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
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
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
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.