’re catching up with startups and entrepreneurs we’ve interviewed five years ago. This time, Bojan Aleksander shares his entrepreneurial journey from the Multiculinair food truck festival to Bar Smoke, surviving lockdowns and opening a brand new deli.

Back in 2017, we first sat down with Bojan to talk about Multiculinair, the food truck festival he started with a few friends in 2014. The festival became quite the success in both the Netherlands and Germany and they even worked together with award-winning culinary Guardian journalist Richard Johnson and the European Street Food Awards to find Dutch finalists for the finals in Berlin. A lot has changed though these past years and most people will know Bojan as the owner of Bar Smoke. Time to catch up!

What have you been up to these past years?

“After five years of Multiculinair, I felt like it was time to move on and try something new. Funny story actually, Rico Zwaving and I were doing a Burger Cook Off competition at a friend’s restaurant, just for fun. It was a big success and sold out in half an hour. So we joked around about opening a restaurant together.”

“The idea stuck and the more I thought about it, the more excited I became. Aside from organizing the festival, I also managed three food trucks and in the off-season, I worked as a DJ and did event management, things like that. I also worked as a bartender for years, so I thought: this a great way to combine all the different things I loved doing. A place where people can sit down for a good meal, enjoy a couple of cocktails and check out stand-up comedy, a cool band or dance the night away. About a week after the Burger Cook Off, the old Subsonic club became available, so I took the plunge and Bar Smoke was born.” 

And what are you doing now?

“We recently opened Smoke’s Deli Alley, which also started as a coincidence. We were looking to rent a seperate place for our delivery service and we found a really cool and cozy spot. It felt like a missed opportunity to just use it for our delivery service and not do something cool with it. Around the same time, we went to this deli in The Hague. Their pastrami sandwich was amazing and reminded me so much of my time in New York.”

“I’ve always toyed with the idea of one day opening a deli, but it’s very difficult and challenging to do it right. For something seemingly as simple as a pastrami sandwich, you have to brine a brisket for a full week and then smoke it for 5 hours. If the salt and spice ratios of the brine are even slightly off, you basically wasted an entire week’s worth of work. And you need a very consistent level of beef quality too, and it’s not that easy to find a butcher who can deliver that. But we thought: what the hell? If they can do it, maybe we can too.”

What are you most proud of?

“So many different things. The first time we sold out for dinner and everyone stuck around for a crowded night of cocktails and salsa music was a big highlight. But also our opening night, after months of renovating the place ourselves, working with friends, behind schedule and over budget. We were totally exhausted by the time we were finally able to open and there was a lot of pressure, but we did it. And I guess also being able to survive all those lockdowns and even being able to open up a whole new place is something we’re very proud of.”

How did you manage to keep your head above water?

“Not whining or complaining, but by focusing on the things you can do. You’re an entrepreneur, so it’s all about getting creative with the limited means you have, while trying to find new opportunities. There's a lockdown, we’re closed, it sucks, now let’s figure out the fastest and most effective way to switch to deliveries and take-out.” 

“We also noticed people were still signing up for our pub quiz about accidental internet celebrities, so we decided to host it virtually. It really exploded and something like 5.500 people signed up. We were like, oh shit! So now we had to figure out how to do that professionally and ended up with a production team of 10 people. We made enough to survive the first lockdown. And for the following lockdowns, we knew how to switch to delivery almost overnight and organized new things like culinary walks, which we rolled out as a concept in several cities.”

Ideally, what will the next five years be like?

“If all goes well, we’re going to open more delis in the Northern Netherlands and also in Northern Germany. Like I said, it’s very tough to maintain a consistent level of quality, but I think we’ve got most of the formula down now. We’ve found the right type of beef to work with and we came up with a way to easily calculate the best ratios for the brine. We’re still tweaking ways to make sure nothing is wasted and once we’ve perfected that, we’re good to go!” 

PHOTO CREDITS: Charlotte Huizinga