Think you can’t have a family AND a full time job AND launch your dream business?
I want you to meet two guys and a girl who taught me a very important point of view about balance.
Oh. And they make the best F’ing grilled cheese in the city.
Kevin Durkee is the guy on the right. That’s his daughter Taylor in the middle, and his husband Tom Douangmixay (Kevin warned me it was a triple word score in Scrabble) on the left, and they’re the owners of Cheesewerks, the city’s newest and gooiest artisan grilled cheese shop at Bathurst and Niagara.
I LOVE GRILLED CHEESE.
I mean it.
So I had to talk to Kevin about how he took this place from bare concrete to tasty utopia in less than a year. Back when I was in advertising (remember that?) I was finishing up my last days just around the corner from this place and sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for it to open up.
Now I’m deciding which way to spoil myself.
Beef Brisket?! Fuck yeah. I order a Houston.
What’s with the names on the menu anyway?
It’s more than just an easy way to understand the flavours you’ll be enjoying. There’s a story behind each one. The Houston I ordered is called a Houston because that’s the first place Kevin, Tom and Taylor vacationed together.
“So we brought those flavours, and that spice, and that excitement back. Beijing — Tom and I got married four years ago and we spent our honeymoon at the Olympics. Charleston — my parents spent a ton of time in Mertyl Beach over 15 years. We’d always go down and see them and spend a lot of time in Charleston. So all that southern charm has come into that.”
I love it. But let’s be honest, I’d still order 100 of these if they were called Grilled Poopwiches.
Look at this thing.
The high-end Jalepeno Jack is the perfect melted, stretchy consistency, flavoured with their delicious BBQ sauce and brought together in a flawless tender-brisket-to-cheese ratio inside a crunchy buttery marbled sourdough.
Please, Cheesewerks, consider delivery as a viable part of your business model.
There’s also fresh and crunchy salted home made pickles and these little delights that come with it:
Mm. I’d spend a lot more time in Texas if this is indeed what Houston tastes like.
Back to the story. Turns out there’s a lot more to this place than its delicious offerings.
“Have you heard the Mom Story? No? OH! Then you’ve GOT to hear it.”
Kevin is so damn likeable and now he’s excited by what he’s about to tell me. Here it is.
One day, when Kevin was 13, his mom came home from her job as head cashier at the A&P. She had told them to take their job and shove it. That’s literally what Kevin said. I like her already.
“She turned her life around and decided to follow her passion.”
They turned their basement into an industrial kitchen where she became an artisan baker before advertising people invented that word and put it in front of other words. Pies, baked goods, muffins, squares, cookies — she made it all and Kevin was her wee sous chef. After a few years, she opened “The Courtyard Tea Room” in Perth and ran it joyously for 18 seasons. Cottage goers, locals, and families passing through returned again and again to visit Audrey. She retired in 2005, was diagnosed with lung cancer two years later, and passed away a short 45 days after that.
Keven and Tom were together at the time, Taylor was 4, and that’s when the idea for Cheesewerks began. Kevin was in advertising/marketing/creative licensing and Tom was working in the world wide web. They were making so much money for other brands, so why not create one of their own?
“And I’m totally a momma’s boy. Always have been, always will be. So she defined me. And obviously we had a young lady who we wanted to make as independent and as strong as possible. So we were like, why don’t we put together a family plan for her?”
Then he directs my attention to a beautiful painting on the wall.
It’s an oil painting of his mom’s shop that his dad had commissioned. Kevin acquired it after she passed away, and it’s been up there since they began this labour of love. I’d venture to say she’d be really, really proud.
They’ve created something here that isn’t just about grilled cheese.
It’s not just about the cheese, even.
Sure, there’s cheese fondue, mac & cheese, cheese and wine pairings, cheeseboards, and a selection of fantastic cheeses to take home.
But there’s also an atmosphere here. One you want to hang out in. They have board games, and a big screen TV, and Oscars parties. Every Sunday they make something totally unique for “Kitchen Sink Sundays”, like Nutella-Banana French Toast, and tease their Facebook fanbase with pictures. They have cool local beers and wines and home made sodas, and I visited just in time to see what they did with a 26-pound chocolate bunny they’d won in a contest.
What they’re doing is phenomenal: brilliant small business cross promotion, presence at events, shout outs to their fans, involvement in the community, meet-the-maker nights, special deals, and an overall bang up job utilizing social media to engage their customers and make new friends.
But most of all, they have an incredible attitude that shines through everything they do.
Here’s what I’ve gained from Kevin, aside from a few pounds:
1. Give new stuff a chance.
They champion Canadian products — everything in there is 100% Canadian — and they want you to try new things and discover stuff with them. This means championing local wines, hosting meet and greets with the people who make the cheese, selling newly discovered accompaniments, and lining up all the staff one day with coffees to show them how to do a Tim Tam Slam just because one of them didn’t know what it is.
2. Do your homework.
Want to open a business you’re passionate about? Kevin’s advice: do the homework. Take more time to research and plan than you think. Make sure it’s really your passion. Then leave it alone for a while. If you don’t take breaks, you’ll burn yourself out by the time you launch.
3. Stay flexible.
Ok, so you planned everything out. A LOT. Now be ready to change it all. Cheesewerk’s menu is the perfect example. They made everything up themselves, hosted a tasting event, put a lot of thought into each item, and changed it all around 2 weeks in. You have to be actively interested in feedback and adjust what you worked so hard on.
4. Work hard.
Kevin and Tom built Cheesewerks up from nothing in a bare concrete retail space. From the business plan, to the recipes, to the marketing, and absolutely everything else in between — like Kevin baking easter cookies all of that morning — these guys do it all.
5. Let go.
Although this business is their baby, Kevin, Tom, and Taylor have taken 2 vacations since they opened 4 months ago.
“People are like, you have a restaurant and you have time off? If the restaurant doesn’t live on its own, we’ll NEVER have time off. Right? And it’s no different than how we raise Taylor.”
In other words, take some responsibility and know when to let go of being in control. Don’t let something consume you, not even your passions. Whether it’s your business, your kid, your relationship — you need balance, and it starts with your attitude.
Don’t think you can have a life with a kid?
“You know what? Strap the kid in a backpack, throw them on your chest, and just walk out the door. Deal with it! So you have a kid. It’s okay!”
I LOVE his attitude as much as his grilled cheese.
As for their wonderful little girl Taylor, it was her birthday last weekend. She told me she didn’t want any toys — she wanted something she could use. Like a nice duvet.
And for her birthday dinner, here’s what she gave her dad when he asked her what she wanted:
9! I didn’t know what sashimi was until I was 20.
What a wonderful, bubbly, smart little foodie they’ve raised!
So they have a brand new dream restaurant, take vacations together, are raising a fantastic young woman, and what else?
Oh yeah. Both Tom and Kevin still work full time at their other careers.
And that, my friends, whipped my ass with a lesson on balance. What’s your excuse for not starting on your dream?