In the heart of Old Town, a young family is bringing a millennial perspective to a dated business model.
Sometimes a name just fits – Cheese Secrets is a boutique cheese shop tucked away on Market Street behind Old Town’s main strip, like a secret yet to be discovered. Anyone who has not uncovered this clandestine storefront is missing out on the collection of creamy, buttery and earthy varieties of cheese, all available to the passerby who happens into the charming boutique.
Xavier Allard, 26, looked into acquiring the little shop of cheese after his girlfriend told him it was on the market.
The shop has been in operation since 2009 and Xavier says the previous owners, Colleen and Eugene Johnson, were set to retire. “The timing was just right.”
A family of food lovers, the three people running the shop have been in the food industry for years. Xavier is officially the director of operations, with his mother, Annie Allard, as the owner. Melanie Williams, 23, also has a big role to play. She is mother to nine-month-old Ezra Carmelle Allard and the creative genius behind the alternative cheese wedding cakes the shop has put together.
“It’s just our teamwork together that really has us pulling through,” Xavier says of working side-by-side.
The family is serious about their desire to bring everything they have to this new venture. They took possession of the store last Sept. 1 and Xavier says it’s been a lot of fun.
The couple are taking courses at George Brown College to develop an understanding of the intricacies of cheese, and to gain a better understanding of its history and how it applies to the business.
Rushing from the store after a brief interview, being busy isn’t something they have time to worry about. They say they want to beat the Toronto traffic to make it to George Brown on time, leaving young Ezra in Annie’s capable hands while she prepares to close the shop for the day.
Running a business and raising a child – it really does take a village.
Annie always wanted to own a boutique cheese shop, but she says they weren’t really a thing when she was younger. She says this opportunity fit in well with her current goals.
Xavier has been preparing himself for this position his whole life, he just wasn’t aware of it at the time.
He started his work career in the kitchen at Marineland as a dishwasher who dabbled in prep work. Over the next few years he transitioned to prep-cook at Queen’s Landing, in between working on the family farm, Just Peachie Farms, on Hunter Road in NOTL.
Throughout his career, he worked in garde manger (French for “keeper of the food”). It is literally a cool, well-ventilated area where cold dishes are prepared. At the time he says he wasn’t fond of the job, but it gave him the experience and skills he needed to succeed in this venture.
Queen’s Landing is also where Melanie and Xavier met. As a pastry chef, Melanie would pull treats out of the freezer for Xavier when she knew he was going to be coming around. Looking back on their encounters, Xavier says that’s when he knew he wanted to pursue a relationship with her.
Young love to young family to young business owners – it’s been an experience he says he’s happy to be doing together.
The family is no stranger to cheese. Xavier says they raised goats on their family farm for six years. During that time, he watched Annie make cheese with the leftover milk, experimenting and teaching herself the scientific side of cheese-making. It’s just another step that brought them closer to the eventual ownership of Cheese Secrets.
He says there’s so much more to it than science, though.
“It’s really a science, but there’s an art to it too. So many steps and so many intricacies through the process that will give a different end result.”
His growing passion for cheese will take the shop to the next level. He says his aim is to bring in cheese from Canadian and local sources. He cites Five Brothers from Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese in Woodstock, Ont., as one of his favourites, urging anyone interested to give it a try. It’s delicately aged for eight months on cedar planks and has “complex and robust flavours.”
He’s been eager to show the artistic side of the business. To boost the shop’s online presence, Xavier has been posting photos of the various cheese boards they create and he says he’s been trying to use social media promote the business.
So far, it has been working. Annie says the shop has seen a 20 per cent increase in business since they took the reins.
Xavier’s ease speaking with anyone who walks in and his customer service skills are a part of what will keep people coming back, Annie says, adding that his passion for learning more about the business won’t hurt.
As for what the future holds? Eventually, Xavier plans to take full ownership of the store.
He also hinted at future plans. He hopes to bring in new cheeses and different methods of presenting and consuming them. Possible partnerships and pairings might also happen down the road. That’s all to be seen, though – in keeping with the name, it’s a secret for now.
In the meantime, curious customers will have to head into the boutique smelling robustly of various cheeses and strike up a conversation with the always friendly and knowledgable family sure to be on scene.