Dough and daring decisions
The sausage roll. Cultural heritage and world-famous in the province of Brabant. Bart Houben of Houben Worstenbrood is on a mission to make this local delicacy known to all. And to make the most famous (and, of course, tastiest) sausage roll in the world. The first Houben sausage roll dates back to 1935. ‘Grandpa Willem’ sold them in his bakery shop. After Bart founded Houben Worstenbrood in 2013, it quickly became a household name. As a baker's son and Eindhoven native, Bart tells us what it takes to make the perfect sausage roll.
Tell me, should you put sauce on a sausage roll?
‘I take my sausage roll without sauce. A good sausage roll doesn't need it. You see people slather all sorts of things on top of them, but you’ll usually find they’re subpar supermarket sausage rolls. Ours are designed to be eaten without sauce.’
How did you get the idea to create a business around your family recipe?
'I used to work in marketing and concept development. For a while, I was involved in Eindhoven’s city marketing. In 2013, I went to an event in Amsterdam with a group of marketers. Our goal was to put Eindhoven on the map as the city of technology, design, and knowledge. I thought: we should bring something that represents Eindhoven. My father was still making sausage rolls, so I said: dad, can you make some sausage rolls? Because it would be nice to show them off in Amsterdam. He made some and I took them with me. And that's how it all started. Coincidentally, at that event, there was someone responsible for the development of Eindhoven Airport’s catering. He said: “We'd like to have those sausage rolls at Eindhoven Airport. Can you arrange that?” And so they became my first customer.
Then I wondered: what is a brand of quality sausage rolls? I soon found out that there wasn't one. There are brands known for one great product. Think of the Unox sausage, Beemster cheese, and the Van Dobben croquette. For sausage rolls, a comparable brand didn't exist, so that's what I wanted to create. At the end of 2013, I started a small bakery, with just one baker.'
Now you own a store on the Willemstraat. Are you still selling that same sausage roll?
'Yes. We also added a few special, tasty variations. For instance, a sausage roll with truffle, lamb, or asparagus. We recently developed one especially for athletes, with twenty grams of protein. And we only make sausage rolls. We do one thing and we do it very well. That’s very much the spirit of Eindhoven, too. ‘He who chooses gets chosen’ is the motto of the city. The moment you make bold choices yourself, you attract people and companies who consciously choose you. I thought that was a great principle. So when we started Houben Worstenbrood I said: we're making sausage rolls. Not hot dogs, not sandwiches. Only sausage rolls. Because then people will choose you for that, too. If anyone needs delicious and unique sausage rolls, they call me.’
Do you still make them yourself?
‘I help out during the vacations or when someone calls in sick. Sometimes I'm in the store at 4:30 to start everything up. But lately, that's been happening less and less often – and that's a good thing. I need to be here less and go out more. That way we can continue to grow and develop. In the past year, I've worked a lot in my business, rather than on my business. That was necessary to get everything back in order around here. Because during the crisis brought on by Covid, my company went bankrupt. I’ve been very open about that. Towards the people around me, and also in the press. I don’t have any secrets. I always say: you’re allowed to know everything there is to know about me.
When I started my business, I just wanted to make beautiful things. I wanted to create a fantastic product and open a lovely store at a prime location. I also think people are important. So I wanted to offer my employees a nice place to work, pay them well and contribute to society. For example, by giving vulnerable people who have a hard time finding work a chance to develop themselves with us. I wasn't trying to make as much money as possible. I also thought I had a good spread throughout my sales channels. We delivered to gas stations, festivals, events, restaurants, cafeterias, companies, you name it. But when Covid came along, many places closed and events were canceled. The opening of our store was supposed to be during the weekend of the lockdown. Instead of opening, we shut completely. Bankruptcy was inevitable. That decision was a hard one to make, but it made me stronger in the end. And in 2020 we were able to start again.'
Fortunately, the rolls are flying over the counter again. Why are sausage rolls so popular over here?
‘Because it originated in Brabant. It’s something that has been passed on from generation to generation. That's not the case in other regions. Actually, I don't know why they didn’t come up with it in North Holland, haha! It's also a treat you can enjoy at any time. On our boxes, it says “Houben Worstenbrood: Always Delicious”. The great thing about sausage rolls is that you can eat them for every meal. They’re a wonderful breakfast. And around eleven o'clock you might think it’s time for a cup of coffee and a sausage roll. For lunch, we’ve even incorporated sausage rolls into dishes. We have salads with a sausage roll and sausage rolls decked out with all kinds of toppings. Sausage rolls Deluxe, we call them. The rolls can also be served for dinner. There are many families who, if they don't feel like fussing, have soup with a sausage roll for dinner. And if you come home at night feeling tipsy, a sausage roll also really hits the spot.’
You sell a few culinary sausage rolls, right?
'True. I thought it would be fun to put together a so-called star box. It’s a box filled with sausage rolls 'with a Michelin star'. I approached several Michelin star chefs with that idea. We’ve already made a second version of the box, with sausage rolls made by the chefs at Pure C, De Lindehof, FG Restaurant, and De Treeswijkhoeve. They enjoyed working on the box and at it was cool for me to take a peek into their kitchen. The box also contains one of our sausage rolls, the vegan variety.’
Why is that one worthy of a star?
‘We’ve developed a product that is very close to the traditional one in terms of texture. Although it’s very much like an ordinary sausage roll, it has a distinctive taste. People come to the store especially for the vegan sausage roll. The product is just as special as the rest of the sausage rolls with a star. And I think it’s a statement. We should all eat a little less meat. As a society, we’re producing too much meat and it’s quite a burden on the environment. Another reason is that the box should contain something for everyone. We already had two sausage rolls with pork, one with lamb and one with chicken and lobster. As far as we’re concerned, a vegetarian sausage roll had to be added. Right now, very few people are vegan or vegetarian, but there is a growing number of flexitarians. People who don't renounce meat completely, but who consciously cut down on it. I think that’s a positive development. What's more, we continue to develop variations without meat or reduced meat.’
What kind of sausage roll is still on your to-make list?
‘A sweet variety. With apple inside, for example. I'd like to try that one day.’
The classic Houben sausage roll, what’s the recipe for it? Or is that a secret?
‘No, it's not a secret. Every baker has his way of baking and uses his own mix of spices in the mince. What’s important to me is that the mince is not too spiced. Spiced well, but not in an overpowering way. You want to be able to eat a sausage roll in the morning without being reminded of that nice sausage roll you had for breakfast all day. The dough-to-filling ratio also has to be right. Sometimes there’s way too much dough and a thin little sausage within, or almost no dough and an abundance of meat. The magic of our sausage roll is in its ratio.'
And what spices do you use?
'That, however, is a secret.'