Interview and Photos by Eric Rios
If you know about Pastéis De Natas, the popular pastry in Portugual, rejoice. If you don’t know about Pastéis De Natas, let me present to you Joey Bats Sweets. Joey does not consider himself a chef, more of an entrepreneur, but he speaks with the passion and knowledge of a chef. I sat down with the entrepreneur and heard the passion in voice as he spoke of his product and defined the Pastéis De Natas as “warm creme brûlée wrapped in a crispy croissant.” We spoke about how he started Joey Bats Sweets, how he markets the pastries, and where he plans on taking them.
Interview is below. Follow his Facebook page here to see events and latest news.
The Chef’s Connection: I saw your tent at San Gennaro in Little Italy. I was walking by near the entrance and the smell was catching people’s attention…
Joey Bats: We do that strategically. Knowing that there was only going to be about 10 feet of runway space for people to walk through I bought air movers, a blower that you use for drying floors and things like that because it pushes with direct force straight out. We have two ovens that aren’t filled constantly but there are tricks to get the smell out. So when you walk by you’ll think, “Whoa what is that?”
TCC: I saw people stopping and they would tell their friends, “We have to come back here for dessert.” I did that. I walked down the festival and then back and I didn’t even realize that you were selling Pastéis De Natas. I was just trying to find your tent and I was excited when I saw the Natas because my dad lived in Portugal for a short time and he always told me about Natas.
JB: So you’re already familiar with it.
TCC: I’m pretty familiar with them. I’ve been to Portugal once.
JB: And you probably went to Belem the original location.
TCC: Yep, Belem De Natas.
JB: I actually wanted to make a video to educate people on the differences. Because the tourism right now is booming in Portugal, a lot of people are coming by my booth and saying “oh Pastéis De Belem!” Which is great, it’s great for me because it’s a product that not a lot of people know of. Internationally it is well known. But here in New York and in the U.S. not so much. Unless it is in Portuguese communities.
So a couple times I just tell them, “actually its called Pastél De nata. Pastéis De Belem is just the first one.” But then I had a couple just say, “no no these are Pastéis De Belem.” I grew up and I’m 100% Portuguese and you probably know but Pastéis is just the plural of Pastél and Belem is just a place in Lisbon like Soho is a part of New York. Belem just happens to be a touristy area so everyone is guaranteed to see that long line by the Jeronimos Monastary. It’s kind of like the analogy I use is Lombardi’s pizza, it is the first pizza right? But it’s still pizza, it is just Lombardi’s is the first one. So it’s Pastél De nata, just Belem is the first one. Even some people in Lisbon call them Pastél De Belem and not Pastél De nata.
TCC: yeah it is just the name of the restaurant and not the name of the pastry.
JB: Exactly. It’s actually called Fabrica De Pastéis De Belem but people just shorten it to Pastéis De Belem.
TCC: That’s what I grew up hearing. I didn’t get to Portugal until two summers ago but all I heard was, “you gotta go to Pastéis De Belem.”
JB: Well for a lot of people they have never had anything like it. We have to give out a lot of samples. I call it customer acquisition. We cut up a Pastél into 8 pieces. So we offer it so they get to taste it. They taste the crisp and the cream. Usually that one little taste is all it takes. Then they think “What the hell did I just eat?” Some people say it reminds them of French toast because we sprinkle cinnamon and sugar.
It’s my belief that Americans love sweet, sugary things. So Despite the Pastél De nata not being super sweet, I always tell my mom put the sugar on and put the cinnamon on. If someone says, “oh I don’t want that”, then we will give them another one. But if we give it to someone with the cinnamon and sugar they will love it, I promise. The cinnamon is the most important. The cinnamon and custard marriage is where the smell comes from and a lot of the flavor comes from. That is why we serve them that way. Some Portuguese will come by and say, “You don’t need the cinnamon sugar.” I know that, but I believe the Americans will like it better like that. I’ve tested it. Just like I initially tested the name. We initially called it “egg tart” then “custard tart.” But no one really responded to that.
