Linda from Lunch Lady Lou

Lunch Lady Lou is basically the busy city worker’s dream come true. Delivering healthy lunch and snacks in Sydney five days a week, Linda Ellis has built a thriving little business with passion and heart.

Linda Ellis’s previous life (in the not-so-distant past) saw her juggling a full-time corporate career in event management with making lunches for herself and some colleagues. As her client base expanded in the last two years and she’s honed the Lunch Lady Lou brand, Linda was able to leave her corporate gig in January this year and focus all her energy on her “baby business”.

Lou’s story is far from the norm. After a cancer diagnosis and a surgery that left half her face paralysed for a few months, instead of jumping on the health bandwagon and turning her life around, Linda almost did the opposite. As a 20-something, she admits to living off pub grub, alcohol and strong coffee.

Eight years later, Linda is well and truly a “food nerd”. It was travelling through Vietnam several years ago where Lunch Lady Lou “fell out of her head”. “Walking through food markets in Vietnam I thought, ‘How can a not-so-developed country be so far ahead in terms of going to the market every morning for fresh produce?’ I then worked in London and spent all my lunch times walking aisles ‘researching’ in Planet Organic and wholefoods stores.” Upon returning home, she studied with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition while working full-time and her love for health grew stronger.

A one-woman-show, Lou delivers lunch, healthy snacks and drinks to individual office workers and caters for larger teams, five days a week, every week. “The thing I learned after my unhealthy detour was that there’s no options in the city to support a healthy professional who doesn’t have time or the resources to cook their own food but needs to be on their game 24/7. So I’m kind of catering for the old me.”

Although she’s planning to expand the team very soon, Linda has only taken one holiday since starting the business – a month off when she got married last year. At this stage, she’s not ready to be leaving her clients and taking time away from providing people with healthy lunches. She describes herself as a “mumma bear”, thriving off the role of feeding people and making busy bees’ lives easier and more delicious.

"Listen to yourself and what your body is saying. If you’re tired, sleep, don’t go out. Let food be your medicine. If I feel like I’m run down, I eat a bulb of garlic. We need to remove the quick-fixes."

Lunch Lady Lou is all about real food, packed with flavour. Lou is passionate about real ingredients – none of this chemistry class junk. She’s in the business of fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, seeds, and grains. Happy chickens, organic eggs, grass-fed beef. Never fear if you don’t live in the Sydney CBD, there are lots of future dreams for Lunch Lady Lou, including an e-book, e-courses, an eight-week healthy office challenge, cooking classes and more. Lou didn’t want to give too much away, but she said “there’s a farm involved”. Whatever it is, I’m excited.

Do you have any advice for others wanting to start out on their own?

Just start. I spent a lot of time thinking about this or not knowing. I’m not a qualified chef. It’s a good industry to be able to not have a qualification like that. but going from event manager to food is totally the biggest side-step ever. When I started I was really scared, I thought why would anyone – my parents, my boyfriend, my friends – say ‘Yeah, go and do that.’ Just forget about everyone else and take it in steps.

Tell me about the beginning of the journey.

It started a long time ago. I was always very interested in my friends’ food history. I always wanted to be an Italian nonna – within my group of friends, people used to laugh that I would one day have everybody around cooking for them. I had some Polish friends and I always loved going to their family’s houses and eating. It sounds indulgent. But that’s where it begins, isn’t it? Eating dinner around the family table.

Were you always interested in cooking?

Yeah, for as long as I can remember. We had a family meeting when I was 18 and my mum sat us down and said, ‘I’ve been cooking for you for so many years and I’m sick of it.’ We all had to cook one night each a week. So my night was Tuesday night, and we had spaghetti bolognaise for two years because that’s all I knew how to cook! Cooking is hard and overwhelming. I remember mum teaching me how to make salmon vol au vent, and I was like ‘Whaaat is all this stuff – what’s garlic, what’s olive oil?!’ [laughs] So moving out, having an interest in it and then studying is how it all evolved.

How long has Lunch Lady Lou, in the business sense, been going?

Two years. So I quit my job and went travelling, a few times. Then I moved back to Australia, did nine months of blogging. I think my mum was the only one who read it. Then the food started with friends and people from work. It was small, baby steps, and very organic.

How do you manage one person delivering lunch five days a week?

No Instagram scrolling!

No distractions?

I do two delivery runs, or however many I need to do. I’m guarded with what I take on. I’m lucky at this stage to be able to manage it. The team will expand very soon, which is exciting.

What does a day in the life look like?

My gosh… I’m up at 5am. I’m still getting used to it… I’m not an early riser. It doesn’t come naturally to me. So I cook meats and sauces the night before and all salad prep is done in the morning. So it’s finishing everything, putting it in the containers. Then I’m out the door and on my way. On the streets at 7.30. I have a kiosk in the city near Pitt St Mall, where they sell bus tickets and all that. They stock my lunches. I walk between offices then, delivering lunches. Then I’m home by 10am and back in the kitchen preparing for the next day. I start orders, reply to clients, post something on Instagram. Sometimes test a new recipe, write a blog post, do some research. I studied with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and I’m doing a second year now as well.

Are you pretty good with your own lunch now?

I’m good. I’ll always have extras of what I’m making. I find dinners the hardest. I do so much in the day. It’s helping me create blogs and maybe e-courses about how to cook something in 10 minutes, how to make the most of flavour etc. Sunday is quite massive, it’s a work day for me because I have to organise everything for Monday, but it’s also what I create for me and my husband for the week. It’s all about preparation! So I always have individual cups of soup in the freezer for the week, or something.

How is it being your own boss?

I love the lifestyle change. I don’t think I was ever meant to be an event manager. I don’t actually see myself as organised. Being my own boss, I’ve been putting fairly interesting deadlines on myself. Cooking is taking up my time at the moment, but I also need to grow this thing. It’s hard when you’re your own boss. I have a no-Instagram rule, an almost no-Facebook rule. There’s always something to do. I could always get up and make a snack or practise my food photography.

Have you learned photography?

I’m learning on the job. I have no idea what I’m doing. [laughs] I love travel photography. But it’s like anything, you practise and practise and you learn what looks good. I’m constantly trying to feed off what my followers are responding to or not responding to, and not trying to look like anyone else either. Which helps because I don’t look at Instagram.