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What's In Your Pantry? How To Start An Independent Business (Just Before A Recession Hits)

In the spring of 2008, Liz and Greg Bolton decided to open up Pantry, a food-haven on College St.

The events manager at Balzac’s Coffee (Liz) and advertising creative (Greg) were looking for a new challenge, a different career. Then, several months later, stock markets around the world took a massive tumble.

But back to that May.

The process started long before the doors at 974 College St. actually opened.

“When we first started researching and looking into this store, I spent months and months sourcing individual products,” Liz (pictured) says.

She went to craft shows, met with people who didn’t want to sell their artisanal products to stores, and even looked to her former – and current – employers, Balzac’s. Their sustainable coffee is available, taking space on the shelves next to Soma Chocolates – another Distillery District favourite.

But convincing wary merchants wasn’t the hard part – far from it.

“The biggest challenge was learning to work with my husband,” Liz admits with a laugh.

“The second was finding the right staff. We allow our staff to make their own schedules, which is a huge bonus for them and for us. We’ve never had anyone not show up to work – except dishwashers.”

It turns out it wasn’t just the books that needed balancing.

“You have to have a very strong relationship, very open lines of communication. I love my husband dearly. We still never go to bed angry. We never say hurtful things to each other, but it’s been the hardest time of my life.

“We did it, and it’s possible to do it without killing ourselves – or killing each other. The secret is to talk about it.”

But attention was paid to the ledgers as well. Once the products were on the shelves and the prepared food was in the display case, Liz and Greg watched and waited to see what would sell.

“Finding out that right balance of what the neighbourhood wants, what it will take and what it won’t buy, was a challenge.”

Large photos by Edmund Rek, part of the Contact Festival, line the exposed brick walls. Old-fashioned coffee tins share space with a sleek, cream-coloured espresso station. Handmade aprons and dishtowels are for sale, yes, but they’re also a brightly-coloured accent to the packed room. The floors are wood, the couch is comfortable, and a floor-to-ceiling window is flanked by furniture from what looks like an old schoolhouse.

“It’s a space where moms can bring their strollers,” explains Liz. She pulls out a Fisher Price stovetop to illustrate her point.

“It’s kind of a hangout-slash-store.”

And on a busy weeknight, they can send you home with a complete meal for yourself – or a crowd.

“You could come to us and say I’m having a dinner for 20; I need some help…we love parties, dinner parties, and we love when people come in and just buy our food.”


Update: Pantry closed on June 19, 2010.

Here’s how they did it:

Make sure you have the cash
“Have enough capital in reserve to get through that first year,” Liz advises.

“If you open a business and expect to make money on that business just by opening the door, it’s not going to happen.”

No really, have the cash
“You need another job to keep that gong. Every successful person I’ve spoken to says they have another job.”

Know who you are
“Working on the branding, sticking to that ID is really important. Make sure you have a mission statement.

“Being patient and sticking to what we had wanted to do have really helped us. Of course we want business, of course we follow-up, but we’re not all over the place, because then people don’t know what your are.”

Listen to your customers
“Consistency is important, making sure people come back. Listening to your customers when they complain is part of that. They just want you to listen – sometimes they can’t take yes for an answer!”

In addition to the in-store products, Liz also runs a catering business from the space. “The delivery over dinners is working, and we’re trying to push the ‘mommy’ bundles.the packages are also for people who are sick, for people who can’t cook.

“The first package would be around $50 and that would be a lunch and a dinner and then a few other single-serving dishes. The next one up would be $75 or $80 and that would be a few days’ worth of meals. The next one up would be $250, something a whole group of friends would go in on and that would be a week’s worth of food.”

Be patient
“It does take years to really get people to know about it. It took years for the Healthy Butcher and Summerhill Market to become part of the food lexicon in Toronto. Pantry is a beautiful store! We have fantastic food and I just don’t think enough people know about us.”