Meet Susan Mendelson.
She is, a culinary trendsetter, a major cookbook author, an amazing, inventive chef, a super successful entrepreneur, business executive, a foodie’s foodie.
But her success, her drive to succeed, her entrepreneurial instincts, were honed early in life.
As a child she loved to create her own recipes and bake (still does), had many different jobs as a teen while going to school, on a hunch offered her baked goodies (they sold out within minutes) at a community festival – all a foreshadowing of things to come for this powerhouse on Canada’s culinary scene.
By now you get the picture.
Today Mendelson sits atop a burgeoning, nimble, responsive, recovering foodie empire – the Lazy Gourmet, one of Canada’s top catering companies.
The company has catered everything from breakfast meetings to full dinners for 1,000 people, many for prestigious events, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the PGA tour, the Dalai Lama conference.
At the height the Lazy Gourmet had sales of almost $10 million and 230 employees.
But then the Covid -19 pandemic hit – testing the mettle of many businesses.
The Lazy Gourmet was one of them.
It was in trouble – closed because government edicts shut down food catering companies and restaurants, among others.
What to do?
Mendelson and her management team changed their business model to survive.
The Lazy Gourmet did it with great aplomb – developing an online market, offering delivery, and launched on-line cooking courses.
“We contacted multiple charitable organizations and worked with them to create virtual Galas where their messaging was presented on Zoom calls. Earlier in the day of the ‘event’ The Lazy Gourmet would deliver custom-made boxes of gourmet dinners, charcuterie platters with cocktails or wines to accompany the meals. Every event was different and tailored to the needs and budgets of the various organizations. It was a creative attempt to create a gala/party feeling, to keep people connected and to raise much needed funds for the charitable organizations.”
And if that wasn’t a big enough problem, there was another one.
“In the meantime, our old building was left empty with the prospective tenant getting cold feet. We decided to clean up the space with new flooring, new LED lighting and a great new paint job. We kept some of the equipment there as well as all of the refrigeration and partnered with the Commissary Connect to create a space for up and coming entrepreneurs in the food industry. Within a few months we were completely full with the most exciting and interesting new food operations that I have seen. We have plant based food, Mexican food, Extraordinary baked goods and Japanese food and more. It’s thrilling to be a part of this important trend in supporting entrepreneurship.”
“This space houses 15 food businesses from Mexican fare, to doughnuts, to baked goods, to catering to plant based products. Each operator has its own space, but everyone shares the equipment, the refrigeration and the freezer space. A high tech system lets the tenants book oven time and heavy equipment time on an hourly basis. The operator is provided with shelving and work space and they bring their own small wares. The ovens and heavy mixers and stove tops are provided and the operators pay for using them on an hourly basis.
And today – once again – things are good at the Lazy Gourmet.
“The company at our peak did almost $10 million dollars a year in business. We expect to return to those levels by 2023 and to surpass them. Business has come back strong this year. We had 230 employees at our peak and now have about 150. It’s been hard to recruit people in the hospitality business at the moment. We don’t know where everyone went.”
Mendelson’s business acumen is a rarity.
It’s a fact – lots creative people find it difficult or won’t jump into the cutthroat business world and even when they do, most fail.
So let’s back up a bit to 1979 – the year the Lazy Gourmet opened for business.
First up – Mendelson believes in a fundamental principle.
“I believe that it is important to know what you don’t know.”
So from day one – when she opened the Lazy Gourmet – she hired consultants.
“…to help me understand how to run a business and what it would take to grow a business.”
Aside from that there is the constant drive to re-invent the company’s business model.
“We’ve been in business since 1979 and I would say that the most important thing to be successful in business is to constantly reinvent yourself. Our brand is constantly evolving and we are working hard to either stay on trend or to be trend setting. Once we start a new idea, you can see that our competitors pick it up right away and attempt to do the same things. It’s flattering to us and at the same time, it keeps us on our toes as we then have to come up with something new and different. We have an incredibly creative team of chefs and pastry chefs, sales staff as well as operations staff. We all have to work together as a team to make it all happen.”
