If you know about Pastel De Nata, the popular pastry in Portugal, rejoice. If you don’t know about it, allow me to introduce Joey Bats Sweets. Joey does not consider himself a chef, but he speaks with the passion and knowledge of a chef. I sat down with the impresario and heard the passion in voice as he spoke of his product. He defined the Pastel De Nata as “warm crème brûlée wrapped in a crispy croissant.” We discussed the start of 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: Yes! It was definitely strategic. Knowing there would only be about 10 feet of runway space for the public to get by, I brought air movers to help the smell travel. 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 Pastel De Nata. 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: You probably went to Belém, correct? The original location.
TCC: Yep, Belém De Natas.
JB: Tourism is booming in Portugal right now, and a lot of people who have visited the country come by my booth exclaiming “Oh, Pastéis De Belém!”
For those that tasted them in Portugal, I usually have to clarify, “They are called Pastel De Nata. Pastéis De Belém is the first creator.” As you probably know ‘Pastéis’ is the plural of ‘Pastel’, and Belém is a place in Lisbon like SoHo is a part of New York. Belém is a touristic area, so everyone is guaranteed to see that long line by the Jerónimos Monastery.
TCC: yeah it is just the name of the restaurant and not the name of the pastry.
JB: Exactly. The name is Fábrica De Pastéis De Belém, but the public shortens it to Pastéis De Belém.
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 Belém.”
JB: Well a lot of people have never had anything like it so we like to give out a lot of samples. Usually that one little taste is all it takes. Then they think “What the hell did I just eat?” Some people even say it reminds them of French toast because we sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar.
Pastel De Nata is not super sweet, so I always sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon on each one. The cinnamon is most important. In fact, the cinnamon and custard marriage is where the smell comes from. I’ve tested it several times, just as I initially tested the name. We called them “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 Pastel De Nata is…because it looks like a tart but it’s not a tart.
JB: The middle is an egg custard, but “egg custard” isn’t very sexy or seductive, especially for someone who has never had it before. That’s where the description came into play – it is a warm crème brûlée wrapped in a crispy croissant.
TCC: That’s a great way to word it.
JB: Thanks! I’ve seen people walk by and react positively to our tag line.
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 crème brûlée wrapped in a crispy croissant.
JB: Several customers have stated it to be a really accurate description. I only need the customer to try it. I’ve never had anyone say they don’t like it. It’s an addiction in Portugal, both nationally 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 in America we’ll take good pastries from everywhere around the world… Why has this not caught on yet?
JB: I grew up in a very tight knit Portuguese community in a small town in Western Massachusetts called Ludlow. We have around 25,000 people, 80% of which are Portuguese immigrants. 75% of those immigrants came from northern Portugal from where my family immigrated. When I came to New York City five years ago, I found there was a lack of Portuguese food. There are a few restaurants like Ipanema, Taberna 97, and of course Lupulo created by the famous George Mendes, but there used to be a couple other spots that simply don’t exist anymore.
Each time we go to Portuguese festivals in the tristate area, I reaffirm that I have the best Pastel around. My numbers confirm it. It’s been suggested I open a spot in Newark, or Long Island. I know a lot of places like Westchester, Yonkers, White Plains, other towns in Connecticut have heavily condensed Portuguese communities. But I want it to blow up here in NYC and create cultural change; I want you to walk into a cafe and consider “I could have a croissant or a Pastel De Nata.” That that is a real possibility. If a croissant can do it, or a cupcake can do it, why can’t something as tasty and amazing as a Pastel De Nata do it?
And as you know we have other pastries. The Pastel 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 Portugal. My mom has Bolo De Bolacha, Serradura, Mousse De Chocolate, and Cavacas for later distribution. Hopefully, by then we will have a following that will be excited about new products. But for now, Pastel De Natas.
TCC: That’s what you are pushing
JB: Exactly. It all started with the Bolo De Bolacha; my mom makes it a little differently than they do in Portugal. She started making it at my uncle’s restaurant 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. I thought, “I’ve never baked anything in my life besides maybe marshmallow treats and now I’m making Bolo De Bolacha!” I was selling it at 10 different restaurants here in the village, and eventually, I started packaging it in little to-go cups for about 8 bodegas. Unfortunately, I found it was not an easy sell. I needed something more recognizable, so we switched to Pastel De Natas. We can do up to 30,000 a day.
TCC: So how long have you been doing this?
JB: I created Joey Bats LLC in July of last year. Shortly after, I started selling and making the cakes. It was only in October of last year that we had our first event selling Natas. The event was in Brooklyn and it went really well.
I started by selling in the weirdest places. Once, I had a table right out here *outside of Spiegel*in the middle of January. It was freezing. I once set up outside of Hester Street Fair, downtown on Water Street in the freezing cold, only to sell about 50 of them. I was setting up outside a bodega on Avenue A once. I have donated to different Portuguese events in the northeast, and I wholesale them to restaurants in Western Massachusetts near my hometown. It started off just 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 a 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 learned so much from watching other vendors at these events. They have great products, but they are limited in how many they can produce. I immediately knew I didn’t want to have that problem, especially if I expect to grow. The Bolo De Bolacha I was making myself, and I actually had to stop making them because there was no way I would be able to keep up.
