In our January issue, we asked: Who will carry the city's torch forward for the next generations? Here, the next niche culinary star
She's the founder of a food startup that got its big break in the North Market. The author of an award-winning cookbook. The creator of a brand with a clear point of view and aesthetic. And she possesses a world-beating confidence in her vision and her team.
With apologies to Jeni Britton Bauer, we're actually describing Cara Mangini, the vegetable evangelist, owner of Little Eater and author of “The Vegetable Butcher,” which won two International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Cookbook Awards last year. Mangini is not only a successful author and restaurateur, but also a savvy marketer and the ringleader of a movement—one that revolves around vegetable education and raising the profile of local produce.
Her path to vegetable butchery—and Columbus, for that matter—was both serpentine and serendipitous. Mangini, who hails from a large Italian family from the San Francisco Bay Area, earned a journalism degree from Northwestern University before moving to New York City in 2001 and opting for a job in fashion at Estée Lauder.
Although she enjoyed her career path, something didn't feel right. So she started taking food-writing classes and talking to entrepreneurs, one of whom asked her, “If you could do anything on your day off, what would you do?”
“I knew immediately that I would cook for the people I love,” she says during an interview at Little Eater's new, full-service restaurant in Clintonville. “And so that set the path for me. It wasn't a clear path, but I began saying ‘yes' to everything that would allow me to cook.”
She took two significant steps by attending the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York and scoring a job at Eataly New York as one of the gourmet market's first vegetable butchers. Customers would walk up to her with their produce, and she would slice it and dice it.
“It was this convenience for people that I would be able to break down your butternut squash, and you could go and have cheese and wine [in the café] ... but people stayed around, watching. From there, I dedicated all of my work to figuring out, ‘How can I answer those questions for people to make cooking with vegetables more second nature in our culture?'”
It was a chance meeting at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco that led Mangini to Columbus. At that show, she met Tom Bauer, a Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams partner and Britton Bauer's brother-in-law. He convinced Mangini that Columbus was a perfect place to start her produce-focused business. There might have been more than market opportunity at play, as Bauer and Mangini ultimately became husband and wife.
Little Eater made its North Market debut in March 2015. At the time, the market was filled with pierogis, pasta, barbecue and ice cream, says market director Rick Harrison Wolfe. “My pants have stayed the same size since I've worked here, and I give her business a lot of credit,” Harrison Wolfe says, laughing. “She came in and right away, she had a following. … She was breaking records in her first couple of months.”
Harrison Wolfe believes the Little Eater concept is “completely scalable” and a unique concept here and beyond our borders. “She makes vegetables much more interesting than I ever thought one could make a vegetable. I think that's part of the allure,” he says.
At the heart of Mangini's business are her “farm partners,” the local farms she works with to procure produce for both the Little Eater restaurants and the North Market's produce stand, Little Eater Produce and Provisions.
One such farm partner is Urban Farms of Central Ohio, an initiative of Mid-Ohio Food Bank. Asked why she thinks Little Eater has developed such a strong fan base, Sarah Lenkay, Mid-Ohio Food Bank's strategic projects director, doesn't hesitate: “They use the freshest of fresh vegetables—it doesn't get any fresher than right here in Columbus, Ohio—but I also think it's because they are creatively and simply putting vegetables in the center of the plate.”
What's next for Mangini? Plans are already in the works for another cookbook. Asked if she'd like to expand Little Eater beyond Ohio, she says she's open to it all. She didn't get to this point in her career by closing herself off to possibilities.