How cool is that to have a job title of Chief Waffle Officer? So, what exactly is a chief waffle officer? Well, after meeting Jean-Francois Flechet, the founder of A Taste of Belgium, and reading his story in multiple media interviews, I’d have to say it is a job that requires a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit, determination and a tireless capacity to follow your path, business acumen, a genuine belief in human potential…and a pallet for mouth watering food.
That pretty much sums up Jean-Francois. He is an economist with a big heart who happens to be able to concoct a pretty tasty meal for a group of his friends or family, and who is willing to take risks and learn from doing.
It all began with a waffle maker
Jean-Francois was actually attending, of all things, a vending machine conference in Brussels for another business idea when the sweet aroma of homemade waffles baking caught his nose. The next day he went back, and left with a 120 pound cast-iron waffle maker that he shipped to the United States.
I guess vending machines were just not in his destiny.
Here in Cincinnati, his journey began with his making waffle dough in the kitchen at Covington’s Pho Paris. Then Jean-Francois sold his waffles at Findlay Market, and later borrowed $35,000 to open a stand in Columbus’ North Market. He cashed out his IRA and ordered 10 tons of Belgian pearl sugar.
Little by little, waffle by waffle, Jean-Francois made an imprint on our region – first at festivals and events, then with his bistros, and now even as the Official Waffle of the Cincinnati Reds.
Lisa: Talk to me about where your inspiration comes from.
Jean-Francois: My original plan was not to get into the restaurant business. I made this up. I can cook for 20 people but not for hundreds of people. I wrote all the original recipes and chefs have tweaked them. Some of the recipes came from my mom or grandma.
No one else in my family are entrepreneurs. My grandparents were farmers but that is different. My parents have been my biggest inspiration. They raised me to work hard and stick to it. My work ethic comes from dad. He taught me that nothing ever is handed to you. When I was six years old, he took time off and took us to a cherry plantation to pick cherries because I was literally too young to work in Belgium and this was the only way I could do that. After a week or two, I had enough money to buy my first walkman. By age 12, I was the fastest cherry picker there. We did that for many years.
Lisa: What is one of the most satisfying parts of your work?
Jean-Francois: Really it is the interacting with people. What is very exciting is to see how some of my team started with us at a very entry level and how they have grown with us. Many have gotten their life together. One young guy began with us as a delivery driver, then in the bakery, then the dishes and the prep line, and now he is running his own kitchen. He has a salary, insurance 401K, and other benefits. It changed his life. He is a different person.
It is fulfilling to know you are helping people to grow and giving them a new challenge. That is one of the things which gives me the highest satisfaction, helping people. We have a great team. We keep hiring good people so that they can mentor the younger folks.
And, as we expand, we can create more opportunities for people. Every time we open new restaurant, we are hiring 60 to 70 people. It is amazing to think about how many people, how many families get food on their table from something that just started with a waffle iron.
Lisa: And, on your time off, what do you enjoy doing?
Jean-Francois: I still like to cook but I don’t have much time any more. I have a five year old so I love to spend time with him. I only speak French to him. I can teach him the language when it is just us. I also run marathons as it is good to clear your mind.
It was so great to see the Cincinnati Reds honor Pete Rose this past weekend with his induction into the Reds Hall of Fame and retiring his #14. “It is our salute to that person whose impact transcends their lifetime and spares any future player the impossible task of living up to a legacy too large to fill,” Reds CEO Bob Castellini said during the ceremony.
Today I’d like to introduce you to Aaron Sharpe, someone I have known and respected since he first came to work at WNKU 16+ years ago and I was working on the publicity for the Appalachian Festival. Aaron is the director of development of WNKU, however, if you have ever heard his voice, you know it is one that seems perfectly made for broadcast.
And, a little known fact about Aaron is that he is also the man behind the music played in the Greater American Ballpark. He has been the Cincinnati Reds deejay since 2000. Let’s get to know more about him and where his inspiration comes from.
Lisa: Do you recall when it was when you first knew you wanted to get into the radio business and where your inspiration came from? Was there a person who inspired you? If so, who and how?
