Toronto's first family of cheese

The Ministers of Cheese

The Pristine family — owners of the iconic Cheese Boutique — survived war, starting over in a new country, and now a pandemic. Each time, they emerged with plans for bigger, better, more

By Mark Pupo| Photography by Daniel Ehrenworth
| April 25, 2022

I don’t remember everything from the limbo of these last two years but I do remember what I ate. Those first miserable months of lockdown: bags upon bags of Ruffles chips and Heluva Good dip. The weeks of meal kits. Then the spell of manic baking. Sour cherry pies, peach pies, custard and meringue pies, all kinds of cakes and breads, then more bread. The week of working through a vat of chili. And every night before dinner, cocktail hour—mainly negronis, until Stanley Tucci, damn him and his charm, shared his shaken-not-stirred version on Good Morning America and Campari became impossible to find. But what I remember best is the cheese. When I had a spare hour, I grabbed an N95 and pointed the car toward the Cheese Boutique.

For me, more than most any store, the Cheese Boutique delivers a blissful, calming dose of retail therapy. That it’s out of the way, on a bumpy, semi-industrial Swansea side street named Ripley Avenue, makes it feel like a secret. The Cheese Boutique is what we used to call a gourmet store before gourmet became shorthand for snob. Now we call such places specialty stores. At the Cheese Boutique though, it’s true—everything is special. Either unique or the best or both. It takes a few visits to get used to the labyrinthine layout. There’s nowhere to rest the eye, between the shelves loaded with exotic chocolates, candies and coffees; pasta in more shapes and sizes than you thought existed; morels and black truffles; picked-at-their-peak Spanish strawberries that fill your house with the scent of cotton candy and June roses; and a walk-in refrigerated butcher room of four-inch-thick tomahawk steaks, plucked game birds, Italian sausages and Frenched elk rack. Price tags, usually discreetly placed on the bottom of packaging, are hard to find, so you’re already committed to buying a balsa-wood box, slightly larger than a pint, of those strawberries before you register they’re $25.

Raptors and Leafs stock up at the Cheese Boutique during homestands. Drake dispatches members of his entourage when he has a craving. Dustin Hoffman once spent $10,000 there on gifts for his friends

In the middle of that bounty, the store’s namesake: its cheese counter. With 550 types of cheese available most months and some 650 at Christmas, the options can be paralyzing. Ash-coated goat cheese from the Loire Valley, Dutch gouda as orange as a pumpkin, wedges of salty Spanish manchego and English ginger-spiked Stilton. Last December, I brought home a tiny round of Vacherin Mont d’Or, a notoriously stinky Swiss raw milk cheese. It’s only available once a year and is one of the most prized cheeses in the world. You let it come to room temp, slice off the top rind, and spoon out the gooey inside (called the “paste”). The odour is nauseating—reminiscent of rot and ancient back alleys—but to the tastebuds it’s awesome. Mellow and buttery.

The store’s specialness is the main reason it plays an outsized role in this city. Chefs make pilgrimages to it. Raptors and Leafs stock up during homestands. Dustin Hoffman once spent $10,000 there on gifts for his friends. Drake dispatches members of his entourage when he has a craving. For Torontonians hosting a wine-and-cheese, it’s the requisite destination; Kingsway and Rosedale customers regularly hire the Cheese Boutique to cater and staff their dinner parties.

Cheese dreams: Most days, the cheese counter displays some 550 varieties—during the holidays, it’s closer to 650

Yet for all its fancy customers, it’s not fancy. The appeal of the Cheese Boutique—for chefs, for athletes, for Dustin Hoffman—is that it’s still at heart a mom-and-pop shop. The entrance is flanked by kitschy fibreglass benches shaped like cows. Inside, the floors are painted cement and the walls are covered with Olde Europe tchotchkes and portraits of grinning family and staff. Two generations of Pristines, the family that owns the shop, are there seven days a week. They know many of their customers by name, they bag the orders, they sweep up at closing.

