Van Schaik is the name I have heard most often when I have asked around about expat investors people admire. I knew Jerry van Schaik back from when he was still running the Amsterdam Cafe. Eight months after opening the Van Gogh place, we paid him a visit to talk about the good old days and see how the show looks like for the Dutch entrepreneur these days.
By Corina Saceanu
Romania long-timers might remember Jerry Van Schaik from the early 2000, when he and a group of friends were starting the Amsterdam cafe in the old part of the city. Nowadays, those who like to spend their time at Jerry’s new place, the Van Gogh cafe on Smardan street, also in the old part of Bucharest, must have seen him around quite often. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to see Jerry around, at least once in a while – with his two businesses door-to-door, the Van Gogh cafe and the Rembrandt three-star hotel, he’s around to manage the venture.
Jerry wasn’t always an entrepreneur. When he came from Amsterdam to Bucharest for the first time, in 1995, he was just traveling here invited by a friend. Back then he was working in theater marketing and production. An economist by education, Jerry spent seven years in theater production in Amsterdam.
“Life was different then. I remember walking on Kogalniceanu boulevard, looking for some nice places to drink my coffee and read the newspapers, but there wasn’t any. I was sitting at a Greek place on Kogalniceanu, it was a fast-food place – that was the closest by place. I was a bit naïve at that time. In Amsterdam, where I lived, I never went to the Hilton to drink coffee, but at that time, in Bucharest, Hilton was the only place you could do that. That was quite an experience,” Jerry Van Schaik remembers.
In 2001, together with a group of friends who bought a building in the old part of the town, he started Amsterdam cafe. He was 34 when he gave up his career in the theater world and came to live and work in Romania. “I still have people saying <That was a nice time!> It’s like your high school love – you’re not together anymore, but you still think of them,” said Jerry. The Amsterdam cafe story took seven years. In 2007, Jerry and his partners decided to let it go. “We didn’t go broke, we just through it was not going very well at that moment, not on that street, not in that area. I also had my hotel and I was spending more time trying to keep Amsterdam cafe alive than working for my hotel,” Van Schaik says.
He remembers how the first venture started out. “ We opened in spring and in the summer of 2003, it was empty, everybody had left to the seaside,” he says. So they started organizing DJ parties, evenings with live music and it worked. “In three weeks we had so many people that we wanted to ask for entrance fee, hire security and we didn’t know how to handle the crowd. We created so much goodwill during that summer that after the summer all the creative crowds and the expats came to Amsterdam cafe,” says Jerry.
When the Amsterdam business was done and after focusing on the Rembrandt hotel for a while, he found the location of the current Van Gogh cafe. And good luck struck.
“When we signed the contract for the space, they started to renovate the street in front of our building and when they finished, we also finished renovating the place,” he says. The renovated building includes 600 sqm of space, with the cafe located at the ground floor and office spaces at the first, second floor and loft, and a wine shop in the basement. Van Schaik’s partners in this business are Peter de Ruiter, partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Romania and his wife.
In just eight months from launching, they managed to create quite a buzz with the new place, which is conveniently located near the Romanian Central Bank headquarters. “The location is prime, combined with the renovation of the street and what we’ve done to the building, within a small budget, plus the old city center has started to move these days. Me and my partners, we managed to hit a certain spot in terms of atmosphere, a certain feeling that we wanted to achieve here,” says Jerry van Schaik.
With the Amsterdam cafe experience behind, after starting the Rembrandt hotel and with the involvement in the Cina terrace project, Van Schaik had enough ingredients to make it with Van Gogh. “After a couple of years I started the Cina terrace and then Rembrandt. With all the experience I collected then, I managed to get the Van Gogh up and running in a very short time. We signed the lease in July, started the renovations in August and two months later we were up and running. The first month was fairly reasonable in terms of sales,” he says.
The new project is an experience he enjoyed, because Jerry is the start-up kind of person. “The first three months of Van Gogh were so intense, everything had to fit together, it was a very rewarding period. Now everything needs to be fine tuned and improved,” he says.
If he were to invest in anything else, he thinks there is a market for a good youth hostel in town. He has recently received several proposals from people who had buildings, asking him whether he could do something with those buildings. “Doing a lot with a little money is a challenge – this is what we tried to do at van Gogh as well. The investment was EUR 200,000.”
After eight years of living in Romania, this is his home. He goes back to visit his family and friends in the Netherlands every six weeks.
Throughout the years, he frequently got the question on what were the hurdles for living and doing business in Romania. “Throughout the years I have been sometimes bitter and cynical. There are so many little things, but I am not bitter about them anymore. That’s it, we are here and we have to deal with things as they are. I cannot change the system, it is not in my power to do so. But people I can change. There was a time I was very cynical about how people work here too, but I got good people around me,” Van Schaik concludes.