Meet the Maker: the Cooke family

By Abbey McCauley

Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee is a longstanding establishment in downtown Kingston. Visitors and locals alike journey from the sidewalks of Brock Street, entranced by the smell of rich, freshly roasted coffee, to enter a world of 1900s antiques and food products sourced from all over the world.  

Upon entering Cooke’s, every one of your senses becomes captivated. Shelves lining the store are home to gourmet sauces, dressings, cooking oils, jams, baking supplies, and more. In the heart of the store, the centre aisle beckons with an assortment of chocolates and sweets, sure to satisfy any sweet tooth. As you venture toward the rear, the left side reveals a bright cheese counter, while on the right, drawers brim with a selection of coffee varieties. The warm exchanges between Cooke’s employees and guests creates a comforting atmosphere. With an abundance of treasures, Cooke’s truly enchants its visitors.  

The view from the entrance of Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee / Credit: Tim Forbes

Generations of exceptional quality and service

For three generations, the Cooke family has owned and operated Cooke’s. It all began in 1924 when Hugh G. Cooke, a Kingston local, founded Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee. Since then, ownership of the store has passed down within the family, with Susan Cooke, Hugh’s granddaughter, now the current owner. Reflecting on the family legacy, Susan explains, “My grandparents had one child, that was my dad, John, but he went by Jack. When my grandfather was ailing in his late 70s, Jack came and took over the business. That was in 1966. And then when I was a teenager, I worked here but then left Kingston for about 10 years. When I came back in 1985, I took over the store from my father. I’ve been here full-time ever since.”

The fourth generation of the Cooke family is also involved in the success of the store. Susan’s children, Alyssa and Jonathan, contribute their unique skills to the store’s operations. Alyssa is the dedicated buying manager and Jonathan is the hardworking warehouse supervisor. Together, they carry the Cooke’s legacy into the future with pride.

Susan Cooke (left) and Alyssa Busk (right) smiling while holding a photo of Hugh G. Cooke, the store’s founder, Susan’s grandfather and Alyssa’s great-grandfather / Credit: Tim Forbes

One of Canada’s oldest independent businesses

The location of Cooke’s has a long history, dating back to before it was Cooke’s. Susan explains that 61 Brock Street was initially home to the Italian Warehouse. William Begg opened the store in 1865 and sold high-quality foods, wines, and liquors. Eventually, at an unknown date, Begg transitioned ownership of the store to the Henderson brothers. It was during this transition that Hugh entered the picture, first working for the Henderson brothers before eventually acquiring the business in 1924 and transforming it into Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee.

Remnants of the store’s storied past can be seen in its fixtures. The entrance displays a stained-glass “Hendersons” sign and a wooden “Cooke’s” sign. The aged wooden floor offers a friendly creak to say hello, while rows of antiques greet you as you enter. The words “Italian Warehouse” are etched into the wood above the product shelves.

Susan emphasizes how significant this location is. “Next year, Cooke’s will celebrate 100 years in my family. In the next two years, the location will celebrate being 160 years old. We really are one of the oldest independent businesses still going. We were here before Confederation, and there are only a few in Kingston that are still around from that time, for example, the James Reid Funeral Home.”

The view of Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee’s interior while standing in the middle of the store / Credit: Tim Forbes

A treasured family enterprise

Susan says, “My grandfather was the one that really put Cooke’s on the map.” Hugh, often sporting a suit and bowtie in the store, focused on serving customers and providing high-quality products.

Susan’s commitment to preserving the legacy of Cooke’s is deeply rooted, inspired by the stories she grew up hearing about her grandfather’s remarkable work ethic and customer service. “My dad talked about how their plans would be often spoiled, because my grandfather would get a call from a customer.” says Susan. “On days the store was closed, he would come down, get whatever the customer needed, and walk it to where they lived.”

Hugh’s dedication resonated with every customer who stepped foot in Cooke’s, creating bonds that would span multiple generations of customers. Susan says, “We have customers who are in their senior years now, who came in when they were children. And over the years they bring their own children and then they bring their grandchildren. We hear all the time, ‘They  are still here! And it hasn’t changed a bit.’”