Mom-and-popness has kept the Cheese Boutique going when its competitors faltered. The pandemic restrictions walloped the food industry, obliterating vulnerable businesses, especially restaurants. Selling cheese to hotels, restaurants and other specialty shops accounts for 30 per cent of the Cheese Boutique’s revenue in a typical year. When that stream ran mostly dry, the Pristines had to get creative. They set about leveraging the cachet of their brand, hosting virtual cooking lessons and cheese appreciation seminars, running an extensive delivery service, and opening a food truck and a satellite store. Now they’re poised to make another big gamble, converting their home base, and Ripley Avenue along with it, into a theme park for foodies. If they can pull it off without undermining the company’s mom-and-popness, it’ll be a slice of cheese heaven.

Cheese is alive. Bacteria bloom and multiply at every stage of cheesemaking, converting lactose into lactic acid and then creating unique flavours. The blue in a blue cheese is a fungus. Roquefort’s particular fungus—the microorganism Penicillium roqueforti—thrives in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the south of France. Cheesemakers mix the mold in at the raw milk stage and later pierce the cheese with steel needles, creating gaps that pipe in air, which helps the fungus and bacteria thrive.

The Cheese Boutique is one of the few retailers in North America that ripens cheeses on a large scale in its own caves, some for five years or more. “Cave” is the industry term for what is usually a specialized warehouse; only a few producers in Europe store their cheese in bona fide caves. Either way, the point is to control temperature (around six to eight degrees) and humidity (roughly 80 per cent).

The smaller of the Cheese Boutique’s caves, reached through a glass door in the store, is the size of a studio apartment. That’s where the Pristines keep fragile cheeses, like the washed-rind rounds that need to be eaten within days of their landing at Pearson. Across the street is a larger warehouse where they store mostly harder cheeses, including some 450 wheels of parmigiano-reggiano, each weighing 90 pounds and worth $2,000. On any given day, there’s $3 million worth of cheese in the store’s two caves, stacked to the ceiling on pine racks. Every month or two, the racks are methodically pulled apart and the wood is soaked in brine for a few hours in order to maintain optimal humidity levels. Staff are in both caves every day, poking and prodding at rinds, checking to see what’s ready to sell.

The glass door is where customers often head first—they want to see the famous cave. During the pandemic, the Pristines noticed food tourists were driving in from distant parts of the province to shop and take selfies next to the racks. People from across the country now email, wanting to buy Cheese Boutique caps and aprons. The family has started stationing staff at either end of Ripley to direct weekend traffic.

The pandemic also marks the beginning of a new chapter for the business. The brothers Agim and Afrim Pristine, who took over from their father, Fatos, when he retired, are the masterminds behind the store’s evolution into a food destination. Agim, the one with the head for numbers, is 47. He’s tall and broad, with the bearing and intensity of a bull. Afrim, five years younger, is the face of the company and Canada’s only celebrity affineur. He has a wide smile and a bouncy energy no matter what he’s talking about, which is usually cheese. He’s on TV talking about pairings, quoted when a newspaper needs a comment on culinary trends, and photographed with food giants like Daniel Boulud, who carries Cheese Boutique’s wares at his Four Seasons hotel restaurant.

In 2018, Afrim published a cookbook, For the Love of Cheese, which is also a tribute to his parents and siblings and the family business. The book begat a 2021 Food Network series, Cheese: A Love Story, that followed him through Greece, France and Switzerland showing viewers how cheese gets made. He’s appeared three times as a guest celebrity cook at Newfoundland’s remote foodie destination, the Fogo Island Inn.

