In spring 2015, Mandi Lunan and Auntie Loo’s Treats – Ottawa’s first vegan bakery – seemed to be on top of the world.
They had sold out of treats during a wildly successful Veg Fest in early June, they had held a successful vegan brunch pop up, and had secured wider distribution than anyone ever could have imagined. The bakery had just introduced vegan macarons using aquafaba, which was all the rage, and people were going wild for them.
Then on June 19, seemingly out of the blue, Auntie Loo’s Treats announced that it was closing the next day via a message on Facebook. The vegan and foodie communities in Ottawa were left reeling.
Ali Pester is one customer who was shocked. “On a more personal level, I knew it would really change the Ottawa vegan scene and the presence of veganism in our community at large and my own relationship with the city. It was such a well-known establishment and most of my non-vegan friends, who wouldn’t have regularly made the decision to choose a cruelty-free treat, loved Auntie Loo’s and credited it for being delicious and accessible vegan food,” Pester says.
Pester had discovered the bakery as a new vegan at the age of 17. “I ventured to Auntie Loo’s to try my first vegan baked good. Not only was Mandi so kind and helpful to me when she found out I had decided to go vegan, but her food was amazing and helped me to really believe that veganism was something I could do for the rest of my life.”
I learned about the bakery closing when Mandi called me, asking for help with her written statement. On the heels of the death of ZenKitchen, I was crushed. I knew it couldn’t compare to what Mandi or her staff were experiencing though.
After the announcement was posted, speculation swiftly followed. Many wondered if they had not supported the bakery enough. Others questioned the seemingly explosive growth of the previous couple of years. There was plenty of snark, but there was also a tremendous sense of loss (to read my post on it, including the statement issued on social media, click here).
Mandi Lunan promptly disappeared from public view, keeping in touch with only her family and a small handful of people. She felt humiliated, and couldn’t bear to face anyone.
“Devastated is not a strong enough word for how I felt,” she told me recently. “The hardest part was disappointing and letting down everyone who had trusted and believed in me, but I own my mistakes. The demise of the business was no one’s fault but my own, and I’m still trying to forgive myself for it.”
So, what happened? How could a business that appeared to be thriving close its doors so suddenly?
The accidental entrepreneur
Mandi Lunan became a bakery owner almost by accident. Upon first becoming vegan in 2000, she was disappointed by the lack of edible vegan options.
“When I moved to Ottawa in 2002, I began baking rich tasty goodies for friends and roomies,” she says. “Then co-workers started giving me money to cook vegan meals and treats for the week for them. Then I got roped into a craft show. The response was massive. I realized I had a business on my hands.”
Punk music promoter Shawn Scallen made it his personal mission to get Lunan up and selling desserts in Ottawa, and finally after beginning by wholesaling to a few local health food stores, Lunan was able to open her first location on Bronson Avenue.
“After a few years of craft sales, business school, personal orders and being incubated (when you use a city approved facility to produce your product), I opened my first location on Bronson Ave in 2009. It was one of my favorite memories and accomplishments, and was years in the making!” Lunan says. The business continued growing; Farm Boy became a point of sale, followed by Aramark and Algonquin Food Services. For a period Auntie Loo’s Treats were available at Second Cup cafes.
When the producers of Donut Showdown called from the Food Network and invited Lunan to audition, she could hardly believe it. “Something so small I did for fun became an internationally known brand. I was thrilled,” she says.
The Ottawa vegan community was also thrilled to see one of its own not only gaining so much prominence, but also providing much-needed vegan options. Michael Schnier was one of them. “It was just three blocks north of my old apartment in Sandy Hill, and I was sad to see it go,” says Schnier, who runs the @YOWVeggies Twitter account. “In my experience, omnivore bakeries, cafes, pubs, and restaurants can be very good at accommodating vegan customers, but I have given up on reading desert menus. I’m not sure if I have ever been to a non-vegetarian sit down restaurant that had a single desert option I could order.”
But Auntie Loo’s filled that void. “What Auntie Loo’s offered was variety. Sweet and savoury scones, half a dozen different flavours of cupcakes all with perfect icing, and pizza rolls made with Daiya,” Schnier says.
By 2013 the bakery was juggling huge clients, so Lunan decided to move and expand the bakery to accommodate the growing demand. It opened on Nelson Avenue in Fall 2013.
It should have been the business’ critical next step to success.
Death by a thousand cuts
The move did not go as planned.
“I hired all the wrong people for the construction and underestimated the permit process with the city of Ottawa,” Lunan says. Construction dragged on for months. Managing the day to day of the business and trying to build the new space ran her ragged.
She admits to struggling with mental illness her whole life, and says that the added stress took her out. “I wasn’t sleeping, having nightmares and panic attacks, and just generally burning out. I should have asked for more help, but I was proud and didn’t. This was my first mistake.”
With the bakery finally up and running, it seemed like Lunan and her team were in the home stretch. But the trauma lingered. Lunan couldn’t get it together.
“I was so burnt out I didn’t prepare for finances properly. I was overwhelmed,” she says.
