‘This is more than just a store’

Cooke’s Fine Foods has long been a one-stop shop for anyone seeking a glimpse into Kingston’s storied past

Susan Cooke purchased Cooke’s Fine Foods in 1991 from her grandfather, Hugh Cooke, who worked in the store for 14 years before buying it in 1924.
Susan Cooke purchased Cooke’s Fine Foods in 1991 from her grandfather, Hugh Cooke, who worked in the store for 14 years before buying it in 1924.
During the Second World War, Cooke’s packaged and sent care packages to Canadian soldiers.
During the Second World War, Cooke’s packaged and sent care packages to Canadian soldiers.

Rosemary Nolan, ArtSci ’08, is shopping in the same place John A. Macdonald bought his groceries.

The location of Nolan’s brief foray into grocery shopping time travel? Cooke’s Fine Foods at 61 Brock Street, where I find her perusing the shelves on a Saturday afternoon in early March.

For most of us in the 21st century, a stop at the grocery store might mean picking up a few cans of tomato sauce, some orange juice and a box of cereal. But a visit to Cooke’s has always been a little different—for clients of Cooke’s Fine Foods in 1924, turtle soup and chocolate-covered bees were common purchases. Almost 150 years since the store opened its doors, Kingston residents and tourists alike still stop into Cooke’s for a unique food-buying experience.

“You could come here to get what you wouldn’t find somewhere else,” said Nolan, who stopped in at Cooke’s after hearing they were the only place in Kingston selling her favourite ginger candies. “I think some students avoid fancy or specialty foods in favour of the easy and familiar, but I think trying a few special things can really broaden your horizons.” Since the Henderson family first opened the store as Henderson Brothers in 1865, this venerated Kingston establishment has catered to the most exotic desires of local shoppers.

The store has changed hands only three times since it opened.

In 1924, employee Hugh Cooke bought the shop from second owner William Begg, whose store was called “The Italian Market.”

Since then, the store has stayed in the Cooke family. Cooke’s has been owned and operated byHugh’s granddaughter Susan since 1991.

Cooke said her grandfather, a Kingston native who worked in the store for 14 years before buying it,
had a much different experience than most young retail employees.

“My grandfather was an apprentice in the store for four years before they even let him talk to a customer,” she said. “He had to learn to make paper bags, roast coffee over a fireplace upstairs and slice bacon properly.

“That was just how they did it back then, really learning to do things and how to take care of customers before you start serving them.”

Cooke said the store has always offered the finest—and most unusual—local and imported products.

“This was always a food store, never just a general store,” she said. “It was called an ‘Italian Warehouse’ in the 1800s, and that meant you sold the finest foods, which is still what we do today.”

As I peruse the products available, I am struck by a wide array of pricy chocolates, in-house roasted coffees, cheeses and spices on hand. The store certainly offers more than Food Basics or A&P could ever hope to.

Although I don’t notice anything odder than canned haggis gracing the shelves, Cooke said the store
used to be known for much more unusual offerings.

“When I was young, Cooke’s was famous for having chocolate covered bumblebees, deep-fried grasshoppers, rattlesnake meat, turtle soup,” she said. “We sold all sorts of unique sorts of delicacies which nowadays aren’t around.

“The canadian Food inspection agency would never let things like rattlesnake meat cross the border now.” The store no longer carries the grocery items now offered by larger stores, and instead sticks with rare or specialty items. “We had grocery items here until about 1977, but what we always had and were known for was the imported foods,” Cooke said. “You came to get things that were a little bit different, or that came from overseas.”

Indeed, a look at Cooke’s purchasing receipts from 1964 shows orders for products imported from Poland (pork pâté and halva nut cookies), hungary (apricot butter preserves and gooseberries in syrup) and the United States (Kraft cream cheese and coca cola). Their product line may have changed since 1864, but Cooke is quick to point out that the store itself remains much the same.

“The store still has its original floor, ceiling, and the main counter is still original,” she said. “The antiques and decorations along the top shelves were sent to us to sell products, and some were made by a local artist out of papier mâché in the 1940s.”

Signs and relics throughout the store hearken back to Cooke’s history in Kingston. above the front door hangs an original gas lamp, and Kingston’s fourth phone is on display on one wall.

The phone was acquired to make shopping easier for customers, long before the advent of online shopping.

“The other three phones in Kingston were owned by customers, and they wanted to call their orders in so that they could pick them up or have them delivered,” she said. Cooke said in the days of her grandfather, customers were given much more attention than they are in a grocery store today.

“Customers back then would have come in with their list, and would have been served by a clerk,” she said. “Maybe the customer would sit down, and the clerk could walk around the store, get everything they needed, wrap it up and give them a handwritten bill.”

Customers at Cooke’s Fine Foods paid a high price for attentive service and unusual products.

One receipt saved at Queen’s archives from 1937 shows a client spending close to $10 on imported cheeses—at a time when a loaf of bread at Cooke’s sold for nine cents.

Indeed, Cooke said the store was frequented by the upper class of the city.

“The store catered to those in the Sydenham area, which was the carriage trade, the wealthier class at the time,” she said.

While a jar of specialty mustard at Cooke’s will likely cost you more than your average squeeze bottle of dijon, Cooke said they offer some products at prices accessible to students.

“We do have students shop here, though they aren’t our main clientele,” she said. “We have items priced from 35 cents to gift baskets at $500.” According to Marcus Letourneau, heritage Planner with the City of Kingston, Cooke’s was designated a heritage site by the Ontario heritage act in 1981.

Letourneau added that Kingston is home to 620 heritage sites and special rules govern potential changes to buildings like Cooke’s. “A property designated under Ontario heritage act is meant to be a reflection of community value concerning its architectural, historical, or contextual value,” he said.
“When a property is designated, certain character defining elements are identified as important, and proposed changes that could impact these elements require the approval of the council of a municipality.”

Although the building is a heritage site, Cooke said the store itself isn’t. This means while Cooke’s is safe from demolition, it doesn’t get any special treatment. Fortunately, Cooke said the store has never had any major financial problems.

“Cooke’s has been very fortunate not to weather any financial concerns throughout its history,” she said. “I believe that one of the key factors to its longevity is the fact that it has been run by the same family and remained in the same location for so long.

“Because we have always been a small business, it was probably easier to adapt to the changing times.” Cooke said she hopes to keep the store as it always has been. “This is more than just a store; it’s an experience,” she said. “I want to preserve that for future visitors, as a reminder of the way things were done in the past.”

Still, she acknowledged that some things have changed to meet the demands of the 21st century.

“One of the first things I did when I took over was get a new phone system,” Cooke said. “Our phones were so old that Bell asked to have them for their museum.” The store also has a website, and Cooke said receipts are no longer handwritten as they once were. “Of course, we’re trying to keep things as unchanged as we can,” she said. “But we simply wouldn’t survive if we were still handwriting receipts for each customer. “Some things just have to change with the times, unfortunately.”

For Nolan—tea, ginger candies and a computer printed receipt in hand—the store still offers something special. “It may be more expensive to come here than going to a normal grocery store, but it certainly takes you back in time and reminds you how old this city is,” she said.

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