Toronto's first family of cheese
Grand tour: Afrim in France for his Food Network series, Cheese: A Love Story

The brothers arrive at the store before 7 o’clock most mornings and don’t leave until well after closing at 6. They don’t bother with official job titles; they just do their work. Afrim compares their professional relationship to Shaq and Kobe’s dynamic during the L.A. Lakers’ glory days. “My brother is like Shaq—this is his team; he has the vision. Kobe was the attitude, the athlete, more like me,” he says. We’re sitting in the makeshift spot he calls his office, overlooking the store floor from a mezzanine. His desk is cluttered with paperwork and limited-edition Marvel superhero memorabilia, which he and Agim have collected since they were kids. “Shaq and Kobe didn’t get along all the time. They were incredibly different people on and off the court, with different skill sets. But they won three championships.” In short, Agim and Afrim complement each other. Agim deals with the suppliers, the banks and staffing. Afrim maintains the relationships with the clients, both retail customers and restaurateurs.

Toronto's first family of cheese
Minding the store: Afrim’s makeshift office overlooks the floor from a mezzanine

Afrim came up in the food industry at the same time that many of the city’s current top chefs, including Alo’s Patrick Kriss and Planta’s David Lee, were starting out. Name a notable restaurant or specialty grocer in the GTA and chances are the Cheese Boutique supplies their cheese. Alo orders burrata and whatever seasonal raw milk cheeses are in that week; Piano Piano buys mozzarella and reggiano. Every week the family delivers to Langdon Hall, Ascari Enoteca, Chantecler Boucherie, Canoe, Auberge du Pommier, Maker Pizza, Fiesta Farms, the McEwan shops and Prairie Boy Bread, in addition to dozens of other businesses.

Kriss was a young chef at Splendido when he first met Afrim, who was dropping off product for the storied (and now defunct) restaurant’s cheese cart. “He understands the restaurant business,” says Kriss. “If Cheese Boutique doesn’t have what you need, they’ll get it for you. But more often Afrim anticipates exactly what you need.” Kriss and Afrim are friends, hanging out socially and attending Raptors games together. I asked Kriss how that relationship started. His answer: “We both love Loire Valley goat cheese.”

Toronto's first family of cheese
Schmoozing with chefs: Afrim with restaurant royalty Daniel Boulud and Patrick Kriss

Afrim’s role in the family business is to build demand. He talks up cheeses, he’s full of stories about how every obscure cheese gets made, and can make you feel like you’re there in the Loire Valley, with the humble cheesemaker and his noble dog. Taste that cheese and it’ll change your life.

Cheese only becomes cheese with time. That time could be a matter of hours (mozzarella) or many years (parmesan). Aging cheese requires faith and a tolerance for gambling. If something goes wrong in the cave, or the bacteria behave unpredictably and mess up your timing, the cheese is inedible. Aging cheese is also about guessing what people will want to buy in a few years’ time. There’s always demand for parmesan, but what about that black-truffle gouda? Afrim takes a methodical approach to predicting cheese-eating trends, attending annual food trade shows, closely monitoring what people are buying, and planning for customers’ seasonal whims (fresh Italian cheeses that go with vine-ripened tomatoes in the summer, harder and waxier cheeses in the winter).

Aging in the smaller Cheese Boutique cave right now is a 700-pound, 10-foot-long, waxy cylinder of premium provolone. The Pristines had to reinforce the ceiling to hang it properly. It hovers inches from the ground like an alien pod creature, waiting to wake from an intergalactic nap. This provolone is one of only four such oversized cheeses ever made by Auricchio, a family business founded in 1877 in the town of San Giuseppe Vesuviano near Naples. Their provolone is nothing like the supermarket slices on an Italian sub. It’s typically aged for five or more years, growing increasingly salty and intense, like a great parmesan. That 700-pounder is the second oversized specimen that the Auricchios, impressed by the Pristines’ aging operation, have sent the Cheese Boutique. The first, which arrived at the store in 2006, was aged for 15 years before being cut in front of cameras and dignitaries at the Scotiabank Arena, where it’s now served with white truffle aioli on premium burgers at the stadium’s RS restaurant. Afrim calls it the Mona Lisa of cheese. “We sold that provolone to MLSE for $60,000,” he says. “To me, because it’s so rare and because of the time we put into it, it’s really worth $500,000.”

