Interview Ruerd Akersloot / Coffee & Coconuts
"Don't copy/paste, but
create something of your own."
His dad ran the famous beach club Tijn Akersloot, and when he was ten, Ruerd began helping out in the kitchen, simply because he wanted to. He had found his métier, as not only did he end up taking over the business, but he also went on to start one of his own, turning the beautiful art deco building that formerly housed the Ceintuur Theatre into one of the city’s hotspots: Coffee & Coconuts. Ruerd’s just getting started; next location: Bali. "My desire is to convey my creative vision to a group of people I wouldn’t ordinarily have got the chance to meet."
Interview by Daphne van Langen / Translation by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Are you a born entrepreneur? My father ran a beach club, and as a kid I used to walk around trying to sell seashells to the customers. I also actually worked in the pavilion, and from quite a young age too, so I’ve been in this business since childhood. I don’t know if I'm a born entrepreneur or if my interest arose as a result of my childhood environment, but it suits me.
Where did you grow up and what were you like as a kid? I grew up in a family with four kids, of whom I was the second. We lived in Zandvoort, which in my opinion is the ugliest seaside town in the world. I was a caring kid, and a doer, so I’d often clean the house when I got home from school, or do the laundry to give my parents a break. I was also a bit wild, and had a fondness for pranks. I got a kick out of it, and considered it harmless fun. At least until I ended up in court for bicycle theft and for attempting to break into cars; I realized then that I needed to get off that path.
What did you want to become when you were a kid? A chef. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by food and started helping out in my dad’s beach club’s kitchen when I was ten; not because I had to, but because I really wanted to. Preparing a fish dish, for example, was a lot of fun.
What did you learn from your dad with respect to work ethic, ambition, making choices, etc.? That business is largely a matter of continuous hard work. And that being hands-on, especially in the early years of a business, is one of the biggest determinants of success. Plus you have to lead by example. You can’t expect your crew to give it their best if you sit down all day. I learned that hard work can yield a great deal of satisfaction and independence. The downside is that it can blind you to other things. My father was very focused and spent all of his time at the pavilion, which left none for family and friends, or even for himself.
“We wanted to shake things up, do things our way and learn from our own mistakes, but our hands were tied. My father was still very much a part of the business.”
Did you go to university? No, after secondary school, I went travelling for five years. Not continuously, but with breaks in-between, which I spent helping out at the beach. Then I worked as a flight attendant, which happened purely by serendipity. A girl walked into the pavilion one day to ask if she could borrow a bike to cycle to the nearby village so she could post her job application to KLM. “I bet they take you on,” I joked, to which she responded by daring me to apply as well. I flew long-distance for two years, and it was a lot of fun.
Did you inherit your love of travel from your parents? Not really. My mum’s not a fan of unfamiliar places; nor was she keen on the idea of the whole family on one plane, so we never took long trips together. I did, however, spend a month in Bali with my dad when I was nine. That was when kids were still allowed to take unscheduled time off school. It was also long before Bali became a tourist hotspot. It made a huge impression on me, and I returned to Indonesia every year from the age of fifteen. I now have a wide circle of local and expat friends over there, and if all goes well, we’ll be opening our first international restaurant business in March 2018.
About that, you took over your dad’s business — Tijn Akersloot — in 2004. Why? My father was getting old and had lost a bit of his magic touch. The nearby beach, Bloemendaal, was becoming popular, and my dad was losing more and more customers. I felt it was my responsibility to address this. At about this time, a friend of mine, Jasper van het Nederend, joined the business. He’d had a successful career in the corporate world but had become disenchanted with it: the money, the suit, the car. I got him drunk one evening and suggested we take over the pavilion, which we did, although it wasn’t smooth sailing. My dad wanted us to take over but once we did, skeletons came tumbling out of the closet. For instance, we decided to add an outdoor kitchen but he was against it. We wanted to shake things up, do things our way and learn from our own mistakes, but our hands were tied. My father was still very much a part of the business. It became quite frustrating, and tempers sometimes ran high. As people often counsel: don’t go into business with your family. It was only when my dad stepped out completely that we had the space to do our own thing, and our relationship recovered.
What long-lasting lessons did you learn from running Tijn Akersloot? That you have to treat your staff like family, because everything depends on them. I also learned lots of practical things, like how to install sewage pipes and sort out electrical problems. You become quite good with your hands when you run a beach club because things malfunction all the time. Regarding business matters, I learned that you sometimes need to take big risks.
Can you give an example? Tijn Akersloot was highly popular and successful, but we couldn’t make it profitable moneywise. Costs were sky-high, you had assets earning nothing for half of the year, and it cost a lot of money to build and dismantle the place each year. So we decided to turn it into a permanent pavilion, which involved taking a huge financially irresponsible risk, as we had to borrow the entire amount of our starting capital. But something had to be done, and expansion seemed the only option. The risk paid off big time, because our revenues went up after that.
