Before the upcoming Tequila & Mezcal Fest we feature Andrés Villagomez from Mexico for our Gent Expat portrait. He imports artisan tequila for a living and moved to Gent because he fell in love with a Belgian woman.
The fake bartender
Andrés is a Mexican who worked and lived in New York for several years, doing logistics consulting at Expeditors International of Washington. While there he also invested and worked in a Mexican restaurant. It was there, behind the bar, that he met his future wife from Belgium, who was spending a week’s holiday in New York. They fell in love and Andrés decided to show Céline around during the rest of the her trip.
After her return to Belgium, thousands of emails, daily Skype calls and several cross-Atlantic flights, a year and a half passed until Andrés said “stop, this is getting too expensive”. Andrés looked into getting a transfer with his job, got it immediately and within a month he moved to Gent. Just in time to move into Céline’s new apartment and create their home together.
The start of a tequila business
While settling in in Ghent, Andrés naturally missed his family and friends, but also Mexican food and good service. “The places in Belgium where you can get authentic Mexican food of good quality are very limited”, he says. “And the service here in Belgium is generally bad – I think it’s because the staff are overworked and underpaid and there is no tipping culture, so they receive the same salary no matter how well they do their job”, he continues.
Another thing he really started missing was good tequila. He could only find the bad quality tequilas. Not even the good varieties of the popular brands were available.
“I started bringing tequila from Mexico for personal use and asked my Mexican visitors to bring tequila with them. My new friends in Belgium were amazed and curious about new tastes and asked for more. Then they started suggesting that I should start importing tequila as a business…”, Andrés says. And this was the start of his own tequila business.
He wanted to start small and began looking for a brand of tequila to import. This took him two years as he was really picky. The tequila he wanted to sell in Belgium would have to taste amazing, look elegant, be produced on a small scale by a family business and have a nice story behind it. Andrés also wanted a good relationship with the producer. He found the perfect match by accident. He was talking about the difficulty of finding the right tequila with his best friend in Mexico when the friend’s son happened to overhear the conversation. The son introduced Andrés to an uncle of a friend he knew from school, Iñaki, who is the producer of Riazul products. Iñaki and Riazul were exactly what Andrés was looking for.
The first customer
After another year and a half, Andrés registered as part-time self employed and received his first batch, 240 bottles, of Riazul tequila shipped over to Belgium. He did presentations and Riazul tastings at Vier Tafels, a restaurant in Patershol in Gent, with the Rotary Club and with JCI. He was looking for distributors and points of sales. Andrés’ first customer was the liquor shop Vandenbussche on Vlaanderenstraat in Ghent.
He made a long list of potential shops and started contacting them. First he wrote them a letter. He didn’t receive any replies. So he followed up with a phone call and got the answer that they weren’t interested in adding his tequila to their product line. Disappointed he called Iñaki to say that it was harder than expected to sell Riazul in Belgium. Iñaki didn’t let this worry him. He suggested Andrés get the shop owners to taste the tequila. Said and done. Andrés listed 3 shops in Antwerp, went there with some Riazul tequila in his bag, entered the shop, said “I happened to be in the neighbourhood, do you want to try some of my tequila?”. The owners of all three shops tasted the Riazul, said “Wow” and added it to their product lines.
No one man show
After this Andrés started to sell the ‘wow experience’ and got more than 40 points of sale in Belgium. But it wasn’t easy, especially not alongside a full time job. And for Andrés to achieve his goal of “making everyone know about good tequila” he realised he couldn’t do it all alone. He met with 2 other small importers of agave products. They combined their unique brands and started the co-operative Agave Selection. The business is a unique blend of nationalities, with one partner being Mexican-French (living in Brussels), one Mexican-Belgian (living in Gent) and himself with Mexican-US nationality (and also living in Gent).
Tequila & Mezcal Fest Benelux
After visiting the Tequila Fest in London the Agave Selection team thought a similar event in Belgium could be a way to offer more people the chance to try the spirits of Mexico and especially to position it as a premium brand. That is why this fall Tequila & Mezcal Fest Benelux will take place in the Eskimofabriek in Gent. It has received an endorsement from the Mexican embassy and Pro Mexico.
At the event tequila lovers can find out about various tequila brands, taste cocktails and Mexican food, attend master classes and much more. “Our aim is to educate and unite Tequila & Mezcal lovers and enthusiasts”, says Andrés.
Pros and cons about Ghent and Belgium
One thing Andrés finds strange about Belgium is the attitude of the people. “They are not rude, but always in a hurry and sometimes forget the words ‘excuse me’ or ‘good morning’”, he says. Double queuing also puzzles him, especially in the train station. He used to commute to Brussels by train and thought it was funny how people started walking forward when the train approached.
A Belgian taco solution
Even though Mexican food is his favourite, he likes Belgian food too, with “stoofvlees met frietjes” being an absolute favourite. But despite this sometimes Andrés wants proper tacos. His solution is to go to a kebab snack shop and order just a bit of meat, then he brings it home and finishes it off with the right condiments.
Andrés likes Ghent. It’s a “small city with everything within easy reach – lots of events, museums, films”, he says.
Our last expat portrait was of the Japanese Film Fest organiser Tomoko Kaij. You can read the post here.
Do you know an international person who should get his or her story shared? Let us know in the comments or send us a mail at email@example.com.
About the author:
Jenny is originally from Finland and moved to Ghent in 2009. Now she works as self-employed organising events, supporting businesses with marketing and helping people starting their own businesses by being a community manager of Entrepreneurs Anonymous & co-organiser of Freelance Business Day. Find out more and connect with her on LinkedIn.