They could just be gold sticks, the surprising Armenian cheese sticks that Che Chil is going to produce in Leeuwarden. Entrepreneur Ando Arakelov fell for it like a log and is convinced that he can conquer the European market with this promising new snack. For two years he has been working intensively on the basis of his company, now he is on the eve of production.
A few days before the first machines are installed, we walk through the production site on the Hemrik industrial estate in Leeuwarden. A lot of hard work has gone into making the building meet the requirements for hygiene and food safety. Entrepreneur Ando Arakelov (28) is not afraid to roll up his sleeves, but what is most striking is the energetic enthusiasm with which he talks about his company. This is a man who believes in his product, who is willing to take risks in order to achieve his ambitions, and who also eagerly learns from constructive criticism and advice.
'Already during my studies at the higher hotel school at NHL Stenden, I was doing business, but the food sector was new to me,' says Arakelov, who after a trip had the inspiration to start producing Armenian cheese sticks in the Netherlands. 'Originally I am from Armenia, but we have lived in the Netherlands since I was eight years old. It wasn't until 2016 that I visited my native country again for the first time, together with my brother. We tasted smoked cheese sticks there, really delicious with a beer. Once back home, I missed the tasty stems and thought: we have to introduce them here!'
Importing fell off as an option fairly quickly, because, according to Arakelov, the milk used in Armenia is not of consistent quality. 'My uncle set up the product in its current form in Armenia and it has been a great success, but we saw opportunities for improvement with cheese made from quality milk. With production in Leeuwarden - in conjunction with my uncle - we will work with supplies from Friesland Campina, a strong partner. They supply cheese that we are going to smoke in different varieties according to a tried and tested method. With Che Chil we offer surprising appetizers for the catering industry, but also an interesting product for cooks to vary with.'
He is brimming with ideas, daring to dream big and has been doing his homework thoroughly for two years to lay a solid foundation. Everyone I have let taste the sticks from Armenia is enthusiastic. During my research at catering establishments throughout the Netherlands, I really had to do my best to get professionals to also come up with points of criticism. Their comments led us to variants that differ in fat and salt content, so that there is something for every taste.
Especially the shape and texture of this smoked cheese are an experience, because you have to peel the stalks yourself. You pull strings off, so to speak, and people find that very fun to do.'
Learning and adjusting
Product and branding come first for Arakelov, but he deliberately looks at his business from a broad perspective. "The food market is pretty saturated; you can't just get in there, no matter how good your snack is. That's why I put a lot of energy into building a network, finding partners and honing my concept. You can only do an introduction well once and I am working towards that through a step-by-step plan, learning and adjusting as I go. Thanks to all the people around me who also believe in this product and are willing to help. That gives confidence in a bright future for Che Chil.
'Joep de Vries of NOM is one of the valuable people with whom I have had the opportunity to spar on a regular basis,' Arakelov continues. 'He has an enormous network and put me in touch with various parties - from the municipality of Leeuwarden to media company CMCG - who were able to help me on all sorts of fronts: from thorough market knowledge to branding and funding. This enabled me to keep improving my plans and eventually succeeded in borrowing the full start-up capital from Rabobank. It is nice to see the confidence of others confirmed by the bank. Moreover, we can now actually start production and realize the ambitions.'
He is eager. Had underestimated beforehand how much time goes into preparation, but is glad he didn't get too carried away. 'I'm still thinking big, but certainly the retail market is a challenge. The first entrance is in the hospitality industry and smaller specialty wholesalers. We are therefore also setting up an area above the factory hall for tastings, in which we will collaborate with Northern Dutch breweries. Che Chil is an experience, I experienced that in Armenia and we are going to release that here as well. I have the sobriety of a Frisian, but also the passion of a world citizen. I know it can be done'.
For now, Arakelov is keeping a cool head. His uncle is coming over from Armenia to help get production going, along with three experienced full-time workers from the food sector. 'We deliberately invested in machines that are easy to scale up in terms of production if the cheese sticks become a hype,' says the young entrepreneur, who has calculated all scenarios. 'The next few months are all about start-up and testing, then we can enter the market. The field is the very best learning experience. New challenges will undoubtedly come my way, but I am convinced that I will conquer the European market with Che Chil. And where better to do that than from the Netherlands, a cheese country par excellence!'
The Che Chil website is still being worked on in conjunction with CMCG, the agency that supports Arakelov in marketing because they also believe in the product. Keep an eye on the website or contact them by email for more information.