Mandi Lunan can barely think of a time food hasn’t been important in her life. Calling it her “first love,” she became well-known in Ottawa for her vegan bakery, Auntie Loo’s Treats, which grew from a part-time operation to a local powerhouse before the emotional and financial toll of expansion led to its closure. Today, she has renovated her career as This Charming Mandi, offering consulting services intended to help other food entrepreneurs profit from her experience.
Can you tell us briefly about the rise and fall of your bakery? I started humbly in 2003 doing craft shows, running it part time while going to business school at Algonquin before opening my shop in 2009. It went gangbusters for a while—we were supplying Farm Boy and Whole Foods—but in the process of opening a larger location it all went south. I was hemorrhaging money and ultimately fell out of love with my business. It closed in 2015.
What kinds of services are you offering today? I help food entrepreneurs at all stages, from mentoring startups to assisting others to wind down their businesses. I’ll help with things like negotiating or terminating a lease, finding insurance, finding or liquidating equipment, offering social media management services and introducing clients to appropriate contacts.
How have things changed since you started your food business? Home delivery based services like Uber Eats have really changed the game. You can set up what we call a ghost kitchen (a delivery-only business) anywhere you want in the city, and people can access your food.
What is your perspective on the Ottawa food scene today? It’s very exciting, with lots of people starting up new businesses and doing cool stuff. Each year, there are neat products appearing and restaurants being opened by interesting chefs with diverse backgrounds. Having the City of Ottawa open up the food truck landscape is a game changer as well. We have a lot of people participating in food businesses and the public is equally engaged and excited about food.
What is the best way to discover new, local, artisanal food producers? I encourage people to get out and explore! Go to craft shows, pop ups and other food events to find the new players. Things like the vegan night market and the punk Ottawa night market are where you’ll find the brand new producers.
Can you tell us about some of Ottawa’s homegrown food heroes? Pascale’s Ice Cream is a big artisanal success story, especially because of all the great collaborations she is involved with. A new superstar is Adam Bakes, who was a pastry chef at the Fairmont Château Laurier and Rideau Club. Foodworks, the catering operation run by Operation Come Home, is also amazing as it gives youth culinary training and helps them find jobs in the industry.
What’s on the horizon? Edible cannabis products are the next frontier, with implementation later this year. I anticipate we’ll see a lot of incubation happening as producers grapple with the rules and regulations. And based on what I saw at the Restaurants Canada show in Toronto earlier this year, plant-based food is definitely becoming mainstream, which it certainly was not when I started my vegan bakery in 2003.