Affogato is not on the menu at Broer Bretel, but you can still have one there. Just tell the barista that’s what you want. Then exit the shop, walk three doors to the left—to Cremerie Germaine—and buy your favorite flavor of gelato in a cup. Retrace your steps, place the acquisition on the bar, and watch as the cold mounds get baptized by a shot (or two) of espresso.
So it went one afternoon late in 2016, although the practice—customers bringing in goods purchased at point A to enhance their consumption experience at point B—is not unique to the Antwerp cafe that Toon Craen and his brother opened six years ago in February. This cross-fertilization economy—probably most often taking the form of a bagged lunch being unpacked at a watering hole—can be observed across Belgium’s largest city. (As Bert van Wassenhove, owner of the outside-sandwich-welcoming Caffènation Amsterdam, once told Sprudge: “When we go to our pubs in Antwerp and they don’t serve food, we are going to grab pizza from the neighbors and have it with our beers—that’s no problem.”)
The spirit of helping out a friend—or a friendly business—seems inevitable at Broer Bretel: Broer is Flemish for “brother,” and bretel means “suspenders.” It's an accessory that Craen’s grandfather always wore, and it was he who coupled the two words when speaking to Craen and his three brothers.
“When it was our birthday, we would pass by [our grandfather’s]. He would take [his suspenders] off and give them to us,” Craen explains. The transfer of the straps signified that “then we were the broer bretel, which means the ‘brother suspenders'—the king of the day.”
But neither the happy-to-fraternize gelateria Cremerie Germaine, nor a lot of other local businesses, existed when Broer Bretel set up shop in the northern port-surrounded neighborhood known as “the little island,” Het Eilandje.
“There was nothing. It was kind of a shabby place,” recalls Craen. That nothingness inspired his older brother, who back then would pass through the area on a daily commute to the train station. So firstborn said to the second: “Hey, brother, we should start a coffee business because there’s not enough coffee businesses in Antwerp.”
Although guest micro-roasters do make cameos at Broer Bretel, it is the ever-reliable output of Antwerp’s Caffènation that gives raison d’être to the two-group La Marzocco Linea Classic, Marco Re-circulating font brewer, two Anfim Super Caimano grinders, and a Mazzer Robur grinder. Incidentally, Craen attended university near Caffènation’s cafe, drank his first espresso there, and was briefly an employee.
That the New York Times has recommended Broer Bretel—not once but twice—“was the ultimate compliment,” even though Craen says the publicity did not really attract new customers. That happened more organically, as shiny apartment buildings and chain restaurants began appearing (sometimes controversially) in the shadows of the nearby MAS and Red Star Line museums.
“I had to wait for like three years for a regular customer base,” he admits. “Now it feels like an established place. We have a nice mix of people, like firemen and policemen, and also a richer crowd,” Craen adds, referring to some of his boat-owning regulars who live part-time in the city.
Come who may, the secondhand furniture, retro wallpaper, tacked-up Polaroids, and shelves of multilingual books encourage visitors to linger. With his co-founder having moved to Australia, another brother doing graphic design, and the third still a student, Craen has for some time been running the bar solo. However, that will soon change: This spring, he and a chef friend will embark on a dining venture that will offer coffee, wine, homemade cold cuts, and cured meat all under one roof.
“He’s going to be in the kitchen and I’ll just be making the coffee,” Craen says of the prospective business brotherhood. “It’s something we’re missing in Antwerp, I think—you have restaurants, but none of them serve good coffee, and we have good coffee places, but none of them serves good food.”
Meanwhile, he plans to keep managing Broer Bretel—his “baby”—and to hire a replacement for everyday barista duties. That individual might someday become a kind of surrogate sibling and, by extension, king or queen of the cafe.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.