I first discovered Pantry back in June when owners Greg Bolton and Liz Bolton-Dnieper were just putting the finishing touches on their new space. Located near Dovercourt, just west of Little Italy , Pantry is the sort of place that falls outside of traditionally defined categories and manages to somehow succeed as a sublime local cafe, a go-to lunch spot AND specialty grocer and caterer for a dinner at home.
Inside the look is defined by exposed brick walls, high ceilings, modern orange stools, a swish red leather sofa and shelves and displays stocking everything from fresh iced tea ($2.76), artisanal lemonade ($5.99), Dave's Gourmet pasta sauce and an assortment of mouth-watering, prepared foods.
Near the back a communal wooden table is a perfect spot to settle down with a cappuccino ($2.95) and a ginger cookie ($1.50 each) and take advantage of the free WiFi.
Owner Greg Bolton worked in kitchens in the 80's and never really lost his passion for food and wine. He's written for local food magazine City Bites and also does work with WineOnline.ca . But the real juice comes from his wife Liz, who has spent the last 6 years as event manager at Balzac's Cafe in the Distillery District , where she's helped to pull off hundreds of events with a variety of catering and event partners.
Greg, who I found out also happens to check out blogTO from time to time, recently responded to some of my questions about the store.
What is the concept behind Pantry?
Basically, we opened the store because we wanted to help people eat better every day. My wife Liz and I are in some ways our own target market. We're busy parents of two and we love great food, but can't always find the time to cook well or eat out. And a person can only order in so much pizza, sushi and Thai. So a big part of our plan was to create a wide selection of restaurant quality food - made with local and/or organic ingredients whenever possible - that you can take home.
We also have a grocery component to the store. This is designed to make it easier for people to create their own great meals at home. Gradually, more and more of that stuff will be made in-house. For example, we're starting to sell our house-made organic chicken and veggie stocks, which can be used as a base for something you'd whip up at home.
Pantry is such an inviting space for people to hang out on the couch, at the front window or the back table. Do most people tend to stay a while or take the food to go?
The majority of our customers take out, but we have limited seating because we wanted the place to be a bit of a neighbourhood hang. Often people will eat off the coffee table while sitting on our couch in front, or maybe out front, where we've got a few chairs set up. And a dog bowl for the pooches. It's casual.
On the weekends, we do brunch, but we don't advertise it too much because we don't want people disappointed that there's nowhere to sit! That said, we can do our brunch to go, so you could take it home and eat it in bed. Or take it to the park. When was the last time you ate brunch in the park? Hell, when was the first time?
What have been some of the most popular drinks and food so far?
On the drinks side, our coffee, from Balzac's , is very popular. We do three types of brewed coffee - a dark, a medium and a decaf - as well as lattes, espressos and americanos.
On the food side, we're always chasing the freshest produce, so the menu is tweaked virtually every day. Some of our most popular staples include sliced organic Ancho chili pork (a secret recipe of Chef Simon Sperling), a lovely wheatberry salad (brought to us by consulting chef Gary Hoyer) and a concoction known as Texas Caviar, which is basically guacamole with black-eyed peas, black beans, roasted corn, tomatoes and lots of garlic.
For the kids, we do a Mac 'n' Cheese muffin, which some adults are rumoured to enjoy as well. We also do amazing pastries in-house, courtesy of Asia Marrion. Brownies, brioche, fresh fruit tarts, all amazing.
When I was last there, the back kitchen seemed to be really buzzing. How much of the cooking is done for the store itself and how much is for catering?
All the activity you saw was just for the store. We cook all the food in-house, and it's quite labour-intensive. As we like to say, great food is a pain in the ass, and while most of our customers don't have time to make it, we do.
That said, the catering side of our business is growing fast. A lot of people simply want the stuff we make every day in larger quantities for dinner parties, baby showers, etc. We're also happy to do custom orders - the other day, one one of our regulars requested a quiche, which isn't normally on our menu. I brought out the chef, they talked ingredients, and we had a quiche ready for her the following day. It's just a quiche, but it made us feel good that we can be responsive to our customers. If you give us 24 hours' notice, we can do a lot.
As well, we offer full-service catering, for which we have a much larger menu that's customized for each event.
Anything else you'd like to share with us?
We've recently become a pick-up location for Kawartha Ecological Growers . Basically, you can order a share of their farm's yield online, they put it in a box and deliver it to us every week for you to pick up.
We're also going to be rolling out cooking classes, private dining and food and wine pairing workshops in the fall.
We have a twice-monthly newsletter that you can join at pantry.to .