You sold Tijn Akersloot nonetheless, in 2014, after ten years. Why? The balance between effort and outcome became lopsided once we’d turned the pavilion into a permanent fixture on the beach. I lost 10 kilos each summer because we had to do everything ourselves. That included doubling as a wedding planner, for instance, and discussing flowers and doves with couples-to-be; or hitting the road in the middle of the night whenever the fire alarm went off. We worked 80 hours a week, purely on operations, which left no time at all for us to think about our mission; we basically stopped developing. The sale took a year. We had to keep a lid on it to avoid panicking the staff.
“After we sold Tijn, I wanted to take a one- or two-year break from the industry; and, in any case, Jasper wasn’t in the mood to start something new.”
How did your dad take this? It was a done deal by the time I told my dad, and it came as a shock. The handover was on September 1, 2014, and on August 31, my son, Che, was born. He was born with a kidney condition that made the organ discharge toxins into his bloodstream. His condition is now stable, thankfully, but that first year was quite intense, and we spent more of it in the hospital than at home. The experience put things in perspective and made it possible bury the hatchet with my dad. We never mentioned the sale again after that.
In December 2014, you opened Coffee & Coconuts, your current eatery, in the beautiful art deco building that formerly housed the Ceintuur Theatre. How did this come about? To be honest, after we sold Tijn, I wanted to take a one- or two-year break from the industry; and, in any case, Jasper wasn’t in the mood to start something new. But Bas Beijer, a young guy who’d worked with us for five years at the beach was ready to start something himself, and he piqued our interest when he stumbled on the vacant building. It was filthy when we saw it, but its potential couldn’t have been more evident. The idea of starting something from scratch and building a brand without any baggage was quite appealing. As was the idea of having the freedom to roll out a brand in multiple locations.
What sort of place did you want Coffee & Coconuts to be? I wanted it to be the venue for a community built on the idea of adding something meaningful to people’s lives. We put together a group of people we wanted to work with, and it included local bakers and brewers, as well as suppliers and staff members.
My inspiration was this absolutely enchanting short film I saw on YouTube by the photographer and illustrator Todd Selby, in which two friends ran a taco bar called Rockaway Taco, which, despite its small size, was actually a world-famous multimillion-dollar company staffed entirely by mums and oddballs. They worked 7 months each year and spent the rest of the year surfing and skating.
Starting a business from scratch can be nerve-racking. Did you have any sleepless nights None. I never have sleepless nights, because, in my experience, the worst ideas come at night. My only concern was the license, which was still pending on opening day. We had no Plan B, and had already started hiring. Our landlord was aware of the situation, so we took a calculated risk, but we would have been in deep shit if the licence hadn’t come through.
When did you start to feel you might have a hit on your hands? Not on Day 1. We had a soft opening, partly because of the license issue. I didn’t even know what bloggers were at the time, and we opened without a press release. Ten people turned up on the first day, but people were queuing by the second week, and suddenly we were “the next new thing from New York”. It was crazy.
“I didn’t even know what bloggers were at the time, and we opened Coffee & Coconuts without a press release.”
People describe Coffee & Coconuts as the “ultimate hipster hangout”. They do, but what does that even mean? I still don’t understand the scorn and envy. What difference does it make if some guys wear a man bun? I was shocked to read that the owner of Cereal Killers, a breakfast and brunch place in London got severely beaten up by anti-gentrification protesters who thought its presence would push rents up. Complete bullshit; that’s just what happens as a city develops.
Who’s your target audience? It’s quite mixed: early breakfasters, tourists, and yes, hipsters, too. We’ve had a lot of support from people on Instagram, as well as bloggers and influencers. People sometimes order food just so they can take pictures of it, which to me suggests we’ve got all the important things covered. We also do shared tables, which allows people to have the most wonderful encounters. I get messages almost every month from people saying things like: “We’re hanging out in Milan with people we met at Coffee & Coconuts.” That’s just so cool!
How do you find running a business with friends? I’ve been working with Jasper for 17 years and we’ve never had a single disagreement; we seem to complement each other perfectly. Our relationship with Bas started as that of employer-employee, but he too is now a partner. It took me a while to get used to that, but that's one of my shortcomings. He’s also a lot younger than me: I’m 40, he’s 32. Jasper and I take a vacation together each year. We also take short ski breaks with Bas. This is important; otherwise we’d only ever talk about work.
Who does what? Bas takes care of the day-to-day business. I’m responsible for the menu, the broad outlines and expansion of our concept and Jasper covers financial matters — he’s our brain.
Jasper’s definitely got the sharpest business mind of the three of us, although he does analyse things to bits. It sometimes takes a while to convince him of the merit of certain ideas. For example, the profit margin on some of the things I’d like to offer might be narrow, but I still want to offer them anyway because they reflect the spirit of Coffee & Coconuts so perfectly. I’m very inquisitive and enterprising. My problem is that I’m sometimes too ambitious, and prone to taking risks a bit too quickly, but that hasn’t harmed us so far.