Aaron: Music has been my passion since I was 12 or 13 years old. Like a lot of people, I would lay on the floor of my bedroom on Sunday mornings listening to American Top 40 with my fingers resting on the record button of my Panasonic boom box…waiting for my favorite songs. I never claimed to have good taste in music back then, but my taste eventually evolved and I learned to appreciate music outside of the mainstream. That’s what eventually landed me at a station like WNKU. But it wasn’t just the music. My stepmother is an actress, my father is a minister, and they were both involved in community theater when I was kid. I was never a stranger to public speaking, but I do recall the first time it occurred to me to put it all together and think about going into radio when I grew up. I worked the drive through at a McDonald’s in high school and a day seldom passed that a customer didn’t say to me, “you’ve got a great voice. You should go into radio.” I figured if people were telling me I sounded great over a drive through speaker, there must be something to it.
Lisa: Tell us about your journey to WNKU.
Aaron: As a kid, I played piano, trumpet, and guitar. I also caught “the show bug” being around community theater and the church. By the time I got to college, however, I had actually let go of the idea of radio as a career. Mainly, it was because I had become disenchanted with what I was hearing on the radio. It no longer interested me, frankly. Plus, I wanted to make money, so I was pursuing a different path at UC. My summer job, however, was as an audio tech at a conference center in North Carolina where I worked with about a hundred other college students from all over the country. I still loved being a part of “the show,” and the mix of students whom I worked with provided for a veritable petri dish of music discovery.
When I came home, I was even more frustrated with the homogeny of commercial radio. Then one day, I was digging around on the low end of the dial in the hopes of finding something different. That’s when I found WNKU playing much of the same music I had been turned on to in North Carolina. Suddenly, radio was interesting again. After some time off from UC, I transferred to Northern Kentucky University, became a member and volunteer at WNKU, and graduated a couple of years later with a degree in Radio/TV. I was offered a job at WNKU before I ever graduated, and I’ve been here ever since.
Lisa: How did you your job with the Cincinnati Reds come about?
Aaron: I had a great advisor and mentor at NKU by the name of Russ Jenisch. He also happened to direct the Reds’ scoreboard operations at Riverfront Stadium during baseball season. Midway through the 2000 season, they were in need of a new DJ and wanted someone who could freshen things up. Russ knew my interest and expertise were in music and audio, so he asked if I’d be interested. I’ve been with the Reds ever since.
Lisa: How do you pick what music to play when in the course of a game?
Aaron: I get asked that a lot, and there’s no easy answer. I easily play a hundred or so audio cuts throughout the course of a game, and they’re all motivated by different things. There are the players’ walk up songs. Those are easy. The players pick those themselves. Other times, it’s a song about pizza because we’re doing a feature on Strike Outs for LaRosa’s or a song about trucks because we’re featuring the Toyota Tundra Home Run Challenge. Sometimes I choose a song to make people laugh. Late in the game, if it’s a close game, I’m choosing music that I hope will pump up the fans and the players. There are good songs for close games and different songs for not so close games. Songs for when we’re in the lead and songs for when we’re behind. There’s “big powerful moment” music and “just plain fun” music. 99% of the time, the music selections are motivated by something. Of course, there are times when I’m not trying to affect the crowd in any particular way, so I just play something I think people will like.
Lisa: Can you provide a couple anecodotal stories of experiences during your tenure at the Reds?
Aaron: I was just reminded of one in particular this past Mother’s Day. We had about a two hour rain delay, which brought back memories of Mother’s Day 2012 when we had a four hour rain delay followed by a game that went into extra innings. The game, which was scheduled to begin at 1:10 in the afternoon, was still going on after 8:00 that night. I don’t recall a better game for Joey Votto – a double, three home runs, and 6 RBI’s weren’t even the best part. In extra innings, more than seven hours after the scheduled first pitch, Joey hits a walk off grand slam. Instead of the normal “Unstoppable” by Foxy Shazam that we play after a win, I opted for the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. That’s not a piece of music to be tossed around haphazardly for just any win, but it certainly seemed appropriate in that moment.
Other highlights were the two Civil Rights games we hosted, primarily for the ceremonies that took place on the field beforehand. The same holds true for the time we honored the “Great Eight”. I’d say my favorite musical moments with the Reds have taken place during these special pre- or post-game events and ceremonies. The music selection is SO important in these big moments. My goal is to choose music so appropriate that you don’t even really notice it, and yet, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Of course, it goes without saying that our playoff appearances in 2010 and 2012 are at the top of the list of memorable moments, but nothing tops the 2015 All Star Game.
Lisa: What stands out to you as a few or the most memorable moments during your work with the All-Star Game?
