Robyn Despins and Bryan Gray, who operate Oak Medical Arts, launched their “fun passion project,” Carte Blanche Co in December 2020. “We basically took the things we love and enjoy in our spare time,” explains Gray. “We enjoy snacks, we enjoy getting food together, we enjoy wine, we enjoy coffee. So we wanted to share that with Thunder Bay.”
Carte Blanche, located on the corner of Oliver Road and High Street, focuses on coffee, charcuterie and wine. During the lockdown, they offered takeout charcuterie boxes so that people can enjoy a special treat at home. The co-owners built a permanent patio for the summer and plan to renovate the interior space, so that Carte Blanche can be a coffee shop by day and wine bar by night.
The building previously housed Bernie’s Upholstery, and came to the entrepreneurs’ attention when it went up for sale. “Both of us had been thinking about opening a food and drink business for a while,” Gray says. “We were driving by and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great location.’”
Gray says that although they didn’t have experience in food and hospitality, they were able to draw on their experience operating pharmacies to start the business. “It’s a really nice change of pace,” he says.
Carte Blanche says their signature charcuterie boxes have been popular, with four sizes - individual, small, medium and large - to choose from. They also make themed boxes for holidays such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Some buy a box as a gift to bring to an occasion like a family dinner or celebration, Gray says, while for some, “it’s literally their dinner.” The boxes are well-balanced and include all the different food groups, he adds. The ingredients are locally sourced as much as possible, with baked goods from Donato’s Bakery and Gouda from Thunder Oak Cheese Farm. The sweet and savoury snack items are from Bulk Zone.
Carte Blanche has also collaborated with other local small businesses and artists to host events, such as a plant night with Bill Martin’s Nurseryland, where participants got to make their own succulent terrarium while enjoying a charcuterie box.
The boxes are filled with crowdpleasers - Gray says he has even had feedback from parents saying their picky kids loved the charcuterie box. “We’ve heard some really amazing stories of parents whose children love this,” he says. “They open the box, there’s so much colour and fun in there. The parents say, ‘My kids got to try so many new things that they probably wouldn’t have tried for a long time.’”
So far, the “passion project” has been great, says Gray. "It’s a fun project to work on, because we work in healthcare, we work with people who are sick or not feeling their best, but a cafe - it’s usually people coming in to enjoy food or coffee.”
Gray hopes Carte Blanche will become popular, as more people resume going out and socializing. “It would be awesome to become one of those destinations when you’re planning to go out for the night, to be one of the top 10 places that people think about for best places to go to,” he says.