Toronto's first family of cheese
Big wheel: In the famous cheese cave, with that 700-pound provolone

What you can’t put a price on is the attention the cutting event brought the family business. No one else in Toronto is aging cheese with that kind of care or patience. “Imagine if it hadn’t worked out,” Afrim says, his eyes bulging. They could have let it age just a little too long—maybe the bacteria underneath its waxy rind worked too fast, and the cheese would taste like sawdust. “There I am, cutting it, and thinking to myself, what if this thing is pooched?”

All the Pristines talk about the store as the family calling. But there’s little evidence that destiny had anything to do with it. Running a store wasn’t the original plan and the focus on cheese was accidental. Even the location on Ripley wasn’t what anyone intended. Moving there was a last resort.

That the Pristines landed in Toronto was itself an accident of history. Hysen Pristine—Agim and Afrim’s grandfather—was born in 1916 in Kosovo, in the capital of Pristina, where the family name originates. Between the World Wars he was a second-generation politician in Albania, serving as regional governor and then in the cabinet of the monarch, King Zog. In 1945, when the Communist party took control, he fled to a displaced persons camp in Italy where he was joined by his wife, Stella, and two children before the UN relocated them to Turkey. His son Fatos—Agim and Afrim’s dad—followed the family career path and enrolled in political science at the University of Naples. There he met a student named Modesta, who would become his wife.

For a while, the rest of the family tried living in Brussels—Fatos joined them later to enroll in a master’s program—but that didn’t feel quite right. Nearly 20 years after being forced to leave Albania, the Pristines still felt adrift, like visitors. Fatos—by that point fluent in Albanian, Turkish, Italian and French—decided he wanted to learn English in North America. He didn’t see the United States, then throwing bombs in Vietnam, as an option. Expo 67-era Canada, however, had a reputation for being peaceful and progressive. He made a scouting trip to Vancouver and Toronto, preferred the latter because of its more established Italian community, and encouraged his family to follow.

Fatos, like Afrim, is a talker. Conversations energize him. In Toronto, he worked in the central warehouses for Ponderosa and Shopsy’s. At first, he lectured the warehouse guys about Marx, Kant and Nietzsche, and about the nobility of the worker—until he realized he probably shouldn’t. So he turned his attention to understanding how Canadian food distribution systems worked, and what Canadians were eating. Hysen, meanwhile, found work managing a Becker’s convenience store in Bloor West Village, and the family moved into an apartment above the shop. When a Polish couple offered to sell them the lease to a Jug Milk convenience store nearby, Hysen took out a loan and Fatos left his warehouse jobs for the store. The politicians had become shopkeepers.

Toronto's first family of cheese
The Bloor West shop, 1973: Actor Marilyn Lightstone was one of the store’s early customers

The Jug Milk was still a long way from the Cheese Boutique. In the late 1960s, Toronto remained resolutely Anglo-Saxon in its social and cultural mores, even in Bloor West with its established Eastern European population. Retail was something to be hidden, never showy, and many stores covered over or painted their windows. The Pristines went in another direction. They displayed their best breads and loops of kielbasa right in the window. If that didn’t attract traffic, Hysen would stand on Bloor and cajole people to come inside the store. Fatos would slice sausage and upsell the customers on imported chocolates.

In one small corner of one refrigerator case, they sold cheddar and havarti. At some point, someone started calling that spot “the cheese boutique.” Then, one summer, Fatos’s sister-in-law, Francine, asked a sketch artist at the CNE to draw a design for a T-shirt with the name Cheese Boutique. The artist added a wheel of cheese and a cartoon mouse wearing a Three Musketeers hat. She handed him his fee—a dollar. The Pristines made several T-shirts with the logo and registered a new business name, but there was still one significant obstacle: it was close to impossible to source any cheese in Toronto that wasn’t cheddar or havarti.

Toronto's first family of cheese
Fathers and sons: Fatos, Hysen and Agim in 1989

Montrealers knew cheese, thought Fatos, who began making weekly trips to Quebec to fill up his car with Saint André, cambozola and other soft cheeses, plus pâté, baguettes and olives. He became friends with Quebec wholesalers, and started attending gourmet food conventions in the U.S. and Europe. Soon the store turned into a destination, one of the few places in Toronto selling European delicacies. Fatos would talk to customers in their native Italian or French, picking up some Polish and German along the way.