TCC: That is another thing I was going to ask you because I’ve tried explaining what a Pastél De nata is…because it looks like a tart but it’s not a tart.
JB: So the middle is an egg custard. But “egg custard” isn’t very sexy or seductive, especially for someone who has never had it before. And let’s say you don’t have a sample for them. That’s why I added to the marketing, to the banners I added a quote that says it’s basically a warm creme brûlée wrapped in a crispy croissant.
TCC: That’s a great way to word it.
JB: I’ve seen people walk by and they’ll stop and read it and say, “oh I gotta try this.” That quote is usually enough. The quote and samples. I give out samples at every event I do that’s Non-Portuguese.
TCC: That is key because I’ve tried explaining what they are and I never could. So I like that you put it as warm creme brûlée wrapped in a crispy croissant.
JB: A lot of people have said that is a really good Description. I only need the customer to try it. Once you try it, I know you’re in. I’ve never had anyone say they don’t like it. Literally never. It’s an addiction in Portugal, its nationally renowned, and world renowned for a reason. It’s a great pastry. I thought it was crazy that it wasn’t being served here in New York.
TCC: That leads into my next question, I mean America we’ll take good pastries from every where around the world… Why has this not caught on yet?
JB: Having grown up in a very tight knit Portuguese community, a small town in Western Massachusetts called Ludlow, we have like 25,000 people. 80% are Portuguese immigrants. 75% of those immigrants came from northern Portugal where my family came from. My first job was in a bakery. What I found coming here is that there was no Portuguese food. We have a few like Ipanema, La Caverna, and there used to be a couple other spots that don’t exist anymore. I just feel like those immigrants are kind of complacent in a way to just sell to Portuguese immigrants, their friends and family.
I benefited in a way because I grew up in a tight knit Portuguese community, we only spoke Portuguese. I go to Portugal, and it feels like home. I don’t feel out of place at all. But I’m also an American, born and raised. So I feel like an ambassador in a way. I am comfortable and in fact my objective is to sell to everyone else.
We go to these Portuguese festivals and I know I have the best Pastél around. I’ve tried them all. I know ours is one of the best. We go to these Portuguese communities and I sell a ton of them. But that is not the objective. People say I should open a spot in Newark, or Long Island. I know a lot of places like Westchester, Yonkers, White Plains, other places in Connecticut. I want it to blow up here. I want it to impact and to be a cultural thing. I want you to walk into a cafe and say “I could have a croissant or a Pastél De nata.” Or its easier just to call them Natas right? I think that that is a real possibility. If a croissant can do it, or a cupcake can do it, why cant something as tasty and amazing as a Pastél De nata do it?
And as you know we have other pastries. The Pastél De Nata is just our most popular. I’ll introduce those other pastries later, but it was easiest to start with this one in particular because it is so well known in Portugual. My mom has Bolo De Bolacha, Serradura, Mousse De Chocolate, Cavacas, so many other ones that we will introduce later. Hopefully by then we will have a following that will be excited about new products. But for now, Pastél De Natas.
TCC: That’s what you are pushing
JB: Exactly. It was really because I came here to New York and there was nothing here. I didn’t even start with the Pastél, I started with the Bolo De Bolacha. My mom makes it a little differently than they do in Portugal and it is basically marine crackers dunked in coffee and then layered in a vanilla pudding. My mom started making it at my uncles bakery in Massachusetts and I Decided I would bring a full cake down here to Spiegel. We started handing the cake out to regulars and that week we started baking it. Literally that week, I thought oh shit I’ve never baked anything in my life besiDes maybe marshmallow treats and now I’m making Bolo De Bolacha. But I did it and I was selling it at 10 different restaurants here in the village and then eventually I started making it in little to go cups with a tear away strip and I had it in about 8 boDegas. But I found it was a lot of work and not as much a routine. It also wasn’t as easy to sell. I needed something more recognizable so we switched to Pastél De Natas and I started having a factory making them. All I have to do is call up my business partner and say, “hey I need 8,000 of them for next week.” It makes it so I don’t have to make every single one. It makes for a much easier way to scale them. Production is done.
