Susan Mendelson, founder of the Lazy Gourmet, shares a little about herself and her business at the launch of this year’s The Scribe. (photo by Kenneth I. Swartz)
One of Vancouver’s most successful food industry professionals shared her story recently, helping to launch this year’s edition of The Scribe, the journal of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
The topic of the 2018 issue is food, covering restaurants and related sectors from the early days of the community up to destinations that are still operating today. Susan Mendelson, best known around town as founder of the Lazy Gourmet, brought her thespian side to the audience at the Western Front Nov. 28, eliciting laughter as she guided the packed hall on a tour through her remarkable career.
“My mother’s mother, Grandma Faye, was a large influence in my life,” Mendelson said. An extraordinary baker and cook renowned in her small Jewish community of Quebec City, Grandma Faye took it as a challenge to keep a deep freezer filled with baking for when friends dropped by or to be ready for a tea party.
As a child, Mendelson loved to cook and bake. When the Six Day War broke out in Israel, in 1967, the family rallied to raise funds to send to Israel. Young Susan planned a bake sale in their backyard. She made all of her favourite squares and cookies and the neighbours snapped them up. Mendelson’s mother only told her years later that the cost of the ingredients was on par with what was raised that day. Thankfully, Mendelson told the audience, that wasn’t a harbinger of things to come.
Mendelson came to Vancouver to study at the University of British Columbia and gravitated to the theatre department. Her theatre professor, Larry Lillo, became a close friend. He broke the news to Mendelson that she would never be a great actress … though he really loved her cheesecake.
After third year, Mendelson took a break from school and worked in a group home for troubled teens. There, she met Deborah Roitberg, with whom she made the food for the kids in the group home. An instant friendship developed.
After traveling to Europe and Israel, Mendelson thought she would return to school and pursue social work. Around that time, Lillo had founded Tamahnous Theatre, an experimental ensemble that was becoming the resident company at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. He hired Mendelson as house manager, which allowed her to go to school during the day and work at the Cultch, as the institution is familiarly known, at night. But the salary didn’t cover her expenses, so she began to make cheesecake to sell at intermission, later adding carrot cake and Nanaimo bars to her repertoire – “when the curtain came down at intermission, the lobby was stormed by people pushing in line to make sure that they got their piece of the cake.”
Anne Petrie of CBC radio’s afternoon show called Mendelson, having heard about the cheesecake phenomenon, and asked her to come on the program.
“I told her that I was putting myself through university with the recipe, but that I would come onto her show to tell her listeners how to make chocolate cheesecake, a recipe that my friend Miriam Gropper had given me,” Mendelson said.
Her cheeky attitude was a hit with audiences, and she was asked back. She returned for Valentine’s Day, talking about aphrodisiacs. Soon she had a regular radio gig paying $25 per appearance.
Mendelson’s boss at the Cultch started asking her to cater opening night parties. Wedding catering followed and then Mendelson was given the responsibility of catering to all the performers at the first iteration of the Vancouver Children’s Festival. She and Roitberg discussed opening a take-out food business.
“Our concept was that people would bring in their casserole dishes and platters and we would fill them with our food and they would take them home and pretend that they had made them themselves,” she said. “We would call ourselves the Lazy Gourmet, in honour of our customers who wanted gourmet food but were too lazy to make it themselves.”
Over the years, Mendelson had shared scores of recipes with radio listeners and some asked her to put them in book form. Mama Never Cooked Like This sold out and went into reprints; it was picked up by an American publisher.
To coincide with the publication of her second book, which was written for children and titled Let me in the Kitchen, the producer of the Children’s Festival, Chris Wootten, asked Mendelson to produce her own show. The best part of that experience, Mendelson recalled, was that a single dad in the audience brought his 7-year-old son and they bought the cookbook and made recipes
from it. “Six years later, I met those two,” she said. “And, seven years later, I married the dad and became stepmother to the most wonderful young teen. I was so happy that Jack and Soleil had experienced that show and that in some way we shared that amazing experience of my life.”
TV appearances followed and Mendelson was asked to write a souvenir cookbook for Expo 86.
But the trajectory was not entirely positive. After expanding the Lazy Gourmet from one store to three, the company began losing money. They eventually abandoned two of the storefronts and Roitberg left the business to raise a family.
Soon after the birth of daughter Mira, Mendelson was invited to cater a new event that was coming to Vancouver: the Molson Indy Vancouver.
“If you thought that the Children’s Festival wore me out … you can’t even imagine what that event did to me physically,” she said. “But, of course, I loved it and, by the last few years of the race, which took place on Labour Day weekend – Jack will tell you that it was our anniversary weekend that we didn’t celebrate for nine years – we were also catering the Abbotsford Airshow, which took place two weeks beforehand and, two weeks before that, we catered the Skins Game at Predator Ridge in the Okanagan.”
In addition to hard work, Mendelson credits her success to hiring people who she says are smarter and more talented than herself. A couple of years ago, she gave shares in the company to two long-term team members and moved into a part-time role. The company continues to expand, including a lifecycle catering department. “We call it womb-to-tomb catering,” she said, citing baby-namings, britot milah, b’nai mitzvah, weddings and funerals, as well as personal events. More recently, Mendelson took on catering the lunches at Vancouver Talmud Torah.
The Scribe launch also included words from Cynthia Ramsay, editor and publisher of the Independent, who has also, for the past nine years, edited The Scribe.
“When I started the job, the journal was a mix of academic essays and community-related history,” Ramsay said. “But it soon changed to become a means by which the museum could highlight its collection; the oral histories, photographs and other artifacts that it houses on the community’s behalf. We’ve done issues on the Jewish Western Bulletin, the Jewish Independent’s predecessor; on the furniture industry; scrap metal dealers; the clothing industry; on some of the community pioneers who are buried in our cemeteries all around the province; and, this year, of course, our issue is on the food and service industry.”
She credited museum staff Alysa Routtenberg, Marcy Babins and Michael Schwartz, and the publications committee, which this year included Routtenberg, Perry Seidelman, Gary Averbach, Debby Freiman, Fred Swartz and Ronnie Tessler. The JI’s production manager, Josie Tonio McCarthy, does the layout for the journals.
Seidelman, president of the JMABC, urged audience members not to throw out photographs or documents. “Give them to us,” he said.