As a child living in Belgium, Joaness Christie loved waffles — the way they tasted, smelled, everything. When her family moved to the United States when she was in the fourth grade, Christie discovered a problem: the waffles weren't right
"I grew up on waffles," said Christie, 27, of Columbia. "Once we moved here, we'd go out to eat and I'd order Belgian waffles anytime I saw them on the menu. But it just wasn't the same. They weren't as sweet. It made me want to bring the real deal over here."
And so she has. Christie is president of La Pearl Waffles and has her own food truck. Last month she signed a contract with Howard Community College, and she and her truck are on campus Mondays through Thursdays, 8:30 to 10 p.m., and Fridays from 5-10 p.m., serving authentic Liege waffles, named for the Belgian city from where they originate.
La Peal Waffles got its start while Christie was a student at HCC in 2005, earning her the college's Center for Entrepreneurial and Business Excellence's Rocket Marketing Pitch Contest in 2006.
"That made me feel like, OK, I can make this happen," she said.
Christie received her associate's degree in general studies from HCC in 2007, then her bachelor's degree in social sciences from the University of Maryland, University College in 2011. She started to get more serious about her business three years ago, setting up tents at various festivals in Howard County. She bought her truck last fall and spent the winter serving waffles in the parking lot of the Exxon gas station at the corner of Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway in Columbia.
Currently, the food truck is only at HCC, but Christie, who has a full-time job during the day as a receptionist, plans to be at Turf Valley's Preakness Celebration, the Monarch Mills food truck meet-up and the Columbia Festival of the Arts.
The biggest hurdle, Christie said, was the waffle recipe itself. She tried making the Belgian waffles at home, but ran into the same problem as the restaurants: they "just weren't the same," she said. So, she did her research and found a company in Belgium that would export the frozen dough to the United States.
"Now, I'm able to provide the true, authentic, Liege waffle from Belgium," she said.
The biggest difference between a regular waffle and a Liege waffle is the sweetness, Christie said. Sugar crystals already are in the dough, so the customer doesn't have to put a topping on the waffle to sweeten it. But Christie still sells various toppings, like fruit, ice cream, sugar and Nutella. And her customers love it.
"A waffle has to be crunchy, soft and sweet," said Chuck Baines, who works in the print shop at HCC and made his first trip to the La Pearl truck on April 19. "It just has to be delicious. This is delicious."
The day Baines had his first Belgian waffle experience, Christie had been on campus for less than a week. But there was a line of HCC students and staff waiting to order waffles nonetheless: $4 for a waffle and $1 for a topping.
"This is exciting," Christie said. "I've already had students bring back other students, and they're always excited to try something new. This is something different for Howard County since you don't see a lot of food trucks out here, and the authentic Belgian waffle is definitely something to experience."
Having a food truck on campus is great, said Cindy Garnsey, the school's director of office technology in the business and computer department.
"It's nice to have a city feel right here in Columbia," Garnsey said. "I hope she does well."
Betty Noble, director of HCC's Center for Entrepreneurial and Business Excellence, said students who start their business during their time with the one-on-one business mentoring program, as Christie did, have a 40 percent success rate. Even if students don't start a business, Noble said, they're still learning valuable skills they can take into the job market.
"Knowing that she was able to negotiate with HCC to get a contract, that shows her ability to work through business issues," Noble said. "It's not an easy thing."
Christie agreed. There have been difficult days, she said, but seeing customers enjoy her waffles keeps her going.
"There are days when customers come back and say these waffles are the best they've ever had," she said. "That's amazing. That makes it worth it — that, and the passion I have for getting people to try something new."