THUNDER BAY -- Five years ago, Matt Wilkins was getting tired of the daily grind working as a chef, and the idea of a store focusing on selling food - cheese, in particular - appealed to him greatly. Together with Doug Morrill (former owner of Gargoyles Grille and Ale), they opened the Cheese Encounter on Bay Street (in the location of Bay Meats) and Wilkins has not looked back since.
Now located on Algoma street, the Cheese Encounter sells 80 or 90 kinds of cheese from Canada and all over the world, as well as a smaller selection of charcuterie and an extensive array of products such as mustard, honey, bread, crackers and jellies. Running a specialty cheese shop hasn’t lost its allure for Wilkins - he bought out Morrill in February this year and is very happy doing what he does.
While he procures imported cheese from large suppliers in the GTA, Wilkins has developed relationships with Canadian producers to get as many domestic options as possible.
“Working with the small farms in Canada is great; they’re a lot of creative, less traditional people in a lot of ways,” he says. “There are a lot of passionate people in the industry.”
From the Thunder Bay area, he gets cheese from Thunder Oak and Walkabout Farm, which does sheep’s milk cheese. There are cheeses from all over Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I., and from Europe, there are offerings from Italy and France, of course, but also Norway, the Netherlands, the UK, Spain and more. The most exotic cheese currently in stock, says Wilkins, is a Cacio di fosa from Italy; a sheep’s milk cheese aged underground in a pit of burnt hay.
The best sellers are on opposite ends of the spectrum - on one hand, harder and sharper cheeses such as cheddar are always popular, but the creamy brie-style soft cheese also sell very well.
When Wilkins builds a cheese (and/or charcuterie) board, he always includes both of the above, but also tries to have some interesting options that people may not have tried before.
“Some of the fancier cheeses - I want to show everybody that what may have a weird European name or look weird really just tastes good,” he says. Prices for a board can range from $3 to $20 per person, depending on the client’s budget and preferences.
Since the store opened five years ago, Wilkins has noticed a change in local consumers’ tastes.“People are more interested in trying new things out, and that makes me really happy,” he says.
Keeping up with demand, local producers have started producing a wide variety of products that go well with cheese, and many of those can be found at the Cheese Encounter. The Sweet North Bakery supplies loaves of fresh bread, there’s local maple syrup from Nor’Wester Maple Company, butter from Slate River Dairy, Heartbeat Hot Sauce of course and the most recent addition is a mustard produced by Tomlin Restaurant using 360 Pale Ale from Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. Whether you’re looking for something to impress your dinner guests, a stocking stuffer or a little tasty something to treat yourself, you’re sure to find it at the Cheese Encounter.