No matter the occasion, a holiday or visit during spring break, Kailey Gilchrist knew that when she made that drive from university in Toronto back home to Barrie, she’d be greeted by a familiar smell – that secret family recipe, her mom’s cashew sauce.

“She had been making this cashew sauce for years, my sister is 15 years older than me and she grew up with it as well,” she says.

The creamy white sauce was a layover from Kailey’s mother’s days as a vegan and a throwback to the Italy her mum had left behind when she was seven. But over time, the creamy cashew concoction became a pet project for both Kailey and her mother.

“She and I had always been obsessed with cooking together, that was how we bonded and spent all our time,” says Kailey.

So when the theatre major went vegan, her mum followed suit and they took to evolving the cashew sauce into a vegan alfredo. It was a work in progress when her mother died.

“I was finishing up my degree and cooking like crazy to deal with the grief,” she says. The rest of her time was devoted to working her job demoing products at a health food store. “And my sister was like ‘hey, you should sell some of the stuff that you’re making.’ ”

It was an a-ha moment for Kailey. The entrepreneurial theatre major set out perfecting the sauce and in 2013 launched under the name Soul to Bowl Sauces Inc. Since then, she’s rebranded as NONA Vegan Foods and expanded the line to include two more vegan sauces – carbonara-style and cheesy-style. She’s grown from local, independent shops to over 50 stores including Loblaws and Whole Foods throughout Ontario especially the Greater Toronto Area.

“People are becoming more and more aware of ingredient labels and lists,” she says. “Everybody is so busy nowadays but they still want natural, home-cooked meals.”

Kailey says that while her target consumer was vegan, that demographic is 20 per cent of her market now.

“Maybe even less,” she says. “Vegan food nowadays is a lot less scary than it used to be, people are realizing that it’s not that different, it’s just cleaner ingredients.”

It’s an attitude she’s noticed most prevalent in Toronto. She’s also found a sturdy support structure in the city from groups like Enterprise Toronto and Futurepreneur, which Kailey received both a loan and mentorship from.

“I’m blown away with how many resources there are in Toronto – all these little hubs and networking events and the little communities that just want to support small businesses,” she says.

Even in her own industry she’s found support and paid it forward, creating the vegan entrepreneurial guild of Toronto (vegTO).

“We have a little Facebook discussion thing, the community here is almost kind of overwhelming,” she says. “There’s so many little outlets you can reach out to, which is great, it makes you feel a lot less alone as an entrepreneur.”