Fancy that! Local entrepreneur on a roll with her crustless throwback sandwiches
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A quick check of the calendar tells us January is National Hot Tea Month, and what pairs better with a nice, warm cuppa than old-fashioned tea sandwiches, the sort that can be consumed in two or three bites, and are often cut into decorative shapes, sans crust.
Susan Belmonte recalls being introduced to tea sandwiches, also called pinwheel, fancy or finger sandwiches, as a young girl, albeit, not always in the cheeriest settings.
“I grew up calling them ‘funeral sandwiches,’ because that’s where I seemed to notice them most often. Except when I decided to start my own business, ‘Sue’s Funeral Sandwiches’ didn’t have the nicest ring to it,” says Belmonte, the Sue behind Sue’s Swirly Sandwiches, which offers over a dozen varieties of tea sandwiches, more if one chooses to mix and match fillings such as chicken salad or strawberry cream cheese, and centres such as olives or pickled asparagus.
Since launching her venture in June 2019, Belmonte has come to realize her round-shaped delights are a “bit of generational thing.” People of a certain vintage recognize them immediately, and love discussing how they used to make them with their mother or grandmother. Others aren’t so sure what they’re staring at.
“My daughter’s friend once asked if they were my invention and I was like, ‘No, dear, not even close.’”
Besides memorials, Belmonte remembers her mother occasionally ordering a tray or two of tea sandwiches, typically from tony spots such as Eaton’s Grill Room or The Bay’s Georgian Room, if the family was having people over.
She also grew to favour them during the six years she spent at St. Mary’s Academy. Every fall, the school hosted an alumni tea, for which the most recent graduating class was tasked with preparing a light meal for guests. Tea sandwiches were a menu staple, and Belmonte had an opportunity to make them for the first time in September 1984, three months after she completed Grade 12.
“The teachers showed us what to do, and we were all like, ‘Oh, so that’s how it’s done… is that ever cool,’” she says, referring to the technique of flattening slices of bread that have been cut length-wise with a rolling pin, spreading a chosen filling atop the slices, then whirling them into a log, ahead of cutting them into individual pieces. (According to Wikipedia, tea sandwiches are British in origin, though short of carbon-dating a maraschino cherry, always a popular finishing touch, it’s hard to determine just how long they’ve been a thing.)
Through the years, Belmonte, a mother of three, would whip up homemade tea sandwiches every now and again, generally for family get-togethers. Her kids became big fans and often requested a batch for their individual birthday parties, to go along with cake and ice cream. Belmonte guesses it was around 10 years ago when her eldest daughter, now 27, told her, between nibbles, “Mom, these are so good. You really should be selling them.”
While that sounded like a grand idea, she was already working full-time as an office manager, in addition to running her own side venture, as a third-party minute taker for corporate meetings. As much as becoming a food entrepreneur appealed to her, there weren’t enough hours in the day.
Things started to change in that regard in early 2019, when she switched primary careers, going from full-time to part-time. Now that she wasn’t being run off her feet, she thought back to what her daughter had said, and headed into the kitchen to experiment with recipes.
Initially, she sold her creations at community centre events and craft shows, primarily to gauge whether there was demand or not, she says, listing chicken salad, tuna salad and Cheez Whiz among her introductory flavours. Back then, she hoped to land one or two sizable orders per month, maybe for an engagement party or wedding reception. Before long, however, sales were steady enough that she was forced to quit her primary job, to fully concentrate on being a sandwich artist.
Belmonte’s tagline from the get-go has been “fancy sandwiches for every occasion.” In that case, was she alarmed when, three months ahead of her first anniversary, COVID-19 suddenly kiboshed social functions of almost every sort?
Definitely, she replies, but then a funny thing happened on the way to the closest fast-food outlet. People who ordinarily grabbed a pizza or bucket of chicken on Friday or Saturday night began reaching out, in an effort to treat themselves in a different manner, altogether.
“Surprisingly, I had — and still have — customers who ordered one or two dozen sandwiches for themselves, once or twice a month,” she says, agreeing her prices — as little as $7 per dozen — compare favourably with those of, say, Domino’s or the Golden Arches. “Even today, there’s one guy who orders a few dozen (sandwiches) when he’s having buddies over to watch football. That’s something I never would have considered in a million years.”
Liz Magnifico twigged into Sue’s Swirly Sandwiches in May 2020. In an effort to support as many small businesses as possible at the beginning of the pandemic, she decided to expand her takeout horizons, and was overjoyed to discover there was an individual producing what she’s always called fancy sandwiches commercially.
“I grew up with fancy sandwiches, and have fond memories of eating them at baby showers and wedding showers,” Magnifico says. “My mother, Elvira, absolutely adored them, and during the last few years she was with us, I ordered them from a catering business that has since closed, to take to her nursing home, to share.”
Close to three years and however many of Belmonte’s sammies later, Magnifico no longer needs a special reason, such as having a sister or girlfriend over, to pick up the phone.
“Sometimes I just get a craving and that’s good enough,” she says, mentioning her go-to selections are ham and relish, and egg salad with raw carrot as the centre, the latter because her son, 33, isn’t crazy about gherkin pickles, the usual garnish. “I’m all about pomp and ceremony, and definitely ordered a tray in September for the queen’s funeral, to go along with my pot of tea.”
Like she mentioned off the top, Belmonte is currently approaching 15 varieties, including her two latest, chicken Caesar and taco dip. She is receptive to custom requests — a recent example was cucumber and peanut butter — and has even readied PB&J swirly sandwiches for — how great would this have been? — a not-so-pretend, kids’ tea party.
“I special order my bread from Safeway, people ask about that all the time. I use white (bread) as a rule but if somebody prefers whole wheat, I can make that happen,” she continues. “I can also do gluten-free, but those have to be ribbon sandwiches (cut straight or triangularly) because (gluten-free bread) doesn’t roll very well.”
Finally, the question that’s on everybody’s lips: what does she do with the crusts, once they’ve been removed? Is there a happy family of squirrels romping around her backyard?
She used to treat the neighbourhood wildlife, she admits, before understanding that was a definite no-no. Presently, there is a compost bin at Counter Space Community Kitchen, at 15 St. Anne’s Rd., which she both manages and works out of, so some of her scraps find their way into it.
Furthermore, a chef there who turns out soup and such transforms her discards into croutons, or uses them for stuffing, when she’s preparing holiday meals-to-go.
“I also know of a place in the city called Leftovers (Foundation) that I tried contacting last year, but never heard back from, but I’ll reach out again,” she says, adding besides placing orders by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), sandwiches are also available for pickup on a weekly basis, as part of the commercial kitchen’s Walk-Up Wednesday promotion, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“It’s going to be four years in June, and I’m still surprised how successful the business has become. My daughter likes to say she told me so, and she’s 100 per cent right: who knew there were so many Winnipeggers who like fancy sandwiches?”
Doesn’t she mean “who fancy fancy sandwiches?”
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.