It is sort of like the story with Magpies, a super cool story. This woman was making them in her basement and it must have caught Starbucks’ eye and boom she strikes up a Deal with Starbucks and she had to hire a baker to produce the magpies.
So I have production set. We can do up to 30,000 a day. But I need to sell them.
TCC: So long have you been doing this?
JB: I created Joey Bats LLC last year in July. Shortly after that I started selling and making the cakes. Only about October of last year we had our first event selling Natas. It was an event in Brooklyn. It went really well, but not as good as now.
I was selling in the weirDest places. One time I had a table right out here *outsiDe of Spiegel* and I set up a table and was selling them in the middle of January. It was freezing. I was standing outsiDe of Hester Street fair in downtown Water Street in the freezing cold and I sold like 50 of them. We did the Hester Street Fair. I was selling outsiDe a boDega on Avenue A once. I donated a ton to different Portuguese events in the northeast. I wholesale them to restaurants in Western Massachusetts, about five of them near where I’m from. My focus is not as much finding wholesale customers as much is it is on retail. Started off just like that, selling a few here and there.
TCC: Were you doing most of the baking or like you said your mom bakes?
JB: Right from the get go I used the factory. I have an I.T. background so I have some knowledge of scale.
TCC: That’s right because it would have been impossible… You can only bake so many just you and your mom.
JB: We were doing these events and we would learn watching these other vendors that they have great products but they are limited in how much they can make. I immediately didn’t want to have that problem. I don’t want to get big and then all of a sudDen be scrambling. I was also working another job and that was taking up a lot of my time. So starting this was all part time. The Bolo De Bolacha I actually stopped making because I was making them. And there was no way I would be able to make enough of them.
So I started like that and things only really took off at the Portuguese festival in the middle or second week of June. We went to Mineola, and the Portuguese were going to be super skeptical.. they will say “oh Pastél De Natas, no big Deal.” And the PresiDent of the festival even said, “I’ll cut you a break, you’re only selling Pastél De Natas.” Meanwhile, I knew what I was selling, I’ve had a lot of Pastél De Natas, at least here in the U.S. It is on par with some of the best ones in Portugal. It tastes good, good crunch. There are a lot of shitty ones here in the U.S.
TCC: Oh yeah you can even get shitty Pastél De nata in Portugal.
JB: Especially up north! A lot of people up there don’t even know what a good Pastél is. They’ve never had it warm. They’ve never had it with cinnamon. And they’ve never had a good one period. So I’m introducing them. I get to the Mineola festival and we DeciDe to not do samples. No samples because everyone knows what it is. It’s so small but this guy is gong to love it and he will tell his friends and it will exploDe. In one day, in a little festival with maybe 3,500 people we sold 4,500 Pastéis. Because Portuguese people buy it by the dozen. People come in the morning and they buy a dozen or a half dozen, then they com back after lunch and buy some more. And then they come back at night. We sold a lot of them and that’s when I knew this was going somewhere. I signed up for more Portuguese festivals. A few festivals in Connecticut and we did a huge festival in New Bedford, Massachusetts and the biggest one which is where I’m from in Ludlow, Mass. We sold somewhere between five and six thousand pastries there.
From there you kind of learn how to explain what it is better, you start giving samples, and at San Genarro we probably sold like 8,000 and we gave away probably 5 or 6 hundred. That’s kind of where its going now, it’s moving fast. I left my last job in the middle of July. I was nervous at first, I’ve always worked for a big corporation.
TCC: What were some of your coworkers or bosses saying when you told them “I’m going to go do this pastry thing”?
JB: At the beginning they were laughing, they would make fun of me and say, “what are you baking cakes? What do you know about baking? I’m not really a baker, I’m an entrepreneur, more of a business guy. I see a need, I’m passionate about it, and I feel like if we have a good product and there is passion and hard work behind it then it is impossible not to succeed.
