A woman holds out chocolate chunks beside waffle makers
Domenique Mastronardi prepares waffles

A lifelong love for healthy foods, some helpful support from professors and plenty of entrepreneurial spirit has led a University of Guelph student to launch a growing waffle delivery business amid the pandemic.

Domenique Mastronardi is the founder of the recently opened The Happy Era, an online food company that delivers homemade frozen waffles to a growing list of customers. Mastronardi has her eye on expanding into stores soon and hopes to keep growing the business to one day offer a whole spectrum of what she calls “deliciously nourishing” food products.

“I’ve always been a health nerd with an eye for nutritious food,” she said. “Growing up on my family’s cucumber farm, creativity and entrepreneurship were encouraged from a young age. I was always coming up with healthy recipes, like protein balls, or cakes made with pumpkin. That’s where it all started.”

That passion for food led her to a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering at U of G, where she was challenged in a third-year bioprocessing engineering class to come up with a sustainable food product.

Closeup photo of four stacked waffles with syrup drizzling onto themShe purchased a lot of fresh juices on campus and noticed the fruit and vegetable pulp was being composted so she decided to find a way to reuse the stringy, odd-coloured leftovers in baking.

Through lots of trials and feedback from friends and family, she came up with a tasty and healthy waffle recipe and aced the assignment.

Her professor suggested she join U of G’s Project Soy Plus competition, a contest supported by the Food from Thought research program that challenges students to devise products and innovations using soybeans and other plant-based products.

Mastronardi tweaked her waffle recipe, came up with a plant-based version that used juice pulp, potatoes and soybeans, and won the 2020 contest at the undergraduate level.

“That was such a great learning experience. I just loved everything about the competition: meeting like-minded people, getting creative in the kitchen and even making my presentation poster,” she said. “And I realized I can make time for things I’m passionate about outside of school. That competition became the springboard for me to enter the entrepreneurial space.”

One of the judges on Project Soy Plus was also a leader of The Hub Incubator, a U of G program that offers students and alumni funding and mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs to help startups develop strong business models.

“I took part in that last year virtually, and again, learned so much,” she said. “Every week, there was a different topic covered, like the legal aspects of running a small business, how to incorporate, how to get liability insurance, how to launch a website. It was so valuable.”

A woman sits beside a restaurant grade mixerThe network of mentors she was able to connect with also became a big source of support, as did connecting with other budding entrepreneurs who, like her, were learning as they went.

“They say that entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey, especially when you’re a one-woman operation,” she said. “But The Hub Incubator made it the opposite for me. I left every week feeling inspired.”

While launching the new business, Mastronardi is also now pursuing a master’s with the food research lab in the School of Engineering where she will be upcycling fruit waste into new snacks.

“I felt drawn to this lab because they combine two of my favourite things: healthy eating and sustainable development. I feel so lucky to continue my education in a space where my passions are celebrated and encouraged,” she said.

The Happy Era, meanwhile, is launching four high-protein, high-fibre waffle flavours, which Mastronardi plans to roll out to customers in stages. First up are a peanut butter-chocolate chunk version and a cinnamon version, both of which are gluten- and dairy-free and use locally sourced eggs. Her new recipe no longer uses upcycled juice pulp, but she hopes to reintroduce it in the future.

“I decided to call my company The Happy Era because I know I’m a more productive and happier person when I take care of my health and put myself first. These waffles are a great way to put yourself first,” Mastronardi said.

“I’m envisioning an era where happy, passionate people have the energy to do all the things they want to do. That’s where the name comes from: a vision of a happy era.”

As Canada’s food university, the University of Guelph is shining a light on all the ways we are supporting and improving Canada’s food systems in celebration of Food Day Canada on July 31. Visit U of G’s Food Day Canada page to learn more.