Nearly 40 years ago Susan Mendelson launched Lazy Gourmet in Vancouver. She is an entrepreneur, radio personality, cookbook author, and probably the biggest champion of The Nanaimo Bar in Canada. As someone who discovered her passion for the catering biz while she studied social work, it didn’t take long for others to notice Susan’s flare for creating fantastic foods, that made her events a resounding success.
As her milestone business anniversary approaches this fall, Susan reflects on her beginnings, her inspirations, and the hard work it took for her to see a successful business that could weather the many changes of the highly competitive food industry.
What inspired you to start your own catering company?
As a child I loved to cook and bake, but I never thought it would be my career. I was studying social work at UBC and was fortunate enough to get a job working nights at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. I was making decent money but it was hard making ends meet so I started making Nanaimo bars, cheesecake, and carrot cake, and selling it at intermission. I was making 50 pieces a night in my small apartment kitchen, at 50 cents an item. Soon people would call ahead to try to reserve their food selections.
Over time I was asked to cater for the venue and I’d get a budget to work with. One day I got a call from a city counsellor who asked me to cater her wedding. I told her I wasn’t a caterer and she insisted I cater her big day. So, I catered this wedding, and everyone for the city was there. Soon after that the Head of Social planning for Vancouver contacted me with a concept. He was bringing 250 performers from around the world, for children, and wanted me to arrange all of the food for the performers while they were there for 8 days. He got me a learning initiative grant, to get started.
The festival was in June, so I had six weeks to learn the business of catering. I worked my butt off, hired out of work actors to help me and we did breakfast and lunch, and dinners for the 60 people from Russia (who were hosted at a friends’ home), and performers from Japan who came to my house for dinner each night. By the end of the eight days I was so exhausted I slept for a week. I soon realized if I didn’t go into catering, I would regret it. It was my passion. The woman who hosted the Russian performers and I started The Lazy Gourmet and never looked back.
How did you start working in radio and on your cookbooks?
I had already been working on a cookbook for several years before my business was official. CBC Radio approached me about my baking and asked me to come on air and talk about it. I wouldn’t give them my exact recipe for cheesecake, but I would give them tips on transforming a regular cheesecake into a chocolate cheesecake. I even did this cheeky show for baking for a New Year’s Eve, that ended up with bakers kicking off the New Year in bed with champagne and chocolate cheesecake at midnight. I was asked to come back for Valentine’s and do a show on aphrodisiacs, so I headed to the library to get started on my research.
In the middle of my call with CBC Radio one day my boss at Vancouver East Cultural Centre picked up the line and said he was my agent and asked them to pay me. They listened! Soon I had a regular spot on CBC. I was on every Thursday afternoon for a show called Ace in the Kitchen. People would call in after the show for the recipe, and we’d take down addresses and mail out the recipes each week. We knew people were collecting these recipes and in the fall of 1980 my first cookbook, Mama Never Cooked Like This, came out and my recipe for the Nanaimo bar was in a cookbook for the first time. The Cooking Bookstore in Toronto on Yonge Street told me they sold over 1,000 copies to people who were buying for that recipe alone. This really helped put the Nanaimo bar on the map.
Tell me about your education, background, and experience that helped prepare you for this?
Within the first year I realized how little I knew, so I brought in consultants and they really were my MBA program. They helped me determine what worked and didn’t over the years to help me grow the company. In the first five or six years of the company I put out five cookbooks and by the time 1985 came around it was Expo 1986, and I was asked to be the official souvenir cookbook for Expo 1986 (as the only cookbook for sale on the property) which helped spread The Nanaimo Bar around the world.
Why has sustainability always been such an important part of your business model?
I think it’s really an awareness of the planet and waste. It’s about being organized and recognizing that you don’t want waste and destroy the planet with garbage. That has really been put into our business very early with a program where we send our food to different shelters at the end of the evening. Why should delicious food go into the garbage?
We’ve been working with sustainable practices for over two decades and we don’t really think about it. My husband and I have a home that is Leed Platinum and when you design something like that you improve your quality of life.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to carve out their own brand?
Be prepared to work your ass off. You must work harder than you’d ever imagine, you must be prepared to go through the ups and downs and have a lot of grit. My former partner and I always say, ‘If we knew how much work it would be, we may have thought twice’. Believe in yourself and trust in your intuition along the way. Constantly reinvent yourself, you can’t be in business for 40 years and do the exact same thing, you need to keep the same core values but stay current.
