How three local women founded La Dee Da Gourmet Sauces and helped feed the conscious eating movement
By Danielle Leonard
Photography by Graham Paine
Six years ago, long-time friends Jo Anne Torrance and Mary Marino were sipping coffee in Mary’s kitchen, deliberating about what they wanted to do next with their lives. Both 40-something moms, both on leaves of absence from work, and neither wanting to go back, Jo Anne had casually asked: “If you could do anything, what would you do?” It’s a question that would trigger the launch of a food company that would be part of the conscious eating movement growing across Canada.
“I said I’d start a sauce company,” explains Mary as she sits next to her two business partners at the breakfast bar in her Milton home. Jo Anne had laughed at her response at the time, joking that it was no surprise that an Italian who loved to cook would want to start a sauce company. Yet only weeks later, that’s exactly what they set out to do when they founded La Dee Da Gourmet Sauces. Today, their sauces, soups and charcuterie gourmet jellies and jams line the shelves of grocery stores, from big brand grocers to mom and pop shops, throughout Ontario, as well as Marshall’s and Homesense locations across Canada.
“In the beginning, we did it all ourselves,” says Mary, whose Italian heritage made her the de facto sauce chef. From the outset, the partners decided to focus on a niche product – plant-based, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, low sodium, no sugar added sauces. A unique offering at the time, it quickly scored them big results.
“Our story was getting us orders,” says Mary. “We went from 10 stores in Hamilton to 100 in a month because of those claims. We were shaking things up.” That’s not to say it was easy-peasy for the women who grew up in Hamilton, Ontario.
“In the early days, it was all hands on deck. Our kids would help chop and peel and we did all our testing in Mary’s kitchen,” says Jo Anne. Their team of two grew when a mutual friend, Marlow Italiano, offered her sales expertise to help grow the business.
“I was passionate about the product because it represented how I prepared my own dishes,” says Marlow, whose husband had recently lost his battle with cancer at the time. “When I cooked for my husband, I was reading labels, making sure everything was clean and chemical free.” After he died, Marlow offered to help La Dee Da on a part-time basis. But within a week, she was fully engrossed in the company, and loving it. Joining as a third partner was a natural step for all of them.
With three leaders at the helm of La Dee Da, they all agree that it’s necessary to have clearly defined roles and duties – something that they’ve done quite well. Even still, things can get a bit dicey at times.
“When you bring something to the table, you’ve always got two critics,” says Jo Anne who admits they all have strong personalities. “We get into fights and emotions can get in the way.” But with each challenge, they say, they learn from the experience and evolve as business partners and friends. Part of that strategy includes sleepovers and wine nights to bond and take time to celebrate their successes. Now, six years in, they agree they’re better at self-care than they ever have been.
“We’ve worked so hard to build this company,” says Jo Anne, adding with a laugh, “thank God for makeup.” While the pandemic has been difficult for many businesses, it has helped drive the demand for local products – a boon for La Dee Da. Customers pore over labels, wanting to know who made it, what’s in it, and how good it is for the body – and the earth. Stores are responding to this conscious eating movement by stocking shelves with brands that meet that demand. La Dee Da’s sauces, soups and gourmet jams and jellies check off every box.
The colourful labels are intentionally designed to stand out on grocery store shelves crammed with pasta sauce brands. It’s hard not to notice the cursive La Dee Da logo emblazoned on vibrant hues – green for Twelve Veggie Tomato Sauce, purple for Savoury Mushroom Basil Sauce, red for Butternut Squash Beet Sauce and blue for Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce. Also intentional are the recipes, which have been developed to meet the demand for alternative diets.
The Butternut Squash Beet Sauce was created for those who can’t eat night shade vegetables, while the cauliflower-based sauce was in response to the keto craze. The sauces, along with La Dee Da’s four soups and six new gourmet jams and jellies, beg customers to examine its labels to discover only wholesome, all-natural ingredients make it into the jar.
One might assume Mary, Jo Anne and Marlow are vegans, themselves. But, that’s not the case. They emphasize that their products are versatile to fit every diet.
“When you used to go to a grocery store and you were vegan, there were few options for you,” says Mary. “We offer an inclusive option. You can eat it as vegan or add it to your meat dish.” They hope their customers are creative with how they use the products. Soups can double as sauces, and charcuterie jellies and jams can be tasty marinades.
“We’re the kind of product that can take everyday cooks and turn them into extraordinary cooks in their own kitchen with quick dinners so they can spend more time with their family,” says Mary. “The name La Dee Da represents a feeling. It’s the girl who goes to the party in the purple dress and lime green shoes and everyone says well isn’t she lah-dee-dah.”
With an upcoming launch on Amazon.com and a planned expansion into the U.S. and select countries overseas, it’s not just the sauces that are deserving of their name, it’s these three local women who had the audacity to pursue a business idea dreamed up over coffee and transform it into a global brand. Very La Dee Da.