A shelf donned with antiques and filled with products for sale in Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee / Credit: Tim Forbes

Curated selections of quality products

In its early days, Cooke’s offered a wide range of grocery items and specialty goods. “At the beginning, we were doing grocery orders, and filling them by telephone,” says Susan. “We had the fourth phone in Kingston because the other three phones were owned by customers that wanted to call in their order! Over time we stopped grocery orders, and we focused more on imported foods and specialized items.”

Cooke’s has stayed true over the years to offering high-quality gourmet products. The store’s shelves are stocked with boxed, canned, and jarred foods from Canada, the United States, and Europe. While they seek out special products, their primary goal is quality.

Alyssa explains, “I spend lots of time researching and tasting products for the store. Almost all of the products out for sale have been sampled before it hits the floor. We try hard to have products that are not available at the grocery store. We want coming to Cooke’s to be a unique experience. We are always open to suggestions for new products as well. We will have customers bring us labels and we have products brought into the store for them.”

A cheerful Cooke’s employee serving a customer at the cheese counter / Credit: Tim Forbes

Exclusive coffee, cheese, & gift baskets

Cooke’s offers a full-service cheese counter with a range of domestic and imported cheeses. Their famous cheddar cheese is a local Ontario cheese, specifically made for Cooke’s. Their customer-first mindset is built into this experience, as store staff allow customers to sample cheese before making a purchase and readily offer pairing suggestions upon request.

Cooke’s employee shovelling freshly roasted coffee beans into a takeaway bag / Credit: Time Forbes

Their coffee roasted in-house is renowned across Canada. Susan explains, “The coffee came about when my grandfather first started here. One of his jobs was roasting coffee in the building’s fireplace. He did not like that job. As soon as commercially roasted coffee became available, he started to purchase it. We had our own blend of coffee, called Bridge Party.”

However, in 1978, Cooke’s began to roast coffee again on the second floor of the building. “My dad felt that people weren’t enjoying coffee the way it was supposed to be enjoyed,” says Susan. “At that point, there was a lot of instant coffee out there. There just wasn’t the variety of pour-over electric coffee makers that you see today.” Whether customers enjoy Cooke’s coffee in-store or order it online, the aim is to provide them with a taste of Kingston. There are many Cooke’s-exclusive blends such as the Chez Piggy Blend, Kingston’s Favourite Blend, and Mr. Cooke’s Blend.

Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee “Back Room” filled with gift baskets / Credit: Tim Forbes

Adding to the store’s charm, gift baskets line the “Back Room” of Cooke’s. For over 75 years, the Cooke’s team has been crafting food arrangements. It began during the Second World War, when Cooke’s began sending care packages to soldiers. Today, customers can easily order gift baskets over the phone or online, with the option to have the shipped anywhere in Canada.

Susan Cooke (left) and Alyssa Busk (right) smiling while standing outside Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee on Brock Street / Credit: Tim Forbes

Continued success from tradition

Under Susan’s stewardship, Cooke’s has expanded to better serve the community of Kingston. In 2012, a west-end store was opened in 2012 to accommodate customer preferences for an alternative location outside of downtown. And in 2019, Cooke’s Essentials, a sister store specializing in kitchen products, opened its doors right beside the original Cooke’s location.

“Our intention and focus is to continue to do what we know how to do, which is good customer service,” emphasizes Susan. Alyssa echoes this sentiment, saying, “The plan is to keep selling coffee, keep importing cheese, and keep going for as long as we can.”

Experience the charm of Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee at 61 Brock Street, open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5:30 pm. Alternatively, visit their west-end location at 2395 Princess Street, Unit 6, open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 5:30 pm and Saturday 10 am to 5 pm. While exploring the Brock Street location, don’t forget to visit the neighbouring Cooke’s Essentials for the Kitchen at 57 Brock St, open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm.