TORONTO — The sisters behind Montreal’s popular eatery Mandy’s Gourmet Salads have their eye on much more than just spinning out new combinations of fancy greens and eclectic toppings.
Nearly 20 years after launching their signature take on tossed salad, Rebecca and Mandy Wolfe point to a busy past year in which they added three Toronto outposts – two of them in recent months – and introduced a second cookbook to entice those further afield.
It would seem that their chain of plant-driven restaurants is just the starter.
During a recent whirlwind visit to Toronto, the sisters talked about withstanding pandemic lockdowns, coping with inflationary economic pressures and growing their footprint.
“I feel like we're already snowballing here,” Mandy Wolfe says by phone as the duo dashed across town between appointments.
“We'd like to keep expanding in Toronto for the next year or two.”
To recap: their inaugural Hogtown restaurant, a boho-chic sit-down on the trendy Ossington strip, opened in March.
That was followed about three months later by a takeout and delivery spot in a midtown suburb, and on Sept. 20, by another takeout and delivery spot in a condo-dense downtown enclave known as Liberty Village.
“When we first opened Ossington it was getting inundated with a lot of orders for delivery,” Wolfe explains.
“We wanted to really focus on the customer experience and it's hard when you have a tablet that's just shooting out orders — which is fantastic — but it does slow down the wait time for the guests that are in-house and want a full experience.”
The recent ghost kitchen wave is often framed as a fallout of pandemic constraints. Free from the costs of maintaining a storefront and dining area, revenue is generated entirely by delivery orders.
But even though indoor dining has resumed, it's not quite where it was. Wolfe sees enduring value in a virtual model — especially for Mandy's and its easy-to-transport salads.
“Half of our business has always been delivery and takeout so we were able to survive with that,” Wolfe says of COVID-19 lockdowns and capacity caps that sunk many eateries.
“Salad's annoying to make at home. I mean, I'll be the first to admit it. If you want a good one, there's quite a lot of ingredients…. There's something to be said about the convenience of just picking one up that's pre-made for you.”
Still, coming out of the pandemic has not been easy. Like many others in the sector, Wolfe says she is raising prices to cope with inflation. As of Oct. 2, the Mandy's website advertised signature salads ranging from $12.50 to $18.50, with seasonal salads going for more.
"At the end of the day, we're a business and we need to pay our staff and our rent," says Wolfe.
"The cost of food has gone up. There's been a big awakening in the (recognition of) ... work/life balance. So we want to be able to pay for our staff in not just a competitive way, but in a generous and fair way."
Wolfe says a fourth Toronto location – another sit-down – is slated to open next spring in a massive, upscale retail/residential/business complex known as the Well, currently under development near the lively King Street West district.
The sisters are also still keen to set up shop in Toronto’s tony Yorkville neighbourhood, she adds, but sky-high rents have been prohibitive.
As far as broader expansion plans, Vancouver would be a natural next step, Wolfe agrees, deftly sidestepping any revelations aside from noting: “B.C. would be a great fit.”
The seeds of a salad empire are certainly there, and the Wolfe sisters have proven adept at harnessing the power of social media to cultivate a brand that extends beyond colourful leafy dishes.
The sisters also sell Mandy’s branded sweatshirts, beanies, and salad dressings, and a curated assortment of accessories, home goods and wellness products.
There’s strategy, too, in the recent rollout of their fall-themed cookbook “More Mandy’s: More Recipes We Love," co-authored by Mandy Wolfe, Rebecca Wolfe and Meredith Erickson. It follows 2020’s “Mandy’s Gourmet Salads: Recipes for Lettuce and Life.”
“The cookbooks have been a fun sort of business card across the country before we actually open up there,” Wolfe says.
But she dismisses the idea of a grand vision, chalking it up to “an organic journey” that fortuitously coincided with a wellness movement and growing appetites for plant-driven fare.
“I mean, neither Rebecca or myself have business MBAs or culinary training. We just kept doing things ourselves and it's just turned into something that was beyond what we ever dreamed of,” says Wolfe.
“We like serving food, and fun creative atmospheres, and having fun with our staff and serving people in different ways in funky decor and with fun music.
“(We) just kept doing it and people came.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2022.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press