If you’re looking for high-quality kitchen and dining room accessories in Leiden, one of the nicest stores you can find is Van Manen Aan Tafel. Founded by Helga van Manen in 2001, Van Manen Aan Tafel is a kind of “shops-within-a-shop” concept, where you can find a wide variety of items, from vases and cutlery to kimonos, jewelry and some of the best bread in Leiden. Helga recently sold her business to Martine Verhaar, though she plans continue on in a part-time role for the next few years. Helga’s keen eye for design has been a key to the store’s success, so it will be interesting to see how Van Manen Aan Tafel transitions to new ownership. Helga, 62, lives with her husband in Leiden. Their home is a former orphanage and city monument that has been converted to four lovely co-housing apartments. Her three adult children all live in Rotterdam. 

After completing an agricultural engineering degree from Wagerningen University, Helga went on to a career in city planning and renewal. “I started working in 1982,” and she worked on city planning and renewal projects “until 2001 when I started the shop. In that period I did several things … the main thing was town renewal in different places,” including Amsterdam, Den Haag and Utrecht. “I was a manager … a manager who works with the team, not a director … but I was the leader, that’s my style.”

Helga’s last town renewal job was with the city of Utrecht. Her department “lent out people for leading projects. But I didn’t like it at all. And then one day I stayed at home. ‘I don’t go anymore.’” (laughs)

Helga opened Van Manen Aan Tafel in 2001. “All my life I wanted to have a shop. Always, always, always. But my father was the first [in the family to study at a university] so there was [an expectation] that you had to go study … I was 46 when I started the shop. And my husband said ‘yes, do it. Go for it’ … so I started the little shop. 60 square meters. Out of the blue.” Helga wasn’t able to secure a bank loan to start the business, so she used a home equity loan to get off the ground.

The store was successful from the start. “From the very first day. And that was really strange … In the first year there was a competition for new companies. And I won the public prize. So that was really nice … I also had a business plan for three years. And it was totally correct. I did it according to the plan.” Van Manen Aan Tafel started in a small space at Hogewoerd 21, and then moved to a larger space across the same street in 2006. The new store eventually expanded into an adjoining building, and added the name ‘Thuis as it began to sell more houseware products.

Van Manen Aan Tafel has never done much marketing. “I only opened the doors. I never did a lot of advertising … I don’t have a web shop. But times are changing … there’s a very nice shop in Rotterdam called Kookpunt … I don’t want my own webshop, but we use the webshop of the Kookpunt and then they give me a percentage.”

“You have to think always of new things. And not things that exist, but really new things … for example, the bread. For seven or eight years that was really a new idea to have bread in such a shop. Now you see it in other places.” Van Manen Aan Tafel sells bread from the Vlaamsch Broodhuys bakery in Schiedam, and is one of the few places to buy quality bread on Sundays in Leiden.

A major key to the store’s success has been Helga’s eye for interesting design. “The thing I like most is to choose the products.”Helga travels to tradeshows in Paris, Frankfurt and around the Netherlands several times a year to select products for her store. Van Manen Aan Tafel’s fine offerings draw customers from outside of Leiden. “We’re really not just in Leiden. People come from out of Leiden.”

Helga also enjoys creating a pleasant “atmosphere in the shop, and the contact with the clients, and working nicely together” with other staff. “I like also very much that there are no meetings at all anymore.” She had her share of office meetings while working on city renewal projects.  

Despite the store’s success, it isn’t an easy business to operate, and Helga decided to pass the torch to a new owner. “Here you always have the pressure of ‘did I sell enough?’ Because you have all those costs … the salaries, the rent, the taxes … there are four employees at Aan Tafel … and then we have the bread employees … it’s a difficult business because of the Internet … especially the kitchen things. People come to look at items and then buy online … I look online and if I see the price is lower I make my price lower because otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Helga is an experienced manager, but managing employees also takes a toll. “I enjoy it because I can do it … but it’s also heavy to have personnel … the [employees at Aan Tafel] call me The General … I always like that they have their own ideas … I hope they have their own projects … but that doesn’t always work, and [as the owner] I can say no.”

“The bread business is difficult because there are so many bakeries now … when I started, there wasn’t Mamie [Gourmand] and other [competing bakeries]. So our business has gone down … we have to make new plans for it. Maybe more self-service during the week so you have less personnel … you always need new ideas, and that’s what I like.”

As of April 1, the new owner of Van Manen Aan Tafel will be Martine Verhaar. “She’s my former neighbor … she had a marketing office … but now she’s been working for 11 years at the headquarters of Hema in marketing.” Helga plans to continue on at Aan Tafel is a part-time role for the next few years. “I’m now really happy with my decision … that I will go, but very slowly … starting 1 April I’m working only three days a week, Saturdays plus two days in the week … Martine comes in, and she has a quite a different background so she can go young, new … you have to think about [ways to attract younger customers] so that there aren’t only gray ladies in the shop.” (laughs)

Helga will also continue to advise Martine on product selection. “You never know [if we share the same vision] … there was a trade fair in Paris recently, and we were there together for three days. And she said I’m really good at that … I think for the next three or four years I will stay there … and I can advise her. And maybe she has a little other taste. And that’s not a problem because maybe that’s also younger.” Helga feels the other staff at Aan Tafel will get along well with the new owner. “She’s a very nice person … it really fits together … it was my idea that other [employees] will like her.”

What will Helga do next, now that she will have more free time? “I always worked very hard. Not only with work, but also raising three children … I think I won’t make a plan now … first I will wait for April, and then look … now I have the possibility to start a kind of third career … I want to make things … more production. I would like to go more that direction. I want to try that … maybe designing tablecloths … I like textiles very much. I’d like to do something with textiles … I don’t have experience with that. But it’s very nice to explore a new area.”

Van Mannen Aan Tafel is located at Hogewoerd 6-8 in Leiden. Information is available at www.vanmanenaantafel.nl