To ring in five years of business at Culinarium, Kathleen Mackintosh held five consecutive celebrations in the form of a progressive dinner party.
Each Saturday in April at the locavore grocery shop on Mount Pleasant Road featured a different course for customers to taste like sausage pasta with a white wine and cream sauce, mini pork cocktail wieners infused with sparking wine and five-year old cheddar, but the biggest draw was something sweeter.
“By far the most popular day was the dessert birthday cake day,” Mackintosh says. “Flaky Tart, who is our neighbour just two doors up, she made us beautiful cakes using Granite Brewery Stout, and of course they’re just up the street, so it was a very local themed cake.”
Stemming from a background in food science and nutrition, Mackintosh first came up with the concept for a gourmet food store featuring all Ontario products while working as a recipe developer at Kraft Canada. Unlike her upbringing where people looked to Europe for the latest products and trends, she discovered her friends and coworkers in Quebec and British Columbia had a different eating culture and were passionate about local food.
“Every time they went back home to BC they’d come back with fresh peaches or pickles or tomatoes and they would go on and on about how good everything in BC was,” she says. “Here’s these two provinces in Canada where they are very local focused, it’s part of their culture, it’s part of how they grow up, so I got to thinking if there was one place where you showcased everything Ontario, would we be able to change the culture? Would we be able to change the way people thought about their dinner plate and look for local first? So Culinarium was born.”
In addition to a selection of organic, natural, artisanal or sustainably produced cheese, meat, produce in season, pantry staples, snacks and GMO free grains, the store also offers programs like the veggie box, packed with an assortment of vegetables, and the artisan share program, which includes cheese, a pantry staple, fruit and the option to add on meat.
“I kind of jokingly call it our adventure program because we layer on something fun and funky each week,” she says, adding the boxes are delivered on a weekly basis and they are expanding their distribution area this year. “Every week you get a blog post and it tells you what’s in the box, recipes, stories about the farm and tips on how to use it and prepare. Even when we give you something crazy like the bitter melon or wild leaks that you might never have had before, there’s resources to how to use them.”
Although she’s fresh off April’s anniversary celebrations, she still recalls a time in 2010 when she almost had to close up shop.
“I opened the shop with a dream and a passion but not with the solid business background,” she says. “There’s a huge, huge, huge learning curve and it came to probably year three where my husband and I, we couldn’t support the business anymore.”
However, since they were slowly growing, had received positive feedback from customers who supported the idea of the store, Mackintosh came up with a plan to keep the store alive based on a community shared agriculture model where people buy into farms and receive produce in return.
“We decided to try a buy into Culinarium share and we call it our dinner plate program and we would pay you back in groceries,” she says, adding they are now coming to the last term of the program. “That was the funding we needed to raise to be able to keep us through the slow season, to be able to do a few marketing initiatives to help drive traffic, to ultimately keep us in business.”
Having enjoyed the weekly festivities in store last month, in the coming months she hopes to hold more classes and events, such as their cooking classes. More long term, her goal is to have other Culinarium locations in the city.
“To me there’s an emotional tie to eating local,” she says. “It is about knowing the farmer and that’s what I’m trying to do, bridge the gap. I mean not everyone can know their farmer, in a busy lifestyle that can be very difficult, but at least we can bring in the good food and then convey those stories and help connect people and have the odd event where you can meet John who does the beef and Sally who does the maple syrup or what have you.”
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