Lunan was once again kicked while already down; in June 2014 she had a bicycle accident, shattering her right leg between her knee and ankle. She endured nine hours of surgery and the insertion of multiple metal plates, and given a recovery time of one year. She would be unable to walk for the first 4 to 6 of those months.
But the world wasn’t finished with her. “Upon calling my insurance, I was I informed that I wasn’t covered for loss of labour for myself. The burden fell to my staff and family. I was exhausted and again, didn’t ask for help,” she says.
Knock out punch
After half a year of of being almost entirely unable to work, Lunan attempted to return to manage the business.
“Upon my return, the business was in financial turmoil due to me being physically unable to do my job. I ignored all the warning signs and continued to avoid the financial issues. I had no fight left, I was too burnt out.”
For my part, I sensed that all was not right. She was kind and pleasant as always, but I could sense there was an edge. But when asked, she insisted she was fine. On the surface everything seemed great.
In June 2015, she says the Canada Revenue Agency called and told her that everything she had now belonged to them; accounts, space, outstanding payments clients owed her, everything.
“I was devastated and had no choice but to abruptly close my business. In not paying attention to my self care, in not asking for help, in not addressing the issues head on and making hard decisions, I had let down everyone. My staff who had trusted me for their livelihood, my family, and my customers,” Lunan says.
Lunan had realized that she had nowhere to turn, and no way to salvage the business. She had let things become too far gone, and the dream was over.
On June 18, she had shared adorable photos of a resident squirrel to the bakery’s Facebook, to the delight of customers. On June 19, she announced the business closing, and on June 20, the last Auntie Loo’s treats were sold.
And with that, the deafening noise in Mandi’s head was silenced. There was nothing left.
“I fell apart. My father came and got me to stay with them in their tiny hamlet in Prince Edward County until I was better. I was so despondent I had to be supervised and was not even allowed to drive a car. I pulled away from everyone and everything. Turned off my phone, deleted my social media, deleted my email,” she says.
Her partner took her to France for a few weeks in August, and her profound sadness persisted. “Though I enjoyed the experience, I was deeply sad during the trip too, and couldn’t hide it. That’s when I knew I was truly heartbroken- you have to be pretty fucked up to be sad in France!”
Upon her return, she went back to her parents’ home and tried to figure out her next move. In September, a longtime friend offered her an admin job with his company.
“I learned that you can’t be admin once you’ve been the boss. I did a few months there before we all realized it was a mistake. We consciously uncoupled. That’s when I decided it was time to apply my knowledge and network,” she says.
And with that, her consulting firm, This Charming Mandi, was born. (You can follow her in IG: @thischarmingmandi) and Facebook.)
A brighter future
“I’ve learned that entrepreneurs are forever,” Lunan says. “Trying to work a 9-5 seemed like a luxury, but ended up being difficult as I was not accustomed to it, and I struggled not being the boss.”
These days, she is working part time at the LCBO while building her consulting business. She enjoys the friendly low-stress interaction with LCBO customers.
So far her consulting clients have included a government run daycare centre, a tiny restaurant, a rock band, and even some visual artists. She offers services including business plan writing, speaking and lectures, social media strategy, and an “introduction” service for which she pairs clients with people from her personal network based on personalities and needs.
“What I’ve learned in the past year is that I’m so much more than just the Auntie Loo’s brand. There’s value in my life, in my knowledge, in my family and friends,” she says.
Her longtime friend Mailyne Mae agrees. She first met Mandi in Small and Medium Enterprise Management at Algonquin College, and says that while Mandi was courageous enough to pursue her passions, she had not yet reached that point . “When I finally jumped into self-employment, Mandi was always at the forefront of my mind, ” she says. “She gave me courage and words of wisdom and was even one of my first clients. To me, Mandi wasn’t someone I knew as a vegan baker, she was and is a dear friend who has inspired me and who also happened to feed me through her baking. The closing of her business has definitely left a hole in the community but it will never leave a hole in our hearts, especially not mine.”
Lunan has also been working diligently on an upcoming cookbook, Auntie Loo for You, with a planned late autumn release. She will be sharing her favorite recipes from the bakery, as well as many of the ones she makes at home.
Now that she’s given herself an entire year to grieve, she is ready to resume being the fabulous Mandi Loo. She’s cleaned up her diet and shed 30 pounds, has her business designed, and has taken tentative steps back into the public eye, on social media and otherwise.
“I was welcomed back with open arms and frankly, it was overwhelming. There were tears in my eyes as the well wishes poured in. I love this community so much,” she says. “The support I’ve received through all of this means everything.”
“I’m still in recovery so I have my down days or things that make me sad. I’m slowly coping and moving on, doing the best I can and being grateful for what I have now. There’s a lot of joy in my life, and I’m happy.”
Get Pamela Tourigny’s Five Favourite Smoothie when you sign up for the Vegan Eats Ottawa newsletter here. Pamela is an Ottawa-based expert on the topics of veganism and vegan advocacy, sustainability, and ethical consumerism. She also consults with business clients with their marketing, communications and public relations needs, and with restaurants on adapting their menus to introduce plant-based options.