To Live For was originally started by Erin Ireland with a to die for banana bread recipe. The operation was small at first, with Ireland baking out of her apartment. Fourteen years ago, Ireland had no formal background in baking but she did have an old family recipe for banana bread that she had tweaked over the years. She was actually working as a broadcaster and food writer when she began to share her bread with a wider audience. The positive reception led her to take a commercial baking space.
To Live or Die
This was back when Ireland’s company was called To Die For. The decision to change the name was informed by an important shift to plant-based ingredients. As Ireland grew her company and learned more about the food business, she also investigated veganism. With this shift, Ireland decided to rebrand and To Live For became the new company name. Now, vegan food may have a certain reputation, a reputation that Ireland has sought to curtail by avoiding the use of the word. In fact, it might be a little challenging to ascertain if To Live For is in fact a vegan bakery or not which is intentional. Ideally, a customer might wander off the street, enjoy coffee and a sausage roll or cupcake, and not even realize that what they are eating is entirely plant-based. This does happen. On a recent visit, my sister didn’t realize the sausage roll was vegan until I told her afterwards.
Plant-based food still can have a certain reputation but it isn’t just health food. It can be decadent and indulgent. As Ireland built her company and expanded the menu items that she offered, she worked in collaboration with local businesses. Her banana bread and lemon loaves could be found in coffee shops and juice bars around Vancouver until just about a year ago when Ireland took another big step forward.
A Home For To Live For
After much thought and planning, To Live For opened a cafe space of their own on Nanaimo Street. Not only do they have a space to welcome and serve customers, they also have production space to develop and craft a bigger menu of plant-based offerings. There savoury treats like sausage rolls and sweet treats like Nanaimo bars, and To Live For also sells ready to go cakes in a variety of sizes. One of my favourite features of the cafe space is the window into the cake decorating station. You can sip a coffee and watch To Live For’s pastry chefs in action.
The cafe itself is a kid and family friendly space complete with a tiny table and chairs for youngsters as well as a curated children’s library. The decor is light wood and white with touches of green from plants. The huge windows afford tons of the light and a view of the tree-lined side streets off of Nanaimo. It feels like a community cafe and is unquestionably a hot spot with moms.
Innovation and Experimentation
Ireland is perpetually striving to improve her customers’ experiences. The most popular item at To Live For is the Breakfast Croissant sandwich. It is one of the best breakfast sandwiches in the city and when the wait for an individual sandwich grew too long, Ireland invested in faster ovens so that her customers could reliably grab and go their morning favourite without a lengthy wait.
To Live For has the space and team to experiment with seasonal treats now, and they have a special monthly croissant flavour. November’s is Salted Caramel. Any new items go through rigorous testing before they are added to the menu. Plant-based baking does present its own unique challenges. French Executive Chef Thibault Champel has classical pastry training that informs his plant-based experiments. More and more plant-based ingredients are becoming available which helps, although testing is key. All plant-based butter is the not the same, nor does it react the same way to baking, melting, or creaming. To Live For uses different butters for different purposes, depending on their needs. They are still sometimes working in unchartered territories but nothing is launched until it is perfect. Ireland deems an item ready when it is craveable and delicious. It needs to be something that keeps you going back for more, something to die for but, in the case of To Live For, nothing needs to die. As their pastry bags remind, “a little vegan baking never hurt anybody.”