Your business is celebrating 40 years of success in 2019. What are you doing to celebrate?
We are planning a big party along with some surprises, to thank the people who have helped us remain successful and the clients who have continually supported us over the years. We wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for them.
What are some of the most unusual events you've had the pleasure of catering for? What are some of the most personally meaningful events you've worked on? Why? What makes for a successful event?
There is one year we did the skins game and went with two giant 18-wheeler trucks and set up in the forest Predator Ridge in Okanogan, then did the Abbotsford Airshow, and then catered The Molson Indy Vancouver with 30,000 meals over the weekend. That was a lot of work.
Most meaningful to me are life cycle events - a baby naming, a bar mitzva, wedding, or funeral. These are the events that are the most meaningful for our clients and we try to make that a lasting memory for them and their family.
For an event to be successful event I need a happy client, happy staff, and happy suppliers. Then, at the end of the day I can sleep well. It’s all about the joy we can bring to everything we do.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Keeping my staff for a long time. Keeping people who I trust, adore, and people who have worked with me for over 10, 15, and 20 plus years. Today people leave places they work every two to three years, and I am proud of keeping my staff. I am proud of being able to be a mom and keep my business going even when it was tough trying to balance all of that during good and bad times. It makes me feel good that my kids are proud of me.
What important lessons have you learned in mentoring your staff?
It’s all about trust and allowing people to make mistakes. Giving people permission to make mistakes and trusting them to learn. I’ll cover for you today and I hope you’ll cover for me too, as it’s about how we recover and work together. If you can’t own your mistakes, you’ll make them again and again. You need to be honest in that we can work together to find solutions.
Can you tell me about the importance the Nanaimo Bar holds for you and why you think it's so important to Canadian (BC) foodie culture?
The Nanaimo Bar was not created by me but became a part of culture because we started selling it in 1979 and took it across the country. It’s delicious, easy to make, no baking required, and took off in a way that has a life of its own. Deborah (my former business partner) and I tried to copyright it, and we couldn’t because it was the name of a town. It’s a wonderful product, and people love it! We add different flavours like, raspberry for spring, and mocha (which is my favourite). The Nanaimo Bar opens itself up to creativity and opportunity. It’s great to have a Canadian food; how many Canadian foods are there? I think it always will be a part of Canadian food culture and I’m proud to have helped spread the awareness about it. We have just come up with a Nanaimo Bar chocolate bar - it’s dark chocolate with the filling of the Nanaimo Bar, and has wafer and coconut.
How has Instagram and foodie culture changed the catering industry?
First, it’s been fantastic for us and we have full-time people who work on moving our social media and sharing our work. People can see the breadth of what we do, which invites more people to contact us. Twice a year we introduce our menus with a huge media event, and all the social media is out there and they help us spread our culture of food. It’s fun and great for business. In the old days we’d buy ads in yellow pages and magazines, and now we have this personal control over our image and brand. At the click of a finger we can see what our competition is doing and share what we are. We designed these containers that look like cigar boxes for staff to pass along the appetizers in. They’re neat, photo friendly and people loving. Today you are trying to do something edgy and fun and different and then switch it up. The catering business is now about décor, and food, and it’s about the whole brand and experience for the client.
What are your favourite comfort foods?
My major food is chocolate. I adore good chocolate and we have so many amazing chocolatiers in Vancouver. Thomas Haas, tempers chocolate for 4 days. I also love ice cream, all the sweets, and Pad Thai.
Who inspires you?
David Leibowitz. I follow his blog and I have most of his cookbooks. I love his connection to people and approach. An early inspiration was Craig Claiborne of The New York Times. In terms of Vancouver, Umberto Menghi’s restaurant Giardino makes everyone who comes through the door feel special and so important in the way they show appreciation.
What's something most people don't know about you?
That I’m a pescatarian and have been since 1975. In the beginning my business didn’t offer any meat beyond seafood and fish. As the business grew, we brought in chefs who were able to create menus using chicken and meat to help us expand our offerings.
The Lazy Gourmet paired with Silver BURTNICK & Associates for a Global Networking Event 2019 at Sotheby's International Realty. You will be able to taste their famous Nanaimo Bars with the whole team this May 13-15!