"I can with not a shadow of untruth look every customer in the eye that comes through the door and say 'I've tasted every single thing in this building. We carry it because it's spectacular.'" So bragged Susan Merry, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer of All The Best Fine Foods. And while the claim may seem a little exaggerated, there's no denying her store's longevity and success.
Located at 1101 Yonge Street, in the block of heritage Rosedale shops known informally as 'The Five Thieves' due to their exorbitant prices, All The Best is a sort of extra-fancy grocery store specializing in prepared meals and baked goods.
Compared to the more conventional chain food stores like Sobeys or Loblaws, All The Best is tiny, and charges a fortune for a very limited selection of products. Of course it looks a lot nicer than any Sobeys (wooden shelves help), and here the focus is not on having the cheapest deals or the widest range of products, but on having the best.
"We buy locally whenever we can."
"It sounds simplistic, but the guiding force at all times is the name of the company. All The Best," Merry said, when I asked what principles influenced the business. "Our focus is certainly on the highest quality ingredients that we can find. It may sound obvious, but it's actually quite rare: whole eggs, fresh butter, Tahitian vanilla, you know, et cetera, et cetera. We make all of our stocks for our sauces, soups and so forth from scratch. We buy locally whenever we can."
Although All The Best does stock some in-season produce, it's not their focus (try The Harvest Wagon next door), and they haven't taken a flying leap onto the organic bandwagon (although they do sell it a little.) Their gluten-free selection, however, is fair and expanding, and Ms. Merry told me they were dealing with traditionally raised meats long before it became trendy.
While their obsession with 'the best' has been present from the beginning, many other aspects of All The Best have changed a great deal. When Jane Rodmell first opened the place back in the Orwellian year of 1984, the store's name was All The Best Bread, because that was all they sold. According to Merry (who joined the store in 1986), Rodmell's initial claim to fame was the simple (though one imagines, not all that easy) act of gathering together the best breads from around Toronto.
Then they started doing a little baking of their own.
"Everything you see in our stores, we make ourselves."
"We started very small: muffins and cookies and a few fresh baked goods. And then over the years we have just evolved and sort of grown organically. We opened a second shop next door in this original block, which was All The Best Cheeses. So at that point we added a beautiful artisan cheese selection and some savoury prepared foods: quiche and salads and so forth. Skip forwards 20 years, and now we have an offsite production kitchen; 4,000-square-feet, and we employ about 35 people in our kitchen. So virtually everything that you see in this store we make ourselves, except obviously the dry goods and so forth. But all these materials in the freezer, all of these prepared foods, all of the bakery goodies, all of those cookies you see over there come out fresh from our kitchen."
And as if that wasn't enough,
"We also have a catering division and a wholesale division. So we've gone from a little teeny-tiny company with three employees to, you know, this is our 30th year of being in business. We have about 70 employees, and we're still here."
Somewhere in those 30 years a second location opened on 483 Church Street, while the cheese shop next door on Yonge St. became the All The Best Cheese nook at the back of the Rosedale store. Although not vast, the cheese selection is, in Merry's (just slightly biased) opinion, spectacular. And in this case, it's not just local but from all over.
Blocks and wheels of dairy delights are such an important part of All The Best that the choosing of the cheese is a job in its own right. Merry told me that:
"We have a dedicated woman,Roxanne, who does nothing but select our cheeses and work with the buyers and [...] the selection changes constantly. Something might come in and Roxanne doesn't like the look of it and she sends it away because it's not up to snuff. And she's been working with cheese for many, many, many years. She's a true expert."
"Probably 50 per cent of the people that leave the store leave with cheese straws."
Believe it or not, cheese is the basis for All The Best's most popular product: cheese straws. Don't laugh until you've tried them, but be warned: it's very hard to stop trying them once you start. In fact, when Merry speaks of a wholesale division, this is largely what she's referring to: the Canada-wide distribution of box after box of crunchy, cheesy, crackery sticks.
"We estimate and it's true that probably 50 percent of the people that leave the store leave with cheese straws." Merry told me. "They've been our single best selling product for 30 years. It's one of those products where we still make them by hand, from scratch. The cheese comes in great big blocks, we grate it all by hand. The dough is mixed, [...] they're rolled and cut and baked and packaged by hand. So that's why they're so good. Truly."
If you thought that 'house cheese expert' was an amusing job description (it's actually Cheese & Deli Category Manager on the website), there are more. Merry and Rodmell also employ a designated giftware buyer in charge of their non-edible merchandise (aprons and napkins and dishes and so on), and there's another specialist in charge of cookbooks. Actually, you may have heard of that last one. Her name is Alison Fryer, and before it closed in 2014, she was the manager of the Cookbook Store down at Yorkville and Yonge.
"We're a part of the neighbourhood."
"Originally, several years ago, when we started to carry cookbooks, Allison was doing our selections for us," Merry told me. "And then, when the Cookbook Store closed down entirely, we decided to make it more official and actually collaborate with her, and so she's helping us. She's still doing all of our book buying, but she's now helping us to co-ordinate our events, and cookbook launches, and author events and all that kind of stuff. So that's great. That's wonderful."
The author events (one of which was held the night before my visit) are held right in the store, and can involve book signings and the consumption of house-made snacks. For information about upcoming cookbook shindigs, look up the All The Best newsletter on the store's website.
The rewards for all this baking and choosing and organizing go beyond mere economic survival. All The Best is connected to many of its customers in ways that the standard big-box supermarkets seldom are.
"I know dozens, if not hundreds, of customers by first name." Merry gushed near the end of our interview. "And we have dozens, if not hundreds, of people who shop here three and four times a week. We have so many loyal, loyal customers who really view us as part of the community. And that, I think, is my favourite part. We're part of the neighbourhood."