Thomas DeGeest is a storyteller at heart. Ask him how he came up with the idea for his incredibly successful Wafels & Dinges food truck, and he'll spin you a tale about a Belgian king who, dismayed to learn the way his beloved national dish was being served in America, (Frozen! Topped with fake syrup! Made out of pancake batter!) appointed a Belgian waffle envoy tasked with the duty of improving waffle quality in the United States.
It's not a true story, but it's a good one. And it's chock-full of the same kind of whimsy and creativity that have made the Wafels & Dinges brand a standout in the crowded NYC culinary scene.
"You can't be too serious when you sell waffles," he explains.
For an audience used to eating waffles for breakfast, the story also serves as an introduction to the concept of a waffle as a snack or a treat.
People don't eat waffles because they are hungry. They eat waffles because it's fun.
You can't be too serious when you sell waffles.
It's how DeGeest ate them growing up in Belgium, as a kind of anytime-snack served plain or with a simple dusting of powdered sugar. To capture New York's wide variety of palates, he added toppings, which range from the sweet and simple like chocolate and strawberries—to more elaborate savory offerings like pulled pork and chili con carne.
Those toppings, by the way, are the eponymous "dinges."
And what exactly is a "dinges?" "A 'dinges' can be whatever you want!" He says with a laugh. Pronounced "DING-iss," it's a Belgian stop word that can really mean just about anything. Essentially the equivalent of "whatchamacalit" or "whatshisname," DeGeest once used it reflexively while rattling off a list of potential topping offerings to a friend, who stopped him and pointed out that it could be perfect for the company name.
"It's become the perfect icebreaker. Everyday, people come and ask what it means."
There may not really be any kings involved, but the true behind-the-scenes story is also something of an entrepreneurial fairy tale.
An engineer by trade, DeGeest came to the US in 1997. He held a lucrative position as a management consultant with a major technology company for 10 years, when he realized he was craving something different.
"I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in an office making slide presentations," he says.
With his wife's blessing, he took a leave of absence and bought a 40-year-old truck, painted it yellow, and started selling Belgian waffles on the street.
DeGeest was still figuring things out at first. There were parking incidents and inconsistent selling days, but the food bloggers took note, and started writing about the mysterious, yellow waffle truck spotted around town.
Then the big guys found him. First the New York Post, followed by the local TV news. Suddenly he was getting calls from national talk shows and counting celebrities among his fans.
The first truck was replaced. "I still regret sending it to the junkyard," he says. Then a second was added, followed by carts, and then finally, brick-and-mortar locations that include permanent kiosks and tiny shops throughout the city.
"What we do really, really well is crank a lot of waffles out of a really small space."
It takes a lot to make those waffles happen, and the behind-the-scenes operation is fascinating. The special yeasted waffle dough and various toppings are prepared every day at his Brooklyn-based commissary, which he charmingly calls the "Royal Dinges Factory." The dough, loaded with large beads of Belgian pearl sugar that melt and caramelize when baked, is prepared in massive quantities and then frozen into small discs. These are then defrosted and proofed in the individual trucks just before baking.
"This is nothing like the kind of waffle you get in a diner," he is quick to note.
The commissary is also where his trucks and carts come back each night to be thoroughly washed and restocked. They all go back out at 6AM, setting up shop in prime locations like Central Park, Lincoln Center, Herald Square, and Brooklyn's Borough Hall.
DeGeest is proud that his bright yellow food trucks and carts have become nearly as recognizable as the iconic landmarks they inhabit.
"Being able to create all this...it's a great feeling," he says. "We created something that didn't exist before."
Wafels & Dinges was one of several food trucks that participated in Citi's Sweet Offers event, where Citi cardmembers received perks for using their Citi card at participating food trucks. To find the latest dining offers for cardmembers in your area, visit Citi Dining.