Culinary legend Donna Dooher dives into retail with a fresh mission
By Nithya CalebFood Trends Bake & Snack Food Grain & Oilseed Milling Editor pick Mildred's Temple Kitchen Ontario
During the pandemic, several foodservice establishments began to package their signature products to not only survive as a business, but also to meet consumer demands for quality, chef-made, gourmet meals. One such restaurant is the iconic Mildred’s Temple Kitchen.
During the pandemic, several foodservice establishments began to package their signature products to not only survive as a business, but also to meet consumer demands for quality, chef-made, gourmet meals. Slowly, many of these products made their way onto our neighbourhood grocery store shelves. One such restaurant is the iconic Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, a landmark in Toronto’s Liberty Village.
Founded by Donna Dooher and Kevin Gallagher in 1989, Mildred’s is well-known for its brunch menus that include their signature pancakes, biscuits, and scones. When the restaurant had to close during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, Dooher began bagging and selling her pancake mixes from the restaurant itself.
“People were desperate for our pancake mixes,” recalls Dooher.
The demand surprised Dooher. Customers also wanted Mildred’s blueberry compote. Dooher offered the recipe, but the demand was for the finished product. This way, a pantry product line started taking shape. It is now a permanent addition to Dooher’s restaurant business.
Mildred’s sells through the pantry section pancake mixes, their blueberry compote, Mildred’s own apple butter, maple syrup from a friend’s farm in Lanark County, Perth, Ont., brunch boxes, gift baskets, hot sauce, as well as frozen and ready-to-bake buttermilk and cheddar garlic biscuits, Mildred’s famous lemon currant scones, and a cheese tart. These products can be ordered online and picked up at the restaurant or shipped to anywhere in Canada. During the pandemic, Midlred’s also partnered with Fogo Island Workshops to create their version of the famous Daybreak Box from Fogo Island Inn, N.L. The handcrafted wooden box is packed with Mildred’s pancake essentials and gifts.
The retail sector seems like a natural extension to this pantry and Dooher’s team is taking baby steps into the CPG world. This summer, I had the opportunity to talk to Dooher about her plans. The question uppermost in my mind was why Dooher, a legend in the Canadian foodservice industry, picking up a new challenge instead of planning a well-deserved retirement after 34 years in the business.
The author of multiple cookbooks, 69-year-old Dooher created Cookworks Cooking Studio, which morphed into the The Cookworks show on Food Network. She’s also served as the national chair of Taste Canada, CEO of Restaurants Canada, co-chair of the Yes Chef! Fundraising Campaign at George Brown College, Toronto, and has worked extensively with Brand Canada to promote Canadian hospitality around the globe.
Dooher admitted that when the pandemic hit, she and her late husband, Kevin, considered retiring. There were, in fact, working on an exit strategy.
“We love what we do even though it’s a challenging, hard business. We’re tremendously passionate about it, and we’ve been successful. When the pandemic shut everything down, I recall having a conversation with Kevin. I said, maybe we should call it a day. It would be very easy for us to sunset the business,” recalls Dooher.
However, the couple decided to push through the pandemic.
“We’ve had hard times before. We’ve built such a great brand, so we both agreed to keep going,” recounts Dooher.
Additionally, staffing issues, supply chain challenges and inflation meant Mildred’s, like many other restaurants, couldn’t go back to business as usual when they re-opened after pandemic-induced lockdowns. Mildred’s eliminated the dinner service and limited themselves to brunch service. In the evenings, the restaurant now hosts weddings and other social events.
The team decided to keep open the pantry section, though, and diversify and expand it while staying within their niche of brunch-related foods. The pantry business became successful. But Kevin, who was ill for a few years, died during the pandemic. Dooher, however, decided to carry on.
“It’s going to be part of my succession plan. I call it Grow to Go for Donna,” she says. “I don’t feel old at all. I work with incredible, delightful people who are younger than I am. I learn from them every day because they’re constantly challenging me, bringing in new ways of doing things that I would never have thought of. I’d like to leave this business better than I found it. I don’t feel we’ve achieved that yet. That’s a huge burden to put on oneself. [But] there are a lot of flaws in this business. It’s getting better but there’s still a long way to go.”
Dooher partnered with Conestoga College, who tested Mildred’s products for shelf life as well as performed nutritional analyses. The college also helped them with labelling. Dooher then sought the help of food consultants to develop the products and comply with food regulations. Currently, Mildred’s is redesigning the packaging to meet various provincial labelling laws. Once that’s finalized, their co-packer, Dawn Foods near Burlington, Ont., will begin production.
At this point, Mildred’s pancake mix and blueberry compote will hit retail stores first.
“I’m on a massively steep learning curve,” says Dooher. “Understanding pricing, distribution, margin, scale, compliance, there are so many things. I’m learning every day about the competitive nature of the products that are available and why is someone going to choose my pancake mix over others displayed on the shelf on the retail store. What is the differential? Is it price? Is it reputation? Is it the storytelling? Is it the packaging? We’re fumbling our way through, but we have a vision to disrupt grocery stories aisles.”
Instead of having separate aisles for cereal, beverages, and frozen foods, Dooher hopes to one day see brunch aisles that’ll house all the products one needs for a brunch. A bold vision, indeed, but Dooher may be able to pull it off. After all, her restaurant, Mildred’s, is synonymous with brunch culture in Toronto.
Print this page