If we’re going to open a cheese shop, where is the best location? Where will our customers come from? Will a destination location work, or should we choose a high traffic area? And how about cheese distributors and quotas? And what cheese will be popular? And might people want to stop by for a soup and sandwich? What about gift baskets? What about cheese boards?
These were just a smattering of the hundreds of questions that consumed Lorna Allen and her twin syster Alyson Wilson two years ago when they were planning to open Cafe Fromagerie (www.cafefromagerie.com) somewhere in Barrie.
Born in Scotland, raised partly in Toronto, with Alyson returning to Scotland when their parents moved back, the identical twins reunited after interesting, diverse careers and decided to spend more time together on a mutual project…and cheese shop it became!
Alyson has a background in insurance and sailed around the world on a clipper ship in 1996 before taking her law degree in Scotland. She moved back to Canada in 2009, reuniting with her identical sister who had worked for a PR firm and at Blue Mountain and taken Cordon Bleu cooking courses while juggling husband and kids.
Time to do something together turned into a ton of research and the door-opening celebration of Cafe Fromagerie in the Aerarium plaza at the corner of St Vincent and Livingstone. “We sat here and counted cars and researched the types of businesses here and length of time they’d been here,” says Lorna. They know their buyer is slightly older, with some disposable income, people who have an appreciation and interest in the source of their food.
“We selected a destination location in the north end because it’s where we live and where we think our customers shop,” says Alyson. “And we differentiated ourselves from grocery stores because we can’t compete on price.”
And these two really know their cheese!
They buy through wholesalers with minimum orders from companies who import cheese from all over the world. And, they deal locally with small cheese companies like Empire Cheese in Ontario’s Hastings County. In fact, a sign on the front door that fresh, squeaky curd had arrived, sent me right over to the curd shelf when I came in.
Using courses offered through Barrie Public Library and the Greater Barrie Business Enterprise Centre, the sisters decided a cafe would offer an additional pull for people wanting a quick soup or sandwich before browsing among crackers, cheeses and specialty condiments. That decision has proven fruitful as the lunch market is quite busy.
“We get a big mix in orders… some people spend $15 and others spend literally hundreds of dollars, especially when they’re hosting an event,” says Lorna.
Biggest surprise in their retail experience according to Alyson is the friendliness of the people who walk through their doors. “Our customers are kind and we really develop relationships with them,” she said. “We get a lot of older people in for lunch and we connect with them in a meaningful way.”
They also produce customized catering orders.
“We’re still working out our season’s rhythms but things are going in the right direction,” says Lorna, confiding that they took their first week off this summer since opening in 2012. They’ve passed that critical first two years and are able to breathe easier about their decision. The sisters have also divided up the duties according to their interests… Alyson handles the bookkeeping and admin while Lorna plies her interest in the kitchen.
And, logical question, what is the most popular cheese in their presentation cooler right now? “The triple cream brie… some people buy half a wheel at a time. It melts in your mouth like butter,” says Alyson. “Cheese evokes a lot of memories, fond memories, for people.” They carry a sheep milk cheese, a mango ginger stilton and many Canadian cheese products. They choose a favourite each week and Alyson says hers changes all the time, though right now she’s settled on the triple cream brie. For Lorna, it’s the St Agur Blue Cheese that hits her taste buds best.
Well, we all benefit from this kind of dairy enthusiasm. Thanks, Lorna. Thanks, Alyson.