Johan Bülow dreamt of elevating liquorice to the level of a gourmet experience. The 30-year-old native of Svaneke, a town on the island of Bornholm, loved liquorice and was convinced that a whole new world of pleasure lay hidden inside the crude and fibrous liquorice root. Bülow wanted to see licorice incorporated into sweets, savoury dishes, baked goods, beer, etc.
The Local caught up with Bülow to discuss his interesting journey from cooking in his mother's kitchen to having a state of the art factory, from selling in a shop to exporting to 15 markets globally.
How did you come up with this idea?
My vision was to share the magical qualities of the mighty liquorice root and combine it with carefully selected ingredients to create this natural delight for everyone to indulge in. I had long wondered why no one else had yet become aware of the magical properties of the liquorice root. The reason became clear in 2007 when my girlfriend Sarah and I did a lot of online research, borrowed some space in my mother’s kitchen and threw ourselves into a number of experiments.
The taste of recipes proposed by online search engines had little to do with fine liquorice. We found interesting, expensive candy books from England, which were not successful either. We then made calls to all of the major manufacturers of liquorice and requested assistance but were turned down.
After facing several ups and downs over 14 months, we opened our shop to tourists in 2007. We have not looked back since then.
Lakrids by Johan Bülow offers a variety of liquorice-based products. Photo: Lakrids by Johan Bülow
What were the initial challenges? How did you overcome them?
Recipes for liquorice seem to be among the world’s best kept secrets. In the beginning, Sarah managed to get what appeared to be a recipe from a product manager but the proportions were not suitable for preparing it in a simple kitchen pot on a stove. We had worked for twelve hours every day for several months together.
At times, it was difficult to keep up the faith and positive spirit. We had to open our liquorice shop in time for the tourist season on Bornholm. The logo 'Lakrids by Johan Bülow', the bags and the description of the gourmet experience were all ready, but the liquorice was still far from ready to present to the public. Time was running out.
At one point, our faith in the magic of liquorice had faded so much that we began to cook traditional candy. Then my older brother talked sense into me. Further research led us to a liquorice factory in Sydney. The owner agreed to travel to Bornholm to serve as a mentor. He did his part but there were still more challenges. That's when Tage Kusk, who had worked with liquorice in the past and had heard about us, came into the picture. Tage is a master of ingredients, and his colleague Wolf Kusk is an expert in cooking techniques. For three weekends in a row, the four of us worked very hard. We finally succeeded with the first recipe, which was made with gluten-free rice flour. Shortly afterwards, three other varieties were ready: sweet liquorice, liquorice with ginger and liquorice with chilli.
The company now serves 15 markets globally. Photo: Lakrids by Johan Bülow
How has been the journey so far?
The journey has been hectic and full of fun and has brought a whole new level of knowledge every year. We are able to build on the foundation of previous years. We still make plenty of mistakes, but also learn from pushing the boundaries.
We had our first employees in the summer of 2008 and went from being a small, handmade production to a factory. In the fall of 2009, we went from one summer store to our first real retail store and expansion abroad. In 2011, we expanded the number of employees and went from serving two or three markets to 15. A new state of the art factory started in 2013. The first flagship store outside Denmark, in Oslo, Norway, was opened this autumn.
How has becoming an entrepreneur changed you, personally?
I believe in my intuition and gut feelings. Having a team of close to 100 people at the age of 30 means I have to take my work very seriously and lead from the front. Becoming a father in 2012 changed me equally.
Going into unknown territory blindfolded will always bring a lot of challenges but if the spirit is high and you aim to win, almost any challenge can be overcome. When you taste success and get a good response, you raise the bar and are willing to go the extra mile again.
Any other personal reflections and/ or message to budding entrepreneurs?
You face challenges with paperwork and administration, which limits your focus a lot. Many startups are seldom run by administrators, which was also the case with me. Having a good network to handle these things helped us not get in deep trouble with our work. Overcome challenges with hard work and a good network. Don't forget to ask for help.
Meet your customers and try to promote/sell your own products. Create something you love – it will make the journey much more fun. Have fun while you do it, hard work that is fun is easier as you push for the summit.