Sandy Aleksander is Leslieville's newest specialty food store. It's full of charcuterie, cheese, chocolate and prepared meals, sliced and prepared fresh. The owner, Sandy Aleksander Vujcuf, calls his eponymous store a "one-stop shop."
After working for several years behind the deli counters and in the prepared food sections of places like Whole Foods and McEwan , Vujcuf decided to start his own business with a view to provide not only fresh products that he hand selects, but also keep his patrons informed.
"We're giving them samples, and I don't have anything grab and go," says Vujcuf. "We want to educate. We do tasting and sampling, and wrap it for you and tell you how to store it. We give little tips people don't know to bring them back, and keep it uncomplicated."
Vujcuf is full of tips, from avoiding chopping cheese up so it doesn't dry out to what kinds of cheeses are more mild and kid-friendly. It seems that this kind of attitude is part-and-parcel with owning a local business stocked with over 35 different kinds of cheese - there are five different kinds of blue cheese alone.
The shop is open-concept with tons of natural light from the three walls of windows. The four components of Sandy Aleksander are separated in four different showcases: one for prepared meals, one for charcuterie, one for cheese, and one for chocolates. Patrons can watch as their prosciutto is sliced, they can watch the ready-to-cook meals being prepared, and they can have lengthy discussions about their selections.
While the products are not exclusively local, Vujcuf does his best to shop close to home when he can. Sandy Aleksander features charcuterie from Niagara, Kingston and Woodbridge, bread from Balkan Bakeries in East York, jams and preserves from Rootham in Guelph.
One product line that is international but worth the import is Christopher Norman Chocolates . Based in New York, this artisanal chocolate company is owned and operated by John Down, who used to live down the street from Vujcuf in Toronto. Down is also a painter, which is evident in the beautiful designs his chocolates are adorned with, and the creativity in his ingredient choices.
Vujcuf hands me a curry caramel ($2), an unexpected favourite, and the curry spices marry excellently with the smoothness of the caramel. A somewhat reluctant customer also tries the chocolate, and we are both surprised by how much we love the unique flavours.
Vujcuf and his team of four employees thrive on new customers willing to try new things. He explains his plans for after the Christmas season rush, which include in-house courses where he can teach his customers about cheese and wine pairings, but emphasizes that it always comes down to personal taste and "learning as you go."
"We have people coming in who are having company over on a Saturday night," says Max Ryan, one of Vujcuf's employees. "So we'll take them through a variety of salami to see what they think with the cheeses they've selected. It's a really hands-on approach."
Sandy Aleksander will soon be carrying made-to-order charcuterie and cheese trays, and Vujcuf has one on hand for me to sample. I try Pepato from Dolce Lucano in Woodbridge ($7,29/100 grams) and its peppery crust compliments the buttery flavour of the meat. Next up is Maison du Gibier Pate de Campagne Forestier, a rabbit and apple terrine ($8.79/100 grams), and the rabbit's gamey flavour comes through but is softened by the sweetness of the apple.
"You don't want to take away from the flavour from the terrine, so you use a plain cracker," says Vujcuf, always providing insight and helpful tips. "If you're having a brie, its flavour is not complex, so you can use a rosemary cracker or something like that."
It seems that Sandy Aleksander is the perfect local specialty food store, if you're in a rush, or if you're looking to learn a little more about what you'll be serving your guests.
Sandy Aleksander is open Mondays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Vujcuf is hoping to have the shop's accompanying online store up by mid-November.
Photos by Morris Lum