Besides each other, to whom do you turn for advice, support or inspiration? I talk to my girlfriend if I’m not sure of something. I don’t really talk to anyone else about these things, but then I don’t really have to, as I’m rarely uncertain about things. David Chang is one of the few that I look up to. He’s something of a hero to a lot of chefs. I’m not keen on people as brands, but he’s done a brilliant job of putting himself on the map. He even has his own NIKE collection!
“I made myself believe I was irreplaceable, which became quite addictive as you can always find reasons to be at work, particularly in this business.”
The initial thrill of setting something up eventually fades. Once it does, what makes going to work each day a joy? I feel completely at home at Coffee & Coconuts. So much so that I almost wish it weren’t always so full. Which is why I welcome those hot days when everyone leaves for the beach; I have the place to myself! I also love going to work because I work with friends, and there’s always something to do. It's quite a demanding business this, and not just because of the menu but also on account of its maintenance. I work around 30 to 40 hours a week, but never in the evenings. I just don’t want to do that anymore.
What’s been the biggest challenge? When we ran Tijn, my challenge was balancing my work with my private life. I made myself believe I was irreplaceable, which became quite addictive as you can always find reasons to be at work, particularly in this business: a dishwasher is broken; a large group coming in for dinner; or someone’s ill, so you need to fill in. I did that for ten years, right up until the tipping point. By that point I was used to getting invitations from friends saying things like: “I’m inviting you to my birthday bash but I know you won’t come.” Nowadays my biggest challenge is to keep innovating. I think about this a lot with respect to the menu and the individual dishes. It's fun to yank a dish from the menu once it’s become popular and everyone’s begun copying it.
Running your own company offers the sort of freedom denied those with regular jobs. But how much freedom do you really have in practice, and is it enough for you? I have more than enough freedom, both psychologically and literally. During that first year after we had Che and had to spend all that at the hospital, I often wondered how people with regular jobs coped in such situations. I think the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a salaried worker is similar to the difference between owning your home and renting. On the one hand, renting is nice, because if the rain gutter shears off, you simply call the landlord to get it fixed. Similarly, if you’ve got a regular job, you just call in sick if you don’t feel well. Being self-employed is challenging: can you really earn your own keep, and cover all your own health insurance and pension payments? But, if you can, what you build is really for you and you alone, and that's its satisfaction.
If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you’d do differently? I’d use different materials for Coffee & Coconuts’s interior decor. For instance, we had our bar built from wood, against my better judgement; wood, of course, shows its marks. If we had to do it again, I’d choose natural stone. But that’s about it. Any other changes, I’ll make at the new place.
You’ve got plans for expansion? We’re currently working on a new shop in Bali, and we’ve got our eye on Berlin and Santiago de Chile. These will be joint ventures, not franchises. They don’t have to be carbon copies of the flagship branch, so long as they embody the same values: superb food and drink, relaxed vibe and interior, and a down-to-earth relationship with staff and suppliers.
What advice would you give someone considering self-employment in the hospitality industry? Don’t look at what others are doing. Amsterdam is full of copy-pasted ideas. Someone sets up a poke bowl joint, and before you know it we’re buried in poke bowl joints; meanwhile the dish really belongs in Hawaii. I think it's very important to have a personal reason for each dish on the menu. Trust your intuition, and you’ll be fine. I really believe that. Unless you’re poorly located. Location, Location, Location ...
“I want people around the world to have memorable experiences in the things I set up.”
And what advice would you give yourself? I often tell myself I don’t have the time or energy to learn new things, but that's not true; I could easily make the time. My girlfriend is quite adventurous in that respect. She paints, practises yoga, studied psychology. If she wants to build a website, she buys a book and learns how to do so. I tend to rely on what I already know, and I’d like to change that.
Many people are motivated to start a business because of an ideal. Perhaps to leave something meaningful behind, or set up something good for the environment or society. Does this apply to Coffee & Coconuts and to you personally? I want people around the world to have memorable experiences in the things I set up. I’m really looking forward to talking to the guys in Indonesia about why we do or don’t do certain things. Then I’ll have accomplished what I set out to achieve: conveying a creative vision to a group of people I wouldn’t ordinarily have got the chance to meet.
Finally, do you think you might one day emigrate to one of the countries where you plan to open new branches? I used to entertain the idea, but not anymore, because Che is so fond of his cousins, and I think he’d miss the rest of the family very much if we moved. We’d still like to go travelling before he starts school. Perhaps a road trip through Australia in a camper. We’re expecting our second child shortly, and we’re also moving to Aerdenhout this autumn. I don’t see the city becoming a nicer place to live and I’d like my kids to grow up near the sea. Back to flip-flops and clean air.