When it comes to the most extensive kitchenware selections in Hamilton and an all-inclusive local foods market, the spotlight shines no brighter than it does on The Casual Gourmet and its owner, Ilona Santa.
After taking over the reins in 2016, Ilona and her team have transformed and reinvented her small business from a local retail store into a well-established kitchenware and local foods enterprise situated in the heart of Westdale Village, where the owner really got her start.
“I grew up in Hamilton,” Ilona said. “My shop is in Westdale Village and I went to school in Westdale, first to Dalewood [Middle School] and then to Westdale High School.”
“I took on a job at the Casual Gourmet to help out the owner at Christmas and make a little extra money,” she said. “I was a single mom with two kids and eventually that ended up with me buying the business.”
Despite her commitment and dedication to the business, Ilona’s passion that is rooted in its success today, wasn’t always there.
However, with the rise of social media and Instagram in particular, that quickly changed and Ilona was not only ready to take The Casual Gourmet for herself, but to the next level.
“It was right when Instagram was first starting and I didn’t even like to cook when I first started working at Casual Gourmet,” Ilona said. “Instagram was in its beginning stages; so I was cooking, I liked what I was creating, I was taking pictures, I was posting about it and it just grew to be a passion.”
“I really enjoy cooking now and I just feel like I connected really well with my customers,” she said. When she [previous owner] was ready to hand over the torch, I was ready to take it. It’s something I really wanted, and so myself and a partner purchased the business together.”
By connecting with her customers and sharing her passion for all things culinary, Ilona has transformed The Casual Gourmet into a symbol of why shopping local is so important within the Hamilton community.
Thanks to Ilona and her team’s constant innovation and willingness to think outside the box, The Casual Gourmet is much more than just a kitchenware retail store today, recently adding the CG Market that offers a wide variety of food from local farms and vendors – but its expansion doesn’t end there.
“We started out as retail and we did bring in a local food market as a way to be able to stay open during the last two lockdowns,” Ilona said. “Since then, we’ve also gotten a restaurant takeout license because we have a kitchen space that we used to use for cooking classes. Those are on pause right now, so we are now using that space for takeout where we prepare fresh bagels, coffee, to-go salads and yogurt parfaits.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic threatened many small businesses’ survival and backed a lot of owners into a corner, Ilona embraced the support she received from her community and saw an opportunity for Casual Gourmet to not only survive, but to thrive.
“I quite enjoy doing the food market part of the store because it provides the community with something they did not have before, like being able to shop local vendors and local food,” she said. “I think in order to survive, especially in retail, you have to have many little aspects of your business because nowadays you can’t just survive on retail alone.”
Today, The Casual Gourmet is the perfect place to browse for the perfect foodie gift and their user-friendly website makes it easy to shop anytime, from anywhere.