Things really took off at the Portuguese festival in the middle or second week of June. We went to Mineola, and the Portuguese were super skeptical. The President of the festival even said, “I’ll cut you a break, you’re only selling Pastel De Natas.” Either way, I knew the quality of what I was selling. I’ve had a lot of Pastel De Natas here in the U.S., and I can confidently say mine are on par with some of the best ones in Portugal.
TCC: Oh yeah you can even get bad Pastel De Nata in Portugal.
JB: Especially up north! 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.
At the Mineola festival we decided not to do samples because everyone knows what it is. In one day, in a little festival with maybe 3,500 people we sold 4,500 Pastéis. Portuguese people buy it by the dozen; they come in the morning to buy a dozen or a half dozen, then they return after lunch to buy more. They even come back at night. After the success at this festival I knew my product was going somewhere. I subsequently signed up for more Portuguese festivals; a few festivals in Connecticut, a huge festival in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and the largest one yet was in my hometown, Ludlow, MA. We sold 5,000 pastries there.
At San Gennaro, we probably sold close to 8,000 and we gave away 500 to 600 Pastel. It’s moving fast – I left my 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: In the beginning they were laughing, and would make fun of me saying, “What are you baking cakes? What do you know about baking?” All of sudden, they see my friends sharing my Pastel on Facebook and social media. This is going to sound corny, but when I left my I.T. job, I went into sales and engineering for three years. It was there that I finally understood what people who know me used to tell me – I’m a sales guy. Where I last worked, I had been recruited by a Portuguese start up outside of Porto called Veniam. I was excited about working for them and passionate about what they do. Fortunately, this start up company actually viewed my personal business ventures as a plus because they wanted to be dynamic. I was working full time and doing events on Mondays or Fridays and Saturday Nights.
I’m not really a baker, I’m an entrepreneur, a business guy. I see a need I’m passionate about, and I know that if we have a good product backed by hard work, it is impossible not to succeed.
TCC: And then you started doing Natas full time?
JB: Right! The first week I was pretty worried. But as long as I’m willing to work, I’ll be fine. Once that clicked I began planning out next steps. My next move is a pop up shop.
TCC: Where will that pop up shop be?
JB: It will be downtown. I’m looking at a couple different places. Ideally, I will be set up on weekends or for a couple months straight. I want something low risk as the first try. If it works, I can immediately start ramping up production and working with designers.
TCC: To get a permanent location?
JB: Yes. I’ll aim to work with designers in Portugal to create something authentically Portuguese. I want customers to walk-in and feel like they are in Lisbon or Porto, surrounded by blue and white tiles and port wine. Maybe we could even call it Lisbon or something. I could possibly do a chain of cafes where each location is named after a different city in Portugal and mimics something unique about each city.
I have to think big… I went from selling 600 Pastels a month to 10,000 a month.
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.” There is no reason why you can’t eat at least one every day. They are not super fattening; ours are 140 calories each.
Portuguese tourism is spiking big time, and I want to ride this wave to make it permanent. It’s a golden opportunity, and there is a reason we’re selling so many at the festivals – 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 the biggest problem is scale. Most are smaller bakeries creating their Pastel by hand. It is difficult to compete with someone selling 10, 20, or even 30 thousand. They have trouble fulfilling local needs, so they are sold out by the end of the day.
The other problem is storage. In Portugal, people go to the market and buy groceries daily. However, in New York, to meet the demand, things have to be frozen and baked as needed.
Another issue is that a lot of Portuguese bakers think locally and only aim to sell within the Portuguese communities rather than branching out.
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 has been in our family for over 40 years. They specialize in Portuguese smoked sausages, from the north of Portugal. He delivered it all over the northeast, but he’s never grown more than that. He works extremely hard every day, but needs help in regard to scaling his products. Now, I don’t think it will be me, since I’m not interested in sausages, otherwise I would have applied my passion towards that.
I want to be in New York City. I love it here, and the market is full of possibilities.
TCC: Right, sometimes they just don’t have a bigger vision. They just want to stay local.
JB: Right. I have big plans for this brand. Hopefully in the very near future, you’ll see either a Joey Bats Sweets Cafe or a Portuguese cafe of some kind, like the type I described before.
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: The goal is for this November. I want a pop up shop with some seats out front, and some pastries on display that are warm. If I manage to retain regular customers, it will justify investing in a full on shop.
I’ve loved doing this! Even through trial by fire. My mom has also been a huge help to me, huge. She comes up every weekend from Ludlow, MA as my right hand for all events. I like this part of the journey – With that I have learned, there is a bright future ahead. 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 lack of recognition of the product. In regard to the events, San Gennaro was my first marathon event. Up until then I had only done Portuguese festivals lasting 2-3 days. At San Gennaro I saw vendors building booths with carpenters. It made me nervous, but I figured we do events like this often. I simply got a sturdier tent, boarded some things up, and everything else played out as it normally does.
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 partnered up with Delta coffee. I want to sell specifically Portuguese products, and 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 been a great addition. Customers can now come to get the Natas and an espresso, just like in Portugal.
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 every day and I think other people will start as well.
JB: One thing I’m grateful for aside from my parents, family, and friends, is the Portuguese community in the city – they have been extremely supportive. That support is important, especially since I want to sell it to everyone. I hope it will be 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 in NYC, then I would consider opening a spot in Boston or Providence. That is a long-term plan, but we have to start somewhere.
There was a couple from Chicago once, they stopped by just to get a few more boxes from me before they returned to Illinois. They said they would love to have me there, so we can talk. I would love to have that.
Interview and Photos by Eric Rios