What do Computer Science and cooking have in common?
To most, not much – but for Mediterranean caterer Mika, whose passion has always been about making things, the disciplines turned into an unlikely pair of outlets for her creativity. We sat down with her to hear her take on the transition from typing code to kneading dough, and to learn how she built the successful catering company and storefront Mika Fresh while starting a family.
When Mika and her husband first immigrated to Canada, she planned to study Culinary Arts at George Brown – a unique complement to her degree in Computer Science, which she hoped would let her explore her love for baking. But between a career in engineering and growing her family, she put the goal on the back-burner, instead taking odd bakery jobs on the weekends and after hours to satisfy the baking itch.
Soon, that itch meant that working in the kitchen became a necessity rather than a hobby. “When I was working with computers, I realized that I needed to work with my hands – but not just typing,” she said. Baking and cooking gave her a creative space she felt was missing from her office jobs that she couldn’t pass up. Her time spent in kitchens grew, and after having her second child, Mika took up opportunities to work in restaurants, eventually making the switch to baking full-time.
Since moving to Toronto, she’d also noticed a gap in the market for fresh, casual food that tasted homemade: “It was hard to find a place where you could get something healthy…You have to look very hard, and sometimes you don’t feel like having the whole experience of the restaurant, but you want real food,” she said. So she decided to fill the gap herself.
When Mika Fresh was born, it was just Mika as the head chef and owner, her former coworker Naftali who’d head the baking efforts, and whatever kitchen space they could get their hands on. As a first-time business owner, she experimented with different approaches – like a focus on packaged grab-and-go meals, and private event catering – before nailing down the concept.
Finally, she decided to focus on catering out of a small, fast-casual dine-in space. Getting into a rhythm with only two people handling the administration, storefront, catering, and deliveries took time. “We had a rough start. Our customers were very patient with us,” she laughed. Today, it couldn’t be a more different story.
In the two-and-a-half years since she and Naftali bounced from kitchen to kitchen, Mika joined Platterz, and settled into a space where her catering capacity, storefront business, and reputation as a staple Toronto caterer have skyrocketed. For Platterz customers and Toronto locals who’ve tried the food, Mika Fresh’s reputation is obvious: reliably delicious, healthful dishes that taste like they were made by Mom.
Mika’s independent approach has taught her a lot. Her advice for other burgeoning caterers is to have a solid business plan, and try to plan to offload responsibilities to hired staff. “If you have the finances from the beginning, you’ll have the resources to help you build more easily in the future,” she pointed out.
She’s frank when reflecting on her business, telling us, “on your own, it’s a lot.” At Mika Fresh, she’s solely responsible for all the administration in addition to working in the kitchen – plus, she and Naftali do the catering deliveries by themselves. The result is a business and food that people love – but it doesn’t leave much time for sleep or spending time with family, which she says is her biggest challenge.
“I don’t get to see my kids much, which for me as a mother is really difficult,” she said. Luckily, Mika’s kids are getting old enough to spend more time at the restaurant, helping out with odds and ends in the kitchen on weekends. “I think they’re getting tired of my cooking, though,” she laughed.
Mika credits Platterz in part for alleviating the burden of marketing and expanding her customer base to major Toronto companies, like Twitter, Amazon, and LinkedIn. Feeling confident about her corporate catering business has allowed her to focus on growing Mika Fresh and delivering great meals, without having to worry about getting enough customers through the door.
Since moving to her current space, she’s hired additional staff members, and plans to expand her catering capacity. “Platterz really helped push the catering business forward,” she said, “And we want to focus on it.”
As a customer favourite, we know she’ll be met with open arms.