In 1987, when the lease on the accounting office next door became available, the Pristines took it over and doubled their retail space. If the store was too full and customers were queuing to get in, Fatos served coffee at tables on the sidewalk—a very un-Toronto idea. Running a store was something like running for office and he had the skills of a showman. On weekends the family pulled out a barbecue and grilled sausages, or set up a bubble machine, drawing curious passersby.

Toronto's first family of cheese
The passing show: Modesta and Agim (above) introducing new cheeses to customers; Afrim and Sophia (below) making mozzarella di bufala sandwiches
Toronto's first family of cheese
Afrim and Sophia making mozzarella di bufala sandwiches in 1997

Fatos and Modesta had four boys between 1974 and 1984 and gave them traditional Albanian names: Agim, Afrim, Ilir and Arian. Afrim and Agim describe their mother as a saint who raised a quartet of hyperactive kids and kept house while helping Fatos run the business. With both parents at work, the boys hung out at the store, too, stocking shelves and breaking down boxes not already being used to make forts. Dinner was at 10, when their father returned home.

By the time the two older boys were in their teens, Fatos recognized that introverted Agim had a knack for business and Afrim had an intuitive way of socializing with customers and a particular passion for cheese. When Agim graduated from Humberside Collegiate, he began working full time at the store. Afrim, who attended Royal St. George’s and showed an interest in history, completed a degree at Laurier but nevertheless found himself drifting back to the family business. Fatos, calling in favours with suppliers, arranged apprenticeships for Afrim at Europe’s most famous cheesemaking companies. Afrim calls those months his “school of hard knocks.” He learned each step of the cheesemaking process, from milking a cow (or goat or sheep) through to aging. He spent a few months in Switzerland, then Holland, Italy, France and England—all the major cheese-producing countries. He trained with masters, including Charles Arnaud, who produces a revered Comté. Eventually, the international cheese guild recognized Afrim with their third-highest designation: maître fromager, master of cheese.

Toronto's first family of cheese
Master of cheese: In 2013, Afrim received the international cheese guild designation maître fromager

In 1996, with a few years left on their lease, the Pristines were notified by their landlord that he wouldn’t be renewing their contract. The family looked at nearby properties, but kept getting outbid by the LCBO or a bank. Two years passed and they still didn’t have a plan. Fatos didn’t want to leave Bloor West, but Agim argued they had no choice. The Pristines owned a 10,000-square-foot warehouse on Ripley Avenue. If they gutted it, they would have more than triple the space, a state-of-the-art cheese cave, plus room for parking. That logic won out.

Even though the location was only five minutes from Bloor West, Fatos was terrified that they’d made a fatal decision. Would their customers follow them south? Could anyone even find the new store? Three months before the move, he hired a retail consultant who helped companies like Loblaws choose new locations. Fatos and Afrim drove her to Ripley. Agim, minding the shop, remembers being surprised when his dad returned 12 minutes later, sick with panic. What happened, he asked? The consultant had refused to get out of the car when she saw the Ripley building. What she said next became family lore: “I don’t want to be associated with your suicide.”

By any logic, the business should have failed on Ripley. It’s an ugly, utilitarian street. The Pristines’ building faced a run-down laundromat and the rest of the neighbouring businesses were light industrial: printers, warehouses, photographers’ studios and a manufacturer of tobacco products. Ripley—and the surrounding neighbourhood—felt deserted and isolated, with no foot traffic to speak of.

