Mandy’s has a cult following—both in Montreal, where this salad restaurant empire is based, and beyond. Their spaces are bright, botanical and chic; the variety of leafy offerings, endless; and the owners, Mandy and Rebecca Wolf, are two of the loveliest ladies in the biz. But this gourmet salad concept wasn’t an overnight success. It began way back in 2004 with a three-foot counter space in Rebecca’s boyfriend’s (now husband’s) clothing store, where the sisters would spend days slinging salads and nights prepping ingredients. Sixteen years and mountains of lettuce later, Mandy’s now has eight locations around the city and employs 400 people.
This month they released their first cookbook with Appetite by Random House, co-written with Canadian cookbook maven Meredith Erickson (who also had a hand in the Joe Beef cookbooks, Claridge’s: The Cookbook and Alpine Cooking, to name a few). Just like the Mandy’s brand itself, it’s gorgeous. The pretty pink cover embossed in gold lettering is only a segue into this charmed salad world, where these ladies have mastered turning the humble lettuce leaf into deliciously satisfying, full-on meals. From the hearty Lumberjack, with roasted chicken, sliced turkey, bacon, avocado and mozzarella, to the Cajun Shrimp, or the veggie packed Clean Green, there’s salad for every whim and desire, along with smoothies, grain bowls and desserts—including Mandy’s famous chocolate chip cookies.
I recently spoke with Mandy and Rebecca about what makes a perfect salad, the importance of family, how COVID-19 affected their business, and the release of this cookbook.
What’s the key to a good salad?
Mandy: A contradiction in flavours (sweet and salty), textures (creamy and crunchy), and always a good fat—avocado, toasted nuts or your favourite cheese. And of course, the freshest ingredients. A meal is only as delicious as its essential ingredients are.
Where do you get your recipe inspiration?
Mandy: From all over the world, really. Whether it’s places we have travelled to like Thailand or Italy, or just loving a certain type of international cuisine, we try to turn that palette into a fresh salad to highlight the flavours and produce from that part of the world.
Which salad in this cookbook could you eat tirelessly?
Rebecca: Definitely the Wolfe salad! I eat it every day, or some variation of it. I always take out the cherry tomatoes and add our mock chicken for some extra protein. It also comes with the Tamari dressing, which is so addictive.
Let’s talk dressings, because I’m very bad at making them. How do you keep it exciting?
Mandy: Tons of fresh herbs! Don’t be scared if the first try doesn’t yield what you want. You can always tweak it! That’s how so many of our recipes came to be: a first try followed by a second, third, sometimes a fifteenth, until we get the flavour profile that we love just right.
What’s it like having your sister as your business partner?
Mandy: It’s the best. When you are raised with the same values and know pretty much everything about your partner, there aren’t any surprises in character or integrity. We know each other so well and play on our strengths. Plus, making decisions alone can be overwhelming and scary. To have someone you trust implicitly to bounce ideas off of, and hear a differing point of view from, is so reassuring and humane.
Are other family members involved in Mandy’s?
Rebecca: Our first landlord was my now husband, Vince. Our brother-in-law works with us as our CFO and both our husbands help our whenever need be. And our kids love coming in to lend a hand as well! Family is extremely important to us
The book is dedicated to your families and the memory of your father. What did he instil in you that helped you get to where you are today?
Mandy: He would be so proud of us. He was our number-one fan (along with our mom), even when we were tiny back in 2012 when he passed… He was always the salmon swimming upstream in his decisions and creativity. He stuck to his guns, wore brightly coloured clothes and funky shoes, and always reminded us to go out on the limb to get the fruit, to accept risk as a part of reward and always go for it. And most of all he was a family man. He worked hard but when he was home, he was home mentally too. We try to do that with our kids and husbands, too.
What is your favourite meal to make when not making salads?
Rebecca: Any kind of pasta. I’m married to an Italian and I’ve learned that there’s nothing better than homemade pasta! My all-time favorite is angel hair with garlic & rapini. Throw in some chili flakes and top it with toasted pine nuts: it’s delish!
COVID-19 affected your businesses—and the release of this cookbook. How are you coping with the current challenges that are facing the industry?
Mandy: Pushing the release date of this book [which was originally set for May 19, 2020] was so sad on so many levels. We didn’t want to promote the sale of a cookbook when people are losing loved ones, and also their jobs, at alarming rates… Creating a cookbook takes a long time, almost three years. Many people had pre-ordered the book and were so disappointed when it was pushed. That encouraged us to eventually go ahead and release it. Everyone is stuck at home making bread, gardening and doing tie-dye, we might as well add to the stay-at-home creativity. We are definitely not out of the water yet regarding COVID-19 or economic recovery, however we are seeing some joy again in summer time in Montreal, in the grace that allowed us to remain open for takeout and delivery, and in the solidarity of our team that stuck together through a crisis of this magnitude. We are so grateful to them.