In the low-fat, no-fat generation of the nervous '90s, everybody wants his or her cake but is too scared to eat it.
But now a former dishwasher and busboy from Caldwell, Idaho has quietly made a splash with decadant desserts that have Hollywood buzzing.
"We are teaching people to enjoy food on a holistic level," said Mani Niall, who runs four coffee house-style bakeries in the Los Angeles area. "We use whole grains, natural sweeteners and less processing. But we are not trying to be an oat bran bar."
Indeed, the Mani's Bakery outlets in West Hollywood, Studio City, Santa Monica and the flagship on Fairfax Boulevard near the Farmer's Market are jammed with such delicate desserts as apple blueberry pie, carrot raisin cake, tiramisu, chocolate raspberry fortress cake, chocolate truffles, banana cranberry crunch cake and one of their biggest sellers, the chocolate cream heart-shaped tart. Many of the desserts are low on fat or have no fat added, but none are non-fat. "No added fat means almost fat-free, and low-fat means below 30 percent of the calories from fat," said Mani (pronounced Mon-ee).
Unlike many bakeries, Mani and his staff make everything from scratch, all at the Fairfax Boulevard shop.
"We are hands on," he said. "If you go to a typical bakery, they don't know or care what they put into their baked goods."
The result of his attention to detail has made Mani's a hangout for Hollywood stars like Roseanne, Laura Dern, k.d. lang, Faye Dunaway, Fran Dresher and such rockers as Aerosmith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When Barbra Streisand wanted to rendezvous with her ex-beau Richard Baskin, she met him at Mani's on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.
Many, like actress Marilu Henner, say they like Mani's for its low-fat baked goods. "It all tastes good and they observe all the stringent health principles I ascribe to," she said.
Mani caters to Hollywood, literally providing baked goods for such TV shows as "The Nanny," "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You."
"They've managed to keep the taste while still being sugarless and mostly low-fat," said Bill Nuzzo, who runs the crafts services department for the "Seinfeld" show produced in Studio City. "People seem to want that these days."
Television personality Ed McMahon, who recommended that Mani cater his new sitcom, "Tom," said he became a devotee several years ago after his health-conscious wife introduced him to Mani's desserts.
"We stop on our way back and forth to get coffee and get little pies and lemon tarts," McMahon said. "I really like the the faux nut, the low-fat, non-fat doughnuts they make."
At the stores, the customers tend to be eclectic.
"This (Fairfax) location attracts working people, Beverly Hills shopping divas and Bohemians," Mani said. "It's your classic coffee-house crowd."
It's not surprising that Mani's attracts a show biz crowd. He was Michael Jackson's personal chef when the singer lived at his Encino compound. "He liked ice cream, cookies, cake," Mani said. "He has a good sweet tooth."
At the age of 25, Mani who is now 38, soon found himself traveling the world with Jackson. While in Europe, Mani cooked for Beatle George Harrison. After returning to Los Angeles, he became a chef at the now-defunct Nowhere Cafe on Beverly Boulevard.
"People are afraid of food," Mani said. "They don't sit down for meals. Men are frightened to cook and a lot of women don't want to cook because they think it is sexist. I think I am the last kid with a 'Leave It To Beaver' childhood."
Mani began his career in 1989 with his partner Larry Maiman, whose background was in real estate and retail. The startup was $20,000. Instead of opening a store at first, they developed a wholesale operation and rented an industrial kitchen.
They lost money the first year, but their luck changed when Danny DeVito, a health food devotee, had Mani make him a health food donut that he could munch on camera while he was playing a junk food nut in "Other People's Money."
The result was called a "Faux-Nut," which was baked, not fried. The ensuing publicity led Mani to open on Fairfax. Last year, Mani said, revenues were $3.9 million.
"It's a tough business," Mani said. "The failure rate on restaurants is phenomenal. We are here for the long haul and we try to create food that the customer responds to and can't get anywhere else."
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