Every day there seems to be more and more amazing vegan businesses popping up all over this great country of ours, and Auntie Loo’s Treats just so happens to one of those businesses! A popular vegan bakery in the heart of Ottawa, Auntie Loo’s bakes up a mixture of old time classics like Nanaimo Bars and Lemon Squares to drool inducing ice cream cakes, with pretty much everything you can think of in between (I’m dreaming of you Peanut Butter & Jam Bars). The queen of Ottawa vegan baking herself, Mandi Loo, was kind of enough to chat with me about veganism, food and what it takes to own and run a vegan bakery!
When did you become vegan? What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced in adopting a vegan lifestyle?
I became vegan at age 20, after being vegetarian from age 5. The biggest challenge was trying to re create/ find vegan substitutions for the things that temped me most. The “hit list” to this day includes cream cheese, macaroni and cheese, cheesecake, reeses peanut butter cups and greek salad. I’m happy to say I now make vegan versions of all of these!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in regards to vegan cooking/baking?
Lots of trial and error. I like things to be as authentic as possible so I’ll make ‘em over and over until I’m satisfied. One of our biggest challenges was amazing marshmallows, and luckily we met a local guy who was making authentic vegan marshmallows called “charmellows”
Another was making the perfect peanut butter bar and I’m happy to say we have been successful in that now!
My current goal is to make vegan caramels.
How did you get Auntie Loo’s off the ground? Were there many obstacles you had to face to get it started?
The above link has the whole story about how the shop came to be, but the obstacles specifically were as follows:
I was pretty poor as I was a health food shop cashier/record shop gal and barista for most of my youth so I had no savings or real money and was living on minimum wage. i was laughed out of banks when I asked for loans or a bank account for the business in the early days. Luckily I was connected to the Ottawa Community Loan Fund through an event at the YMCA and they agreed to a small loan to finance my venture. Then some friends of mine who have a business here recommended the Ottawa Women’s Credit Union as a reliable bank, and they were right. It’s such a small friendly bank, it’s like have your own posse of moms. They make calls on your behalf, they had my money back when our account was compromised an emptied, they pressured debit companies until they agreed to give us a machine- I can’t say enough good things about them!
Did you find you had a lot of success right away being one of the few vegan businesses in your area?
Yes, there was a lot of interest and excitement when we opened. Lots of folks came and still come just because they like the food. Not necessarily because it is vegan, which is thrilling to me. I’m so happy that we can help quash the myth of the “bland and hard as rocks” vegan treats. Ottawa has lots of amazing vegan restaurants like Zen Kitchen and Cafe My House- we feel so lucky to be among them here!
We are proud to be Eastern Ontario’s only vegan bakery.
From your experience of running a successful bakery, what could you pass along to others wanting to embark on a similar path?
Be patient- nothing happens overnight and you have to go along slowly, learning each step of the way. I’m infamous to my loved ones for my impatience (I know, how ironic- and I’m a baker!) so this was a great lesson for me personally. I’ve grown a lot as a person since 2009.
Also take constructive criticism from your actual physical customers, they know what they want, they love you and want you to succeed- be sure to listen to them and maybe even take notes to mull over later. It’s helped me a lot here over the years.
Listen to your clients- they’ll never steer you wrong!
Don’t think that online haters are constructive criticism- people will say anything and get vicious even with the anonymity of the internet and you can’t count on it. (It’s like Sinatra says- “Some people get their kicks stompin’ on a dream”) Don’t let them get you down.
When you were growing up, was cooking and food a big part of your childhood?
Food has been an obsession for me as far back as I can remember, and I have always loved to cook and bake and be in kitchens. My Nana and my Mother Indulged me most of my life- so I’m lucky. My favorite thing to make as a kid were cinnamon buns. My mum and I would sit and watch the dough rise- it was so exciting to me- I thought it was so cool that the dough could take care of itself.
What are your most popular items?
Our nanamio bars are what I am frequently told is the most infamous- we sell tons of them every day! Our S’more whoopie pies are getting up there now too. Nostalgic treats I always find do well.
Out of all your products, which would you say is your favorite and why?
Peanut Butter chocolate bars or cupcakes. I’ve been peanut butter chocolate obsessed my whole life! The combination can’t be beat and both treats are luxe and rich, another requirement I have when choosing desserts.
What vegan ingredients and/or vegan products have you discovered that you simply couldn’t live without?
If they stopped making EARTH BALANCE tomorrow, I’d cry my eyes out! It’s so salty and great as a butter replacer in frostings, bars, cakes, scones- so versatile and such good quality!
Applesauce and beet purees are amazing things too- they add so much moisture and softness to cakes and scones and have such a subtle flavour. you can even use them in place of oil in certain recipes.
What is the best advice you can give someone who is new to a vegan lifestyle?
Be patient and try everything once (even veggies and stuff you think you’ll hate). Try to avoid making vegan junk foods (fake meats, cheeses, etc.) part of your staple diet- they’ll just break the bank and make you feel yucky. They’re fine in moderation but not every day. I try to eat whole foods like vegetables, beans, and rice while avoiding going on a soy/junk food overload. I find it makes me feel energetic and happy without going broke.
Also if you have the time and money, consulting a naturopath is something I recommend. Oh and buy a copy of “Appetite for Reduction” by Isa Chandra- it’s my favourite cookbook ever!
How do you respond to negative comments from those critical of a vegan lifestyle – both online and in the real world?
I like to take the high road and lead by example. I will usually answer questions politely but if I sense the person is becoming pushy or rude or just looking for a fight I’ll change the subject or tell the person that I am not challenging their meal or beliefs. If a joke in bad taste is made regarding my veganism (which 99% of the time is the case) I’ll just drop in I’ve been veg so long I’ve heard them all and that I wish the meat-eating community would get some fresh material. *Yawn*
I never offer an opinion unless I am invited to, and even then I tread lightly. I think forcing things on folks is rude and no effective. I like to think of the bakery as my personal activism- every time someone comes here (especially non vegans) they aren’t buying animal filled things so I’m preventing suffering.
What can we expect to see in the future for Auntie Loo’s Treats?
No just kidding- we’re starting vegan cooking classes for adults and youth in the next few weeks- we’re really jazzed about that!
Hopefully we’ll be able to start distributing to a larger clientele- I look to Sweets from the Earth a lot for inspiration- they’re everywhere and it’s so cool!
Fill in the blank:
I am happiest when… I am riding my bike to go on a picnic with my main squeeze, Chris!
My biggest pet peeve is.. bad manners
My favorite meal currently is… Spicy Fennel Tempeh Pasta from the Veganomicon cookbook
If I could go anywhere on a free vacation, I would travel to… Russia
When I’m baking, I like to listen to… Mika Miko, Prince, The Smiths, The Jam, Crass, X Ray Spex or Betty Davis
(sorry did I mention I worked at a record store too before I opened this place?! I can’t possibly pick one <3)
507 Bronson Ave.
Ottawa, ON, K1R 6J8
And if you happen to stop by, feel free to pick up a Peanut Butter Square for your old friend Maggie! No? Ah well, it was worth a shot.