With its origins in NYC and music producer, Daniel Lanois as a regular customer, you know you have something that works. “It did pretty well in New York…I knew it would work in Toronto,” said Robbie Yuill, owner of Kensington’s cheesy hot spot, The Grilled Cheese. He first assisted a friend in building the comfort food eatery and its menu stateside, “The restaurant worked for five years.” But a new condo development and surface hotel moved in causing a market boom. The massive overnight rise on the lease forced the doors shut.
Yuill returned north and decided to do it a little differently – he used butter and a flat grill versus a panini press. The new concept: old school, homemade grilled cheese sandwiches just like his single Mom would serve him and his sisters growing up, along with tomato soup. Soup is just as much a staple as the sandwich they grill up at “The Cheese,” as Yuill endearingly calls it. “Me and my mom have been cooking soups together since day one. My older sister is a great cook, my younger sister is a great cook…they are all family recipes.” Tomato soup is served daily along with another gumbo special; sometimes with a secret kick (a drop or two of “valentina’s hot sauce” takes the soup to the next level.)
The interior design is a throwback to his rustic family cottage. “It took a month and a half to build from a gutted frame. No stranger to renovations, he is the superintendent at seven market buildings and has assisted with 17 renovations, including the hot spot, Cold Tea. “All I had was $5,700. I asked for reclaimed wood donations on Craigslist on a daily basis. I milled the wood myself and used whatever I had. [Even the paint was donated.]”
The Cheese was to serve as a supplementary income for the budding carpenter and sculptor, who was also making moves in the film industry. The market location was the first one to open in Canada on September 1, 2009. There were plans to expand into a small franchise until Yuill became a family man. For a franchise to be successful, “you need a good five to ten years of solid business. It’s completely doable, but I wasn’t ready”. There are eight Toronto eateries with a commitment to the cheesy sandwich, 20 in total, within the GTA.
“I do what I do…I don’t compete… I don’t advertise… the food speaks for itself.” Yuill has never handed out a business card or made a website. “It’s good food. Made fresh to order.” There is one solitary fridge that services the restaurant, “Everything gets bought and served that day.” On a busy day, it gets emptied twice of produce, which is purchased from Augusta Fruit Market, keeping the money in the market.
“I’ve tried every cheese possible.” The menu selection has been carefully limited to six different hard cheeses: cheddar, dill havarti, jalapeno havarti, swiss, provolone and fior de latte (mozzarella made from cow milk). “Soft cheese is too difficult to use.” These cheese options can be paired with bacon, ham, smoked turkey, or avocado. Try a staff created special, build your own, or order up the tribute sandwich to a Toronto legend: The Lanois.
For foodies looking to break into the business, here is a piece of advice from the cheese man, “Try to do most of the work yourself to have money in the bank.”
WORDS: SASS FRASER
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