As noted before – Mendelson’s business and entrepreneurial drive started when she was a student at the University of British Columbia.
“I started working at The Vancouver East Cultural Centre, The Cultch, ( a cultural arts hub devoted to showcasing performances from the world of music, theatre, dance, circus). “
The year was 1975.
“I was a social work student at UBC and making $350 month which was not enough to cover my expenses. I started to sell carrot cake, Nanaimo bars and cheesecake at intermission. I went to school during the day, House managed The Cultch at night and then went home to bake for the following day before going to sleep at night.”
But Mendelson was more than just a one-trick pony.
For fun she also started catering opening night parties at The Cultch.
“They were always fun and crowded parties and I was able to make my meagre budget go a long way by being as creative as possible. Ernie Fladell was working in Social planning at City Hall and he was often at the parties. He approached me to cater his ‘baby’, which was his concept to bring 350 performers from around the world to perform at a Children’s Festival that he was creating. I told him that I had no idea how to cater and I was not the person for the job. He insisted that I was and arranged for me to get an LIP (Local Initiative Programme) grant of $90 a week for six weeks to learn the business. After six weeks, I was ready to get to work and the performers arrived and I had the time of my life. By the end of the week, I was completely exhausted but had found my calling.”
Selling her popular food at the Cultch gained the attention of the CBC.
One of the CBC hosts, Anne Petrie, host of a popular afternoon drive show asked her to appear on the show to talk about her popular cheesecake.
She did, ended up being a regular guest on the show with listeners requesting her recipes.
“The CBC would mail the recipes to those who asked after the show and it wasn’t long before people were writing to me to tell me how much they loved my recipes, but they wanted them all to be put into a book. “
So Mendelson penned her first (one out 10) cookbook, Mama Never Cooked Like This.
The book was based on a simple premise, and a brilliant insight.
Write a book that simplifies classical recipes for people wanting to eat gourmet food but were not ready to follow all those complicated steps to getting there.
“When it came out in the fall of 1980, all 7,000 copies were sold out in a week and my career was launched. I travelled across the country to promote the book and 40,000 more copies were sold within that year. It was a very special time! Lucky for me, there weren’t very many cookbooks released that year! “
And what happens often little things can lead to bigger and better things.
It all launched a glorious career for Mendelson – her appearances on radio and TV, her cookbooks, her culinary food forays – all a total reflection of her love of food.
The book contained one recipe that took off like a rocket – the famous Nanaimo Bars.
Her most recent creation, Mama Now Cooks Like This.
The food delicious, a visual feast, artfully plated.
Mendelson has one final observation about what it takes to be successful in business.
“For me, the most important thing is to hire people who are better than me at every aspect of the business and smarter than me as well. It’s also important to understand that the only way to succeed is to respect that it takes a team effort to get the job done. So in fact, the only boss is the client and we are all working together as a team to exceed the expectations of our client who is the ultimate boss of all of us.”
”Believe in yourself! Understand from the beginning that it is not easy to be an entrepreneur and that it will take enormous amount of fortitude and energy to keep going through the rough patches. Be open to constructive criticism and ideas from others, but trust your own intuition about what to do.”
And this almost sounds counter intuitive – making mistakes are a good thing.
“ I think that it’s important to give your staff permission to make mistakes because we grow and learn from our mistakes. It is imperative to own those mistakes, because I believe if we don’t take responsibility for them, then they are likely to be repeated, but if the mistake is owned, then solutions will be found to correct them. As a team player, I will cover for someone today and know that they will cover for me tomorrow. At the Lazy Gourmet we say “It’s not the mistakes you make, but how you cover”. I have learned many valuable lessons from mistakes and created meaningful relationships with people when I have worked to correct them.”
Well put, great advice, Susan Mendelson.