So they were all kind of laughing at first. But then they were seeing my friends sharing my stuff on Facebook. My friends back home would even ask what I was doing. This is going to sound corny but when I left my I.T. job and went into sales and engineering those three years in sales and engineering taught me something that people used to tell me but I never really grasped it, and it’s that I’m a sales guy. When I like something, everybody knows about it, I tell everyone about it. So I got recruited by a Portuguese start up outsiDe of Porto called Veniam. I could tell I was excited about this working for them, and when I talk about it I am passionate about it. So I was thinking about how I needed to benefit from this directly. And I feel like I have.
The startup company actually viewed me doing my own thing as a plus because they wanted to be dynamic. I was working full time and then I’d do events on Mondays or Friday and Saturday nights. I found out that it was good money. I only stayed at that start up for maybe five or six months.
TCC: And then you started doing Pastéis full time?
JB: Right, and the fist week I was pretty nervous. But I realized as long as I’m willing to work, I’ll be fine. And once that clicked I just started thinking about the next step and the step after that. The Next step is I’m looking into a pop up shop right now.
TCC: Where will that pop up shop be?
JB: It will be downtown. I’m looking at a couple different places. I’m looking to set up at a place on the weekends or for a coupe months. I want something low risk so we can try it first. If I do this and it works, maybe I immediately start ramping up and working with Designers.
TCC: To get a permanent location?
JB: Yes, and I’ll work with Designers in Portugal to make something really Portuguese. I want you to walk and feel like you are in Lisbon or Porto with the blue and white tiles and port wine. I don’t care, let’s make it feel like you walk in and it is Portuguese all over the place. Maybe we could even call it Lisbon or something. And if this works, then maybe I do a chain of cafe’s and each cafe is the name of a different city in Portugal—with each cafe having something unique about each city.
I’m always thinking much bigger… I went from selling 600 a month to 10,000 a month. So, moving fast.
TCC: I’m not surprised that it has caught on. Because everyone goes to Portugal and they try the pastries and they love them. Then they come back here and can’t find them anywhere.
JB: You’re right, Eric, a lot of people come by the booth and say, “oh my God I was eating six of these a day.” And I say “exactly.” There is no reason why you can’t eat at least one every day. They are not super fattening, I think we are at 140 calories for each one, more or less.
I want to riDe the wave of the Portuguese tourism right now, because it is spiking big time. And take advantage of everybody having gone there. In my marketing, I have the story of Belem because I want to pay homage to them.
I know it’s golDen, I have no competition in the Northeast. I’ve tried them all, Newark, Massachusetts, and there is a reason why we’re selling so many at the festivals and it is because we have a good product.
TCC: Why do you think the other places don’t have as good a product?
JB: I think they have a few problems and the biggest one is scale. Even if they had a good product, they are making them by hand and they are all little bakeries. How could they compete with someone selling 10,20, or even 30 thousand.
The factory that I’m using, I will have them make all the other pastries and Desserts too.
The other bakeries have trouble fulfilling local needs, so they are sold out by the end of the day.
The other problem is that they are not freezing them. Portuguese people are so used to shopping everyday. You wake up, you go to the market, you go and buy your groceries. It is daily. But here in New York, to meet the Demand, things have to be frozen and baked when needed. They still taste perfectly fine. It would be unreasonable to make everything by hand, fresh daily. Pastries can be sent to places frozen, and then baked as needed.
So these small bakeries are not freezing them, which is fine, but their Pastél is not very good either. I’ve only been to one bakery that was actually pretty Decent. But like I said it is a small bakery—so for them the scale is impossible. Some big wig shark tank guy would have to go in there and show them how to scale it. I don’t have to worry about that, I already have the scale.
A lot of the pasties are just really bad. You’ll see right away that they are really thick, immediately bad. Some of them have a really yellow top, and it will be shimmering like lacker, immediately you know that it is bad. The Pastél should be spotted, it should have spots just like back in the Portuguese bakeries. Some people even mistake it for chocolate or caramel.
