In 2004, sisters Mandy and Rebecca Wolfe took a leap of faith and opened up Mandy’s Salad Bar, Montreal’s first-ever “create-your-own gourmet salad” restaurant. Sixteen years later, the co-owners have built a mini-empire that includes eight successful locations with local and international expansion in the works for 2020. But when COVID hit, business-as-usual came to a standstill and growth plans were effectively put on pause. They share how they are navigating one of the hardest-hit industries, rebounding from the initial impact, and adapting their business model for the new future of food services.
What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus?
In a way, we are getting back to our roots — which was, and always has been, a takeout model for gourmet casual food. Over the sixteen years that we’ve been making salads and goodies for Montreal, we’ve grown our dining rooms and the overall experience for dining in, but following health and government guidelines for takeout and delivery during this pandemic has made us go back to the original concept we had in 2004.
What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?
We are trying to be the safest and most helpful channel and bridge between our suppliers and our customers. When it became clear that things were going to get worse before they got better, we got on calls with our suppliers and reached out to our customers and tried to find a way to get the most food to the most people — including health care workers in our hospitals and hardest hit CHSLD (long term care facilities).
What has been your most successful solution so far?
In all of our business and company decisions, we play the part of both our staff and our customer in asking “what would I want or need most in these challenging times?” And for everyone, it was safety, security, employment, and fresh healthy food. On the customer side, it was definitely an opportunity to expand our offerings to grocery boxes and meal kits — both Rebecca and I are at home with many kids and cooking three meals a day plus snacks seven days a week was getting really tiring, so one of the best things we did was grow our line of goods to taco DIY boxes, kids’ boxes, munchies boxes, smoothie and morning boxes, and more.
How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees?
Thank god for technology in a time of social and physical distancing! We have had so many virtual meetings, conference calls, and when necessary — location visits. For our customers we have strong engagement and connection with them through our social media, Instagram being our favourite way to message, poll and stay in close touch. Our team has pulled together so strongly and beautifully in these difficult times, with a real “one team” mentality. We feel so grateful for our core team, our management, and everyone who comes to work with a genuine smile on their face, willing to make someone else a bit happier too.
What advice do you have for businesses struggling with their finances?
One saving grace for us is knowing that we are not alone in this. Most everyone we know, especially in our sector of the industry, has been hit really hard by this pandemic. Knowing that we are all in this together has certainly brought about some extra compassion, understanding and humanity in a sometimes cold business world. It’s a chance to strengthen relationships — whether it’s your landlord, your staff, your bank, investors, your suppliers and vendors, etc. Every business is connected to a greater economy, you can’t isolate your own business without it affecting so many other factors and sectors. If you can build a bridge to the “other side” (what we’ve been calling the end of COVID, whenever that comes!), even if that bridge is rickety, unstable and shaky, it’s still a path that won’t leave you so deep in the hole, or in the woods. Talk to your banks, see what arrangements can be made, try to remain open-minded to new ways of doing business in these trying times.
“Support one another, no one is your competition or your enemy right now, we’re all suffering and trying to figure out these new roads without a map, so try a little more kindness and understanding.”
What has surprised you?
The outpouring of support, the sense of community all around us — be it neighbours, other restaurant owners, our guests, our staff who have picked us up and led the way with optimism and leadership even on days where we were feeling down — people can really be amazing in critical times. As a wise, kind man once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
How far ahead are you planning?
There have definitely been some sad moments and times since March… We had plans to open up in Toronto next year, our first cookbook was due to launch May 19, 2020, and all of these dreams and schemes are now on pause as we figure out our brave new world. We’re so grateful that it’s the beginning of summer and the nice weather has people out and about more — albeit in a safe manner, and our sales are picking up a bit compared to the devastation we felt in March and April. What’s going to happen in the fall and winter? Who knows… Right now we’re taking it one week or month at a time and focusing on what matters most — our team and family’s health, wellbeing, safety and security.
What keeps you positive?
Giving back and helping others. Nothing feels so good as feeling useful and helpful in difficult times. Whether it’s donating free meals to staff at our hospitals and CHSLDs, or preparing grocery boxes for refugee claimants who can’t get to the food banks because they are single moms with little kids and are scared to take public transit, every little gesture counts. In being a part of that, in seeing so many others showing up to volunteer and help and do their part, it keeps hope alive and restores our faith in the goodness of humanity.
What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now?
Keep it simple, go back to basics… we’re living in a very skeletal time right now, people are spending on what they need now more than ever, not so much on what they want. How can you help them? How can you be flexible in these times to adapt and stay afloat and alive? Support one another, no one is your competition or your enemy right now, we’re all suffering and trying to figure out these new roads without a map, so try a little more kindness and understanding. And when in doubt, help somebody out — everyone wins that way.