Aaron: The nine days leading up to and including the All Star Game were one amazing roller coaster ride. It went by so fast, and much of it was a blur. But, it was also a great thrill. What I will always cherish most about the experience was working with the best scoreboard crew in sports to put on the biggest show in baseball. And not just the scoreboard crew, but the entire Reds organization. I can’t say enough about the people I work with at Great American Ball Park.
Of course, the most exciting moment on the field was Todd Frazier winning the Home Run Derby on his home field in such dramatic fashion. My little piece of that moment was playing “My Way” by Frazier’s favorite, Frank Sinatra, as everyone celebrated on the field. It was cool to learn later that Chris Berman of ESPN took notice and mentioned the song selection on National TV.
Outside of work…
Lisa: What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Aaron: So, my father is a Presbyterian minister. Every Sunday at the end of the church service, he would deliver the benediction. At some point during my adolescence, he began using essentially the same benediction every week. He still uses it today. The exact wording varies slightly each time, but it’s something along the lines of, “When life deals you a bad hand…when you feel broken down…when you feel like giving up and you just want to throw in the towel….don’t do it. Instead, reach back, dig a little deeper, and do the best you can.”
There’s a bit more to it than that, but you get the gist of it. I heard that every Sunday for years, and it’s stuck with me.
Lisa: Please tell us about an accomplishment for which you are proud, and why.
Aaron: It’s still pretty early in the game being that they’re just 11 and 13, but I’m incredibly proud of my boys. They’re compassionate, polite, considerate, loving, open-minded, and just…well, good. I keep waiting for something to go horribly wrong, but so far, I couldn’t ask for better kids. Honestly, I’m not sure I should be taking credit, though. I sometimes wonder if they’re not from another planet. They’re that awesome.
Lisa: Have you had an experience that changed your life? If so, what?
Aaron: The easy answer is a cliché, but by itself, what could possibly be more life changing than the birth of my children? The real answer though is, I have experiences every single day that change my life. Don’t we all? Had I not married my wife, I would not have the children I have. Had I not asked my wife out, I would never have married her. Had I not decided to take a summer job in North Carolina, I would have never met my wife. And so on, and so on. So, what I really believe is that we make decisions and have experiences every day that change our lives, no matter how seemingly slight. Not to get overly philosophical about it , but the very act of answering this question is, in some small way, changing my life.
Lisa: Tell us about an act of kindness that you witnessed or were a part of that truly inspired you.
Aaron: I see acts of kindness every day. At least I try to. They happen all around us. You just have to look for them, and then you have to allow them to inspire you.
Nick St. Pierre has an absolutely incredible, rare gift to make people smile and laugh. I have admired him for many years, probably even given him a hug or two. That is…to his former alter ego – Cincinnati Reds mascot, Gapper.
Little did he know when he was first hired by the Reds as a rally pack cheerleader shooting T-shirts to the fans, that his career would go on to create one of Major League Baseball’s most beloved mascots. The idea began over a conversation Nick had with then Reds Chief Operating Officer John Allen in 2001. Gapper made his first appearance in the new stadium in 2003.
These days, while Nick has passed on the torch of being Gapper a couple seasons ago, he continues his full time job as mascot coordinator with the Reds.
After reading my interview below, I think you will see why Nick was the perfect person to originate our Cincinnati legend. And, if you see Nick on the street, you will probably want to run up and give him a hug.
Lisa: What is an accomplishment you achieved that you are proud of?
Nick: I am very proud of being employed with the Cincinnati Reds for the past 19 yrs and all the, not only fun, but good things I have been able to do for people. Knowing how much people enjoy this team and being able to share it with those who love it is a blessing.
Lisa: Tell us about someone who has been a positive influence in your life.
Nick: It is difficult to limit it to just one. I am surrounded by positive influences from players, coaches, celebrities and some of the richest people in the city but if I had to narrow it down, I would have to say a small boy that I met while making an appearance at the Cincinnati Airport.
A guest of a Christmas Celebration being hosted by CVG and Delta, he, as well as the rest of the group were of low income families. The kind you never hear about because they are working very hard and are very proud of not accepting assistance. In costume I gravitated to him because he was shy and stayed away from everyone else. In a short amount of time we bonded.
I, pretending to be one of my loving dogs, without speaking was able to communicate that I was there for him and we were pals. There came a time in the event when the kids were given large gift bags full of toys and other stuff. Each one had a name on it for each child. As the distribution went on, my guy kept getting passed up. Other children around us were opening their bags and revealing in the gifts they had received while my buddy and me sat and watched. After what felt like a very long time and watching everyone else now adding batteries to said gifts, still nothing came. Finally, the volunteers found his gift bag and we had a great time together, opening and sharing in his new stuff.
