Belgium, May 22nd -- One hundred devotees from ISKCON Radhadesh in the Belgian Ardennes pack into the community’s small bakery, just a few meters away from the Château de Petite Somme turned Krishna temple.
They’re all craning their necks to get a glimpse over the counter at Nadia Bihari Das, his wife Shyamalika Dasi and son Gopinath Das as they bake up a storm in celebration of their family business’s 25th anniversary.
Soon, it’s all ready and all the devotees are sitting at a rectangular formation of tables outside the quaint stone building with the word “Boulangerie” over the doorway. They beam and rub their hands together as Nadia Bihari and his family serve them authentic thin crust Italian pizza with cheese, tomato and oregano, along with home-made ice cream topped with whipped cream, berries and a flag inscribed with the number “25.”
“It feels really good to be celebrating this anniversary,” says Nadia Bihari, originally from France, in his lilting accent. “I think it’s inspiring for the devotees in the community, and in general in ISKCON, to see a project like this go on for so long with the same person. And for me, it’s also really encouraging to be able to do this for so many years.”
Although Nadia Bihari’s father was a professional cook, and Nadia himself helped his uncle, a baker, a few times during the school holidays as a child, he had no further experience of baking when Krishna fortuitously arranged for his new career.
In 1988, after a major leader left ISKCON, the society throughout Europe, and particularly in Belgium and France, found itself struggling to survive. In Radhadesh, devotees, thinking keenly, decided to focus their attention on attracting the many tourists in the area. One method that turned out to be especially successful was selling bread baked by a visiting English devotee.
“Because he was going back to England, they asked me if I would be interested to learn from him and try to have a bakery,” says Nadia Bihari. “So I did.”
In 1989, Nadia renovated a building once used as stables by the Château de Petite Somme’s previous aristocratic residents, purchased a cheap oven from a retiring baker, and launched his bakery in the same place that it continues to thrive in today.
The business hit the ground running, immediately successful and drawing large amounts of tourists. Today, it sustains similar numbers. On an average day, around 150 people stop by to shop in the warm, welcoming little space with its aroma of fresh bread; there are quieter periods in the winter, while sometimes up to 500 people flood in on a weekend day in the summer.
The bakery’s customer base has changed somewhat over the years: now, as well as attracting tourists it draws many clients from the local community outside Radhadesh. Some especially dedicated regular customers make the commute from further afield, too.
“There’s one old man who has been coming to the bakery every week for the last twenty years, although he lives forty kilometers away,” says Nadia. “I asked him why he travels so far every week, and he said, ‘Since I started eating this bread, I cannot digest anything else!’”
With all its delicious products, it’s no wonder that the bakery elicits such customer loyalty. Every week, Nadia Bihari bakes four types of bread – simple country bread, walnut bread, olive bread, and sweet raisin bread. His wife, originally from Armenia, makes Boreg, a filo dough turnover with cheese and parsely and Baklava, a richly sweet filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and syrup. They also sell pain au chocalat, homemade marzipan, crackers, homemade jams, laddhu and chocolate truffles.
Finally, there’s their famous coconut cookies. While all the bakery’s products are offered to Lord Krishna, these delectable desserts are offered directly to Radhadesh’s presiding Deities Sri Sri Radha-Gopinath, and distributed for free to everyone who visits the community.
Over the past 25 years, the Radhadesh Bakery has given out an incredible eight million of these coconut cookies, which have gained an unprecedented level of fame throughout Belgium and neighboring Holland.
“A few years ago I went with my children to Gangotri, high in the Himalayas,” says Nadia Bihari. “One night, we were there in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, when we encountered some Dutch travelers. We struck up a conversation, and they asked where we lived. We told them we were from a Hare Krishna community in Belgium. And right away they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been there! We remember the coconut cookies, they were so good!’” He chuckles at the memory.
As well as efficiently distributing prasadam, Nadia Bihari’s bakery supports him, his wife, and his children Gopinath, 25, Manu, 23, and Lila Manjari, 22. It also provides some employment for other devotee youth, and brings in income for the Radhadesh temple.
“When I started the bakery Hridaya Chaitanya, the temple president at the time, was very positive and didn’t put any heavy rules on me about how much I had to give,” says Nadia Bihari. “I was really inspired by his way of dealing, and tried to be as close as possible to Srila Prabhupada’s ideal of a householder keeping half of his profits and giving half. I think the fact that the temple president was not too pushy, and at the same time I tried to be honest and help the community as well as my own financial interests, is the reason why this is has worked for so long.”
Another reason why the bakery has stood the test of time is that Nadia Bihari likes what he does.
“The two pieces of advice I would give to devotees who want to start their own family business are: you don’t always necessarily need a big investment to start something; and like what you do,” he says. “You can do something you don’t like for some time. But if you want to have a successful long term business, it really helps to have something that you like to do.”
Nadia Bihari says that because of this, although it’s not in his nature to expand his business to ever larger scales, he has been able to steadily maintain it throughout the years. This, he feels, is very much needed now in ISKCON, with its history of passionately jumping from one big project to another.
At 53, and with his children interested in other fields, the long-term future of the Radhadesh Bakery is admittedly unsure. But Nadia Bihari hopes to find someone else within the next ten years who will be as committed and grateful for the job as he has been.
“I know many devotees who have to struggle and sometimes do jobs they don’t want to do,” he says. “So I see the bakery, where I can maintain my family and make money, and at the same time work in the devotee community, as a very big blessing from Krishna.”[ belgium ] [ radhadesh ]