Ask Belgian influencer Dennis Van Peel what’s the hottest item he can’t live without season after season, and his answer will be the same — a cinnamon roll.
“I really like the taste of cinnamon and the brown sugar… obviously the rolls and also the glazing,” he says with a gourmand sigh when asked what he liked about them.
So much so that he has opened Have A Roll, a bakery entirely dedicated to this tasty treat in his hometown of Antwerp and born from endless rounds of lockdown baking.
A self-confessed sweet tooth, Van Peel says cinnamon rolls had become something of a habit, especially when traveling. “I always eat them when I’m abroad like London or New York because we have a few coffee places who are selling cinnamon rolls in Belgium but not really the good American ones,” he recalls.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Van Peel was left with jobs indefinitely suspended — and not a cinnamon roll in sight.
After going for earlier recipes like banana bread and cookies, he eventually mustered the courage to roll up his sleeves and tackle his favorite recipe.
“It’s kind of difficult to make them, that’s why I actually had never made them myself before and I just bought them whenever I found them somewhere,” he confesses, detailing the time-intensive steps of proofing, resting and rolling that result in the perfect golden confection.
Making them vegan was also a must for Van Peel, who stopped eating dairy products a couple of years ago after noticing how his skin quickly improved when cutting them out.
Gluten-free versions, however, didn’t pass muster. “We tried to make them but it’s quite hard because I couldn’t [obtain the right] elasticity for the dough, so I need to experiment some more to make that happen,” he admits.
After the first batches went around to family and friends, requests started flowing in and Van Peel eventually started selling his freshly baked rolls. Soon enough, demand outgrew his kitchen.
Within weeks, he’d signed a space in Antwerp and gotten help from family and friends to turn it into an Instagram-worthy spot in tones of mint green and lilac — with the whole process documented for social media, of course.
The first Have A Roll location opened in early 2021. Since then, not only has the cinnamon roll specialist had a months-long pop-up in the nearby city of Ghent, he’s also fed the crowds at the longstanding Tomorrowland electronic dance music festival.
New twists like caramel pecan and speculoos have been introduced and seasonal recipes like fig crumble make an appearance every month.
But these well-baked ambitions date further back than 2020, Van Peel tells WWD. “When my parents asked me as a 14-year-old what I wanted to become, I answered that I wanted to be a baker, because I loved to bake in my spare time,” he recalls.
But as much as they enjoyed the teenager’s pastries, his parents insisted that he go to university to study before settling for a path, given that he could always become a baker later if he so wished.
Civil engineering was his first idea but after a few weeks, he found that “this was too much” because he “didn’t have a social life anymore and missed [his] friends.” A switch to politics made him realize that he “missed mathematics, statistics and numbers in what [he] was studying.”
Just like Goldilocks, his third try was the right fit. Following friends who were studying applied economic sciences, he found that not only were there plenty of career opportunities at the end but that he really loved it. “So that’s the degree I finished,” he says.
His university years were also when the 26-year-old made his first steps on social media, where menswear content was still relatively niche.
By the time he graduated, this casual yet consistent approach had garnered him over 100,000 followers on Instagram — he now has more than 300,000 between Instagram and TikTok.
He was invited to Jacquemus’ endless pink catwalk for the brand’s 10th anniversary, has gone on a shoot for Abercrombie & Fitch in New York and became one of the faces of Belgian shoe specialist store Sidestep.
He also launched Tawo Antwerp, a men’s jewelry brand that specializes in sterling silver designs. “We couldn’t really find jewelry that was affordable for 20-year-old people,” he says.
Baking had gone on the backburner but never left his mind completely. He’d kept an eye on the field, bolstered by the fact that doughnuts and cookie dough, other specialty tasty treats he’s envisioned selling, sold like hot cakes at the specialty stores that offered them.
Here, too, the third time proved to be the charm. When a friend and lucky cinnamon roll recipient floated the idea of selling his baked goods, the moment felt right.
“I was like, ‘It’s now or never because probably in a few weeks there will open a cinnamon roll place and I will regret it’,” he says with a laugh.