The new location opened on a Saturday in June of 2000. That weekend, the Pristines led a mini-parade from the old store to the new, waving signs and flags, and rolling a giant wheel of Emmental all the way. They’d lure customers just like their grandfather used to do on Bloor West. The first couple of years were hard, but the Cheese Boutique’s regulars found their way to Ripley. Then the store caught the wave of a growing global fascination with artisanal food products, especially cheese. After decades of not knowing where or how most of our food is produced, it was as if everyone wanted to make up for that oversight by binge-watching the Food Network and fetishizing the names of organic goat farmers and the monks who turn milk into cheese. Soon, every high-profile restaurant was offering artisanal cheese tasting boards, and Toronto chefs were proudly listing the Cheese Boutique as their supplier. The Pristines had proven the retail consultant wrong.

The Ripley location: On weekends, the Pristines have to station staff at either end of the street to direct traffic

Each stage of the Cheese Boutique’s growth, from the Jug Milk to the gourmet store to the move to Ripley, coincided with more babies being added to the family. These days, seven of the staff are Pristines. Agim’s wife, Sophia, runs the back office, keeping tabs on importers and billing. Agim and Sophia’s 23-year-old daughter, Ardiana, works at the cheese counter, and their 20-year-old son, also named Fatos, is in charge of the bakery. Afrim’s fiancée, Courtney Bull, occasionally prepares deliveries. (The couple lives in a loft on Ripley, allowing Afrim to get from bed to work in under a minute if need be.) Afrim and Agim’s middle brother, Ilir, works in the warehouses and is a filmmaker on the side. Their youngest brother, Arian, ran the produce department, making dawn trips to the Food Terminal. Two years ago, he suffered a mental-health crisis and died suddenly. The family is still recovering and Afrim continues to refer to himself as one of four Pristine brothers. Every year, on Mental Health Awareness Day, the store donates all sales proceeds to their local hospital, St. Joseph’s.

As the store prospered, investors approached them with partnership and franchise proposals. Like the Pusateri clan, they could have opened multiple locations across the GTA. But they said no. By way of explanation, Agim mentions a favourite saying of his dad’s: “The eye of the farmer fattens the animals.” Put another way, if you want something done right, do it yourself. The Pristines’ competitive advantage is that it’s their store; keeping the Cheese Boutique in the family means they can make sure it’s plump and healthy.

Agim and Afrim each describe their dad as being tough on them and spare with praise. His retirement happened slowly and he still checks in every week. Fatos told me he never demanded that his sons work at the store; he and Modesta wanted them to have every opportunity to find their own way. He takes it as a sign of respect and love that his sons all joined him at the family business. “I had a very beautiful life,” he says. “I’m very proud of my family. And I was very fortunate—up until a point, when we lost Arian. But now the Cheese Boutique is in my sons’ hands, and they have fantastic ideas.”

Toronto's first family of cheese

Afrim Pristine is on The Marilyn Denis Show again. He’s demonstrating how to pair blue with honey, pear and chocolate. Denis is game, but understandably skeptical. Like Gregorian chants or Danny McBride, blue is an acquired taste. You either love a stinky, moist roquefort, or you think you don’t. Afrim all-out loves blue. He explains to the audience that more people would like it if they knew how to eat it. Blue isn’t a cheese you nibble by itself. Denis is won over, oohing and ahhing on behalf of her audience. Afrim, she says, can sell her on anything.

During his spot, Afrim carefully dances around the fact that he’s a brand ambassador for Castello, the Danish blue-cheese company, while using their product in three recipes. Brands want his endorsement—and access to his and the Cheese Boutique’s Instagram followers. Afrim is also an ambassador for Aperol and Conestoga Farms, a group of Ontario egg producers. He’s appeared at events for Banana Republic, the Robert Mondavi Winery, Mastercard and Samsung (he likes the latter’s kitchen appliances). When Conestoga wanted to show how eggs are integral to diets in different cultures, he came up with recipes for the company’s website and social channels. He may not be a trained chef or a recipe developer, but he does have a honed sense of what people like to eat.

