Mandy’s Wants to Be the ‘Starbucks of Salads’
Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they’re doing now is not what they initially set out to do. Making major professional changes—even mid- to late-career—can often lead to more fulfilling and successful outcomes. That’s what our series The Pivot is all about. Each month, we speak to founders, business leaders and entrepreneurs about how—and why—they changed course and found success in an entirely different industry. Here, we speak to Rebecca and Mandy Wolfe, the founders of salad restaurant Mandy’s Gourmet Salads.
As a fine arts student doing a semester in New York City 20 years ago, Rebecca Wolfe was taken with the craze of create-your-own salad bars that were seemingly on every street corner. “I was eating them every night with friends,” she says. When she returned home to Montreal in 2002, she lamented that there was nothing like them there and spotted an opportunity. Just 21, and working for her dad’s high-end clothing distribution business, she decided to take a stab at bringing the concept to her hometown. Her then boyfriend and now husband had a women’s clothing store where she was working part-time with a little back room that he wanted to serve paninis and Italian coffee in. But she pitched her idea—a take-out-only custom-salad bar—to him instead. “I convinced him that in this bougie neighbourhood of Westmount, the women would really appreciate salads,” she says.
The only problem was that she was “terrible with food,” so she asked her older sister Mandy to create a menu. Mandy was teaching English as a second language to international students at the time, but was questioning what she was doing with her life. She saw Rebecca’s idea as an opportunity to follow a new path. “I was always creative, always loved being with food and I was doing some catering on the side,” Mandy says.
The pair set up shop in the Westmount clothing store and got to work on figuring out how to build their brand. At the time, in 2004, the idea of adding fruits and nuts to salads—something Rebecca saw in NYC—was hardly commonplace in Montreal. They called their new outpost Coco Cafe (Chanel, the luxury brand, shut that down due to copyright) and then Greens & Co., but found it sounded “sterile” and not very enticing. So when Rebecca would carry her own salad made by Mandy around the area and get asked by strangers—who took note of her vibrant meal in its clear takeout container—where she acquired it, a new name came to her: Mandy’s Salads. “There’s something very relatable when the product or service has a human being behind it,” Rebecca says. “And the truth was Mandy was making my food every day.”
Their small salad bar slowly gained a following through word of mouth. “We started organically offering this very niche, VIP service to the [clothing store’s] customers who were mostly women at the time,” says Mandy. Because parking in the area was such a nightmare, customers could text when they were in front and one of the sisters would run out to their car with their order. They began creating a Rolodex to keep regular customers’ salads on file. And they strove to deliver quality from day one: chicken was cooked in their apartments at night and dressing reductions were whipped up daily. This relentless schedule continued for years without turning a profit. The sisters say they were just scraping by, and even though their bank accounts were always in the red, they persevered. “The small group of people that were such avid fans gave us confidence,” says Rebecca. “Some women were eating there five days a week.”
By the end of 2013, the lease was up at the clothing store. The sisters felt like it was time to get their own space. With a $50,000 loan from their mother—which they’ve since paid back with interest—they bought an old cupcake shop one block over from their original spot. Finally, they had a street-facing storefront with clear signage. They had their brother sit at their old location and redirect customers to the new one. Within 48 hours of opening their doors, there were line-ups outside. They also started reaching a new demographic. “All of a sudden we had men, bus drivers, doctors and construction workers,” says Rebecca. “It was within a week and we were just like, ‘Oh my god, it worked.’”
People flocked to the colourful salads, with ingredients like diced avocado, shredded carrot and sliced strawberries. Once their new salad bar became profitable, the sisters decided to invest in opening additional locations and expand across the city. They opened spots in Old Port, Mile End and downtown Montreal. They now have eight locations in Montreal and just opened their first one in Toronto after years of pleas they received through Instagram. In addition to their customizable menu, they focus on the overall experience of their restaurants. With an eye for design, Mandy decorated each location with an eclectic mix of colour and texture using wallpaper, wood and whimsical light fixtures like banana-shaped sconces. Black and white photos of their families cover the walls. “It was important for us to have the guests connect with us,” says Rebecca. “And know that we’re real people,” adds Mandy. And as “DJs in another life,” they curate new playlists every quarter for all the restaurants.
The sisters have also launched into cookbooks focusing on salads, smoothies and sweets, and recently released their second one, More Mandy’s. Continued expansion is in the plans, with an eye on being as accessible as famous food chains. “We want to be the Starbucks of salads,” says Rebecca. “On a highway stretch for two hours, you can’t get a single vegetable. We want to be able to give people healthy food.”