Getting better with age

Thirty years on, the Cheese Boutique has built a fine reputation

It’s a bit of a misnomer.

Let’s face it: The Cheese Boutique is more than just cheese. It’s a tony grocery store akin to a Pusateri’s or Bruno’s where charcuterie is evident, where you can purchase fresh meats, tomatoes, green peppers and other fresh vegetables along with oils, seeds, specialty teas and coffees.

In fact, anything to do with cooking you will find at 45 Ripley Ave. off the South Kingsway near the Gardiner. You can even find pots and pans.

Of course, cheese is a huge seller, from French mimolette to gruyere to thunder oak gouda. The owners, the Pristine family, boast their own cheese cave where they’ve aged cheese for customers for years. Not only a retail venture, they also operate a wholesale business that supplies cheese and other goods to about 150 restaurants in the GTA.

Though it’s a name across Toronto and particularly in the city’s west end, The Cheese Boutique has humble beginnings, starting out in 1970 as a 45-square metre convenience store called Bloor Jug Milk.

“My grandfather Hysen started the business, my father Fatos built it and the four sons are trying not to screw it up,’’ joked Afrim Pristine, one of the sons involved along with Arian, Agim and Ilir.

The Pristine story is a true rags-to-riches story. Fatos was born in Albania, grew up in Turkey and remembers as a small child at a post-WWII refugee camp having to line up with a little pan to be given milk.

But the entrepreneurial spirit came originally from Hysen, who moved his family from Belgium to Canada in 1968.

After working at a Becker’s milk store on Bloor Street near Runneymede, Hysen started Bloor Jug Milk. Fatos, himself, held down warehouse jobs with Ponderosa Steak House and Shopsy’s, but would eventually join his father in the family business.

It wasn’t always easy for the strong-willed father-son team. They battled over the merits of selling cigarettes in a cheese shop. Fatos, who for years smoked three packs a day, argued that the cigarettes should be dropped, but his father said it was his bread and butter.

Eventually, Fatos won and he even quit smoking.

In the late 1970s, the family began buying cheese from Montreal, then considered the Canadian Mecca for imported European cuisine.
Back in those days, Fatos says, all the cheese that could be found in Toronto was “cheddar, cheddar and cheddar.”

It would take years, but eventually the store would start to stock cheeses from Quebec, and today they count Ontario cheese among their stock. With a growing supply came growing demand and, in the late 1990s, as the business grew, it became evident that a new location was needed.

The 2000 move to Ripley Avenue from Bloor Street wasn’t an easy one, but faced with doubling rent it was a necessary one.

Fatos said the place on Ripley was a dump when he purchased it. But he arranged for other parties to fix the place up for about $500,000. Breaking down walls and cables himself, Fatos immersed himself in the renovations.

“It was a risky move,” he said. “I had a lot of sleepless nights.

“I had very big doubts that I could make it here in the middle of nowhere.”

Then he added, jokingly: “I have worked seven days a week for about 30 years, but recently my sons have been allowing me vacations.”

In addition to the store, the family also owns a 370-square metre facility across the street, where the cheese is aged, cured and massaged.

Fatos is proud of what his family has built. His wife, Modesta, a teacher he met in Italy in the 1950s, is also part of the team, along with Sophia Pristine, Agim’s wife, and Melissa Pristine, Arian’s wife.

“We get people in the store from all over the GTA, the majority coming from the west end,’’ Fatos said. “I don’t want to blow my own horn, but we’ve tried very hard in our power to create a good reputation, not just for cheese.’’

And it’s quite a reputation, indeed. In April, Fatos received a gold award for top supplier at the Ontario Hostelry Institute gala dinner and auction at the Four Seasons Hotel.

And when a New York Times writer showed up in Toronto recently to do a story on the elaborate cheese emporium being operated by the fancy-dan Ritz-Carlton Hotel downtown, she was advised that the Cheese Boutique was a major contributor to its success. So she hopped in a car and took a tour of the facility.

“To have the New York Times show up, that’s something,’’ Fatos said.

Each Saturday and Sunday in May, noon to 4 p.m., the Cheese Boutique will play host to its eighth annual Festival of Chefs on its patio, featuring cooking demonstrations involving 10 dining establishments in Toronto. Proceeds collected and administered by Famous People Players will go toward their scholarship fund.

About this article:

By: Danny Gallagher
Posted: May 11 2011 1:05 pm
Filed in: Business
Edition: Toronto