There’s money from the ambassadorships, but the real payoff is how they create a funnel of new customers for the store. Over the past two years, with the lockdowns and the restaurant closures, the Cheese Boutique had to find a way to pick up the slack of that lost 30 per cent. A month into the pandemic, Agim exponentially expanded direct-to-customer business—they now have seven vans delivering orders every day across the city (there’s a $75 minimum spend), plus weekly service to Hamilton and Muskoka. Then he bought a food truck, painted it Cheese Boutique yellow, and started selling grilled-cheese sandwiches every weekend on Ripley. As the pandemic dragged on, they invited chefs from Piano Piano, La Palma, Famiglia Baldassarre, Marben and Carbon Bar to use the truck as a pop-up restaurant.

On the weekend the Pristines opened the new location, they led a mini-parade from the old store to the new, waving signs and flags, and rolling a giant wheel of Emmental all the way

Before the pandemic, Afrim would host occasional cheese-tasting classes after-hours in the store, or at events. Now, with the help of Alex Eidelman, who runs the Cheese Boutique social media and website, Afrim shoots virtual classes from his loft. The logistical prep for the classes, which quickly caught on as corporate team-building events, requires a battalion of staff. For a 90-minute class for Fidelity Investments, the Cheese Boutique packed and delivered boxes (at $200 a pop) to 200 employees’ homes. Each order came with detailed requirements for food allergies and preferences (not everyone loves blue!). It takes a lot of time and effort but becomes easier to rationalize if you look at the classes as yet another marketing tool. One class can convince 200 people who might never have made the pilgrimage to Ripley Avenue that they should. Even with pandemic restrictions lifted, Afrim is continuing with the virtual classes; companies still want to do them and their employees, many now living outside the city, love them.

The biggest pivot the Pristines made these last two years sounds modest: they moved their bakery. In 2017, they’d started selling cookware and knives in a space leased at 29 Ripley, which they called CB Giftware. According to the province’s lockdown rules, cookware didn’t count as an essential service and the store would have to close, so Agim retrofitted it with an espresso bar and the bakery display cases that previously sat near the checkout in the main store. The space was relaunched in spring of 2021 as CB Bottega. Some customers griped that they didn’t like schlepping up the street for their focaccia and bomba (Italian doughnuts filled with jam, cream or Nutella), but the reboot was a success. Now the Pristines are taking over a warehouse space at the back of the same building, to add more retail area and a production kitchen. The expanded Bottega will open this summer.

Branching out: The family launched CB Bottega, an espresso bar and bakery, last spring

Seeing people shopping in both stores got Agim thinking. What if Ripley Avenue could evolve into its own food-focused promenade, like Kensington Market, but more high-end, like London’s Borough Market?

The Pristines are already leasing a couple of other warehouses on Ripley—real estate that’s too valuable for storage—and some customers are coming on weekends specifically for the food truck. So why don’t they open a bottle shop, a florist, a spot for a butcher? How about a pizzeria, a burger joint and a gelateria? A pet store with healthy food options and a dog groomer? (That last idea might be self-interested: Agim and Sophia have two Labradors, Zeus and Apollo, who spend their days snoozing in the office.) The family would need to petition the city to add sidewalks, and rethink the parking situation—it’s already a jumble of double-parked Land Rovers.

When I last spoke with Agim in March, plans were in motion. “What I envision,” he said, “is people shopping here during the day and then coming back at night to grab a pizza and a gelato, and hanging out on the street. It’ll be a real open market, European sensibility.” He’s talking to architects about designing a second storey to the Cheese Boutique, for a dine-in restaurant. They’ll apply for a liquor licence. Agim and Afrim are considering converting Afrim’s loft into a space where they can host weddings and corporate events, with a room just for his cooking classes. They’re also contemplating a summer daycamp for kids where they learn everything about cheese—because what kid doesn’t like cheese? Right now, Afrim is mapping out a second season of his Food Network show, with an itinerary of stops around the world.

“Can we pull off everything?” Agim asks. “We’ll see. This is a new world: you have to step up your retail game or you lose people to online shopping.”

The Pristines are remaking this once lonely, ungainly street as their own. After so many years adrift, they’re home.

This story appears in the May 2022 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.


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