I talk about him because he still inspires me. While we sat waiting, he did not waiver from his smile. He appeared to be genuinely happy for everyone else and satisfied with just watching. This still amazes me, to remember his sense of calm and comfort and for him not to have, at any point, stated “well what about me?” was truly an inspiration.
He taught me to see the joy and delight in any situation. During all this taking place, I am running through my mind of how I am mad that this is happening, and I will personally take him to Toys R Us and buy him one of everything. But as I say, watching him not get the least bit upset calmed me and everything worked out. So, to make a short answer long, my person who was a positive influence in a nameless little boy that I spent an hour with at a Christmas Party.
These have served me well in the world of sports, but both apply to me in my daily life. I have one chance to make a fan for life is the same as only one first impression. I approach everyone, even strangers as though we are friends. At this point neither one of us have done anything to upset the other so why wouldn’t we be friends?
It’s always someone’s first game refers to approaching everyone with a sense of “how can I help you”. I don’t avoid folks that may appear in need even if I cannot help. Sometimes a kind word, or acknowledgement of existence, goes a long way. By adapting these motto’s to daily life, it really helps to avoid becoming selfish and cold and closed minded.
Lisa: What is your biggest motivator?
Nick: The fans of the Cincinnati Reds and my son.
The fans give me motivation to come to work every day. Having the chance to grant wishes for folks makes me feel like a real life genie. Then there is my son, He is 23 and has assumed my responsibilities as Gapper, one of my mascots. I am motivated to make things better and easier for him than I had it. I am motivated by his growing love for a job that I was so very proud of personally. I have had the conversation with others that as a parent, I can think of nothing more satisfying than knowing you have taught your child a skill that he can feed and support himself on. I am comfortable that my son could get him a job in any pro sports venue as the mascot performer coordinator person.
Lisa: Tell us about an act of kindness you have done, witnessed or been the recipient of and how that made you feel.
Nick: There are more examples than I can name. One comes to mind.
I was in Marietta doing an appearance at a baseball camp. While in costume I had a young man that would not leave me alone. At one point I was tripping over him because he would not stop. At that point to get a little distance, I grabbed his hat and threw it knowing he would go after it, this would give me a minute to get to the next location before he returned to stand on top of me again. He did not return as quickly as I would have thought. When he returned, he stated that he couldn’t find his hat, that it had disappeared. There were many older kids standing in the area of where I threw it. I assumed all being in the same camp that they wouldn’t steal from each other. But, that I feared, is what happened. He hung out with me the rest of the event and at the end, his mother approached me and explained that the hat was brand new and how difficult it would be to replace since they had to save for so long to afford the camp itself.
This crushed me. As soon as I got back to the office a couple days later, I immediately went to our team shop, purchased a professional style hat, had is named stitched onto the outside and sent that to him. I heard back a few weeks later from an uncle stating that he had gotten the hat and was very proud of it.
I have since and still do send him things that I collect from around here. I have never gotten a thank you but am not in it for that. I figure if this kid realizes there is someone other than his family who cares about him, and perhaps he will have a better shot in life than those who fell they have no one.
Please join me for my newest event,
A Night of CINspiration on February 25, 2016
and you will hear Nick share more stories…
and meet Gapper!
Last year I had the great pleasure of meeting our amazing Cincinnati Reds All-Star, Todd Frazier, through my work in serving as the director of public relations and communication for the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. Todd and Ted Kremer starred our Festival’s public service announcement.
It was obvious from the moment he walked into the room for filming, that Todd is someone of All-Star status, and I am talking about his off the field, out of uniform person. The human being who embraces life, cherishes family, and values friendship. He is someone truly special. It was an honor to have met and worked with him, and it makes me so proud that our great city came together to vote Todd into the All- Star Game by a huge margin.
Hearing about Todd’s comments made during the National League portion of All-Star Game Media Day was of no surprise to me. We are proud to call him our hometown ambassador.
#2015AllStar Game #2015ASG #ASG
“He (my dad) told me to be nice to everybody. You never know who is watching. And have a good time. That’s all I try to do because you never know who you are talking to or if it’s going to be the guy you are riding on the bus with next week and you get a flat tire and that could be your next best friend. That’s how I go about life.” – Todd Frazier