Just off of Route 51 on the Pineville/Charlotte line, 10617 Kettering Drive to be exact, sits a nondescript office building. Down a spartan hallway, a musty odor wafts through the door of Suite 110 to tease the nostrils. Behind that door lie thousands of dollars worth of knobby black truffles (a type of fungus most commonly used to infuse foods with flavor or shaved on top of dishes as a garnish), and an astounding personal story.
Nearly 25 years ago, Alex Toska's family was among the hundreds of thousands who fled the civil war in Bosnia. With little embellishment, the youthful, energetic entrepreneur relates how, at the age of 7, he hid with his mother, sister, aunt and cousins beneath a pile of mail in a postal truck as they were smuggled into Croatia. After six years in various immigrant camps, they finally landed in Charlotte in 1996.
Today, with a degree in marketing and international business from UNC-Charlotte, Toska pitches himself as the next Rockefeller. He's started a few companies, including a commercial recycling enterprise, GreenUSA Solutions, but it's his new side business, Toska Truffles, that has drawn me to his pungent-smelling office today.
Creative Loafing: Traditionally (in France at least), hunters used pigs to sniff truffles out, though dogs have become more popular. Where do you source yours?
Alex Toska: I actually have my own truffle hunters ... that are exclusive to me. These are coming from Italy right now, but I'm getting ready to start importing truffles from other countries as well, from France, from maybe even my own country.
How do you sell to chefs who are focused on locally sourced food?
Truffles [are] like an exception. In order to make a dish beautiful, you need certain things. It's just that delicate that chefs make an exception for it simply because they don't get to see it every day. I think the little bit of leeway they give me is that we do not yet have a burgundy truffle in North Carolina. North Carolina has the best soil out of all 50 states for truffles, so we are in a good place, but ... the cultivation that's happening here is not there yet. They're good, but they're not great.
Are truffles a seasonal crop?
In Europe, [the season] starts with summer truffles in May. Maybe at the end of April you'll start seeing a crop, but it will not be as good. Summer truffles last from May through the end of August, mid-September. [Then] the summer truffle transitions into the burgundy truffle ... mid-September to the end of December.
The famous white truffle from the Alba region of Italy ... goes from the end of October until about the end of December. The original French Perigord will go all the way ... from the end of October until March. The Perigord is more aromatic [than the burgundy], and the white is even more so.
Australians have been successful in copying the French Perigord truffles, so Aussies will give us a chance to have fresh truffles year-round. So we will have some Perigords during those April and May months until the summer comes around again.
We do plan on expanding into a truffle product line. We will have truffle oil, truffle butter, ready-to-go dishes like truffle risotto, different truffle pastas, truffle salt. I ultimately want to have a truffle everything.