The third problem is that a lot of Portuguese people just aren’t thinking big picture. They just think local.
TCC: Yeah, they just want to sell to their local people.
JB: Exactly, and they are fine with it. My dad used to run a butcher shop that was in our family for over 40 years. They specialize in Portuguese smoked sausages, from the North. He Delivered it all over the North East, but he’s never grown more than that. He works everyday, but someone needs to step in and think about scaling it. Now, I don’t think it will be me, because I’m not interested in sausages or I would have applied my passion towards that.
I want to be in New York City. I love it here so I want to do it here.
TCC: Right, sometimes they just don’t have a bigger vision. They just want to stay local.
JB: Right. It will take one of their sons or daughters to grow it. It sounds cocky of me to say, but I don’t think any Pastél can compete with ours in the Northeast. If I have what I think is the best Pastél, all it needs is passion behind it. I have big plans for all this. Hopefully in the very near future, you’ll see either a Joey Bats Sweets Cafe or a Portuguese cafe of some kind. We’ll see.
TCC: It sounds like you have it all figured out, so it will happen. So the pop up shop… will you get that going soon? Weeks or months?
JB: Goal is for November. I want a pop up shop with some seats out front, and some pastries on display as well as some that are warm. Other than that all I need is a couple freezers to keep some.
If I get some regular customers, then that will justify taking it to the next level and investing in a full on shop.
I’ve loved doing this. Even just learning, like trial by fire. We do some events and figure out what works and what doesn’t. My mom has been a huge help, huge. She comes up every weekend. But I’ve learned so much that I will use in the future whether it is with this or even investing in other iDeas in the future. I like this part. I always say, if my rent is paid, I’m good.
TCC: As long as you have a place to stay in New York you are good. You said it’s been trial and error. Trial by fire. And it takes a lot of time setting up the tents and things like that. What have been some of the difficulties?
JB: Well the first one is people just not knowing what it is. They walk by and don’t know what it is. So the smell helps, the smell will stop people. The Description catches their eye. And the sample closes the Deal. All it takes is that one bite and they are sold.
San Gennaro was my first marathon event. Up until then I had only done Portuguese festivals for 2-3 days and other festivals. You set up for the day and you pack up for the day. I got to San Gennaro and saw people building things with carpenters. They were building these big booths. It maDe me a little nervous then I said ah fuck it we do events like this all the time, what’s the big Deal. So I got a more sturdy tent, boarded some things up, and everything else was just like any other event we’ve done. It worked well.
TCC: I could tell it was successful because people were smelling the pastries and everyone around your booth was saying “We need to come back here for Dessert!”
JB: Yeah it worked well. I also recently have been wanting to partner up with coffee. I don’t want to sell anything that isn’t Portuguese. I don’t want to sell a cannoli, or a croissant. I want to sell specifically Portuguese products. I was doing a festival in Massachusetts, in my hometown, and I realized that Portugal has great coffee. So I’ve gotten a couple machines from Delta, and it’s great coffee, and the Delta rep came by and gave me some banners and we set up a different section on my booth.
So with the pop up shop I know I’ll get people to come get the Natas, and then the coffee. I’ll continue the wholesale, making Deliveries as I do, usually on the weekends. And the events will continue. I think they will be good.
TCC: I think it will be worth it, trying the pop up and getting a frequent crowd, and then once you get the store they’ll know where you are permanently. And like you said, Portuguese people will shop everyday and I think other people will start as well.
JB: One thing I’m grateful for is not just my parents and family, but the Portuguese community in the city has been very supportive. But like I said, I really want to sell it to everyone else. Think of it as like Portuguese Starbucks.
TCC: You want to start it in New York, do you see it going anywhere else?
JB: I have to make it here first. If it is successful here, then what I would consiDer is opening a spot in… and this is really long term… but maybe go to Boston or ProviDence. But we have to start somewhere. There was this couple from Chicago and they stopped by just to get a few more boxes before they left for Chicago. They said they would love to have me there, so we can talk. I would love to have that.