As 21-year-old Lydia Melton strolled down the small, charming alleyways of Hasselt, Belgium, she had an idea. It simmered while the Missouri native tasted her way across the city and its neighboring countries during her studies abroad. Her travels took her to places where she savored artisan-style foods and sampled handmade bites. Melton fell in love with European fare, and upon her return to the United States, her craving for those foods ignited the idea simmering at the back of her mind: She wanted to open a European café in Missouri.
A marriage, a move and a master’s degree later, Melton’s idea became Günter Hans. The European snack café opened its doors at 7 Hitt St. in August as the realization of Melton’s lifelong dream to own a business.
“You know, I have always wanted to be a business owner,” Melton says. “But I think the point where I realized it was food for me was when I was in Europe tasting the food. I just kept thinking, ‘This food is so good, and people don’t even know what they’re missing!’
“So for me, it’s about filling that niche. I feel like I get to have my cake and eat it too, because I get to serve the food I love, which is so good that I don’t end up missing it as much, while in the meantime I get to run a business and help to meet new people and help change the way business is done in Columbia.”
An essential element to Günter Hans’ concept is authenticity. Even the name is a reflection of European tradition — two popular first and last names in Germany that Melton liked the sound of when said together.
The snack shop’s menu features a small number of specialized European foods: bretzels, bretzel sandwiches, two varieties of Belgian waffles and gelato. Melton believes that doing a few dishes incredibly well is more important than offering a larger number of dishes that don’t meet her standards.
“I’d like to expand the menu very, very slowly,” she says. “But I will not expand at the cost of food quality. It’s not true to who we are, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. Something that I envision in the future is crepes. I love crepes. You can do so much with crepes, but we’re just not there yet where I feel comfortable saying, ‘We’ve got the best crepes in town.’ ”
Melton spent years researching, baking, testing and crafting the recipes on Günter Hans’ menu to make them as authentic as possible. Melton’s bretzels are made from scratch every day and feature a more bread-like texture than American pretzels, which is a signature trait of the German snack.
Günter Hans’ waffles come in two distinct but delicious varieties: Liege waffles are light, chewy and embedded with Belgian pearl sugar; the more familiar Brussels waffles are crispier and thicker. Both waffle varieties are inspired by the breakfast creations Melton loved while she lived in Belgium and are made with toppings in mind.
“Our waffles, they’re $3.99 for a waffle with one topping,” Melton says. “If you want a waffle with unlimited toppings, that’s $4.99. And you can stack them if you want, or you can eat them individually — it kind of depends on the individual. But we tried to make it so that people can build their own experience to get what they want versus only offering one option.”
Toppings for the dessert waffles include chocolate, bananas, strawberries, homemade whipped cream and other decadent options. For bretzels, two available dipping sauces make the street snack a hearty appetizer. Homemade cinnamon butter and a savory cheese sauce are delicious, 99-cent companions to the German snack.
The European café sits in an alleyway reminiscent of the Old World streets Melton roamed as a student. Located in the space that formerly served as The Pasta Factory’s banquet room, Günter Hans is bursting with European charm. The room’s historic façade features tall ceilings and exposed brick. A bar stocked with rotating imported wines and European beers occupies the inviting room, and intimate seating adds to its casual, quiet ambience.
“We found this space and kind of instantly fell in love with it,” Melton says. “I’m really looking forward to keeping the building historic but at the same time creating this little oasis.”
Now that the doors are open, Melton’s dream has become reality. The newly minted restaurateur is excited to watch her customers become regulars and fall in love with the European fare she adores.
“I would love for us to be a cocktail hour spot,” she says. “For me, it’s about getting together with friends and enjoying good food and having a good time. I hope that our restaurant is a place where people can take a break from life and just escape this world for a while.”
How The Idea Got Kick Started
Lydia Melton and her husband, Cody, were newlyweds when they decided to fully invest in the dream of Günter Hans. But before they could open the snack shop’s doors, the couple had to get the capital — the Meltons decided to use the crowd-source funding tool Kickstarter.com to acquire the initial $20,000 for the project.
“Banks like to see a personal investment in a startup before giving loans,” Lydia says. “With the Kickstarter, I knew that was our opportunity to prove that, that we are investing something for equity.
“The process of raising money on Kickstarter is very hard. It is a full-time job. I seriously sat at my computer 40 hours a week and just messaged every person I knew because you have to get the word out. I would have to say that I sent out 1,700 messages to people I know, and my husband sent out a ton, too. It was definitely a team effort for sure.”
With a few hours to spare and 161 backers, the Meltons successfully reached their funding goal on April 30. The total amount raised was $20,556.