The Italian Centre Shops Celebrate Sixty Years

Teresa Spinelli never planned to be in groceries. But, after growing the family business from one small store in little Italy to four and counting in Edmonton and Calgary, she’s not stopping now.

Q & A with Teresa Spinelli, President, Italian Centre Shop

by Mary Bailey

Italian Centre
Italian Centre

The Italian Centre Shop is 60 years old this year. Frank Spinelli opened the store on 95 Street and 108a Avenue in 1959; his wife Rina was the cashier. It quickly became the centre of the Italian community. First it was Italian newspapers, coffee, soft drinks and pasta—a taste of home. Then it was wine grapes and specialty items from Europe. (I once asked Ralph Stabile, the buyer, why they had so many brands of coffee on offer. ‘Because we have to bring in the coffee from everyone’s home town’ was his reply.) Generations have shopped there and not just Italians.

Now it attracts shoppers who like great food, well-priced items from Canada and Europe and the community vibe. I love prowling the aisles for oils and vinegars, local vegetables, meats and dairy, my favourite dried pasta, haunting the deli counter for white anchovies.

You can tell the seasons by the produce aisles at the Italian Centre Shop. Spring is heralded by the baby eggplants, glistening like jewels, followed by carciofi (artichokes) with their lovely purple and sage green colouring. The fennel disappears, only to come back more fragrant than ever. Fresh figs announce mid-summer, along with the astounding bounty from the Okanagan—field tomatoes, eggplants, stone fruit and riot of peppers. Rusty-coloured persimmons, best to eat dead ripe, sit wrapped in their purple and green paper in October, then it’s the chestnuts of winter and the holidays. The store fills with towering stacks of brightly packaged panettone; then on to the dove-shaped colombe bread at Easter.

Frank’s daughter Teresa Spinelli took over the business in 2001 after losing both her brother and father in quick succession.  She never planned to be in groceries. But, after growing the family business from one small store in little Italy, to four and counting in Edmonton and Calgary, she’s not stopping now.

Tell us about the past 10 years

Wow, it went by so fast! It was 12 years ago when we opened the second store. Now we have four stores and will open two next year. That would never have happened without a great team.

How did you build that great team?

For me it was never about selling stuff. I didn’t set out thinking let’s have several stores. It came about because I wanted to create opportunity for our people. It’s about people; what can I do to create an environment where they can motivate themselves? What are their goals?

It was baby steps at first. People were used to my dad, what did I know? The changes came from listening, hearing what they needed.

At that time, we had no roles, we all did everything. People needed to know who to listen to, so one of the first baby steps was making departments and creating role descriptions.

Staff said they didn’t know how to do their jobs. So we started training (still working on that, it’s ongoing). We found out that some people didn’t like their jobs—they wanted to be in the deli, not on cashier, for example, so we made it easier to move. We do that much better now, move people around the different stores and departments.

People told us they wanted benefits.

So, we did that.

I hired someone to audit HR practices, so we would be paying as well as chain stores, even though at the time we were one store with 30 employees.

I am always learning. I find that things happen when a person isn’t clear about their role or they don’t have the support and we find that different people thrive under different management styles. We want to help provide the tools for them to do their best in the job.

Tell us about something that didn’t work

Massimo’s. We discovered that running a standalone restaurant wasn’t for us. It was a failure for many reasons: I didn’t know the restaurant business; if you don’t understand something you need to learn it and spend time there, but I didn’t have that time. We have a saying in Italian; ‘L’occhio del padrone, ingrossa il cavallo.’ It means when you keep an eye on your business, it grows.

It was during the boom and staff were hard to find. We hired staff from Italy and their vision was very different from the casual place we had thought we wanted.

Now we use that space for the ready-made meals. We are clear about what we want that to be—it’s not gourmet, it’s easy and tasty food for busy people. I’m big on eating at home and eating with family. At least eat together. Food tastes better with people. Sitting down and eating in front of your computer is not good! Neither is stopping for fast food. But life is busy—go to soccer practice, then pick up a lasagne.

What’s new?
We are starting work on the kitchen at the south side store this fall. This is interesting; Debaji’s was supposed to go in there. They had planned a kitchen in that space. We didn’t do that; we aren’t good at that kind of thing—sushi bar, cheese bar. They were ahead of their time for sure.

In the beginning we were selling to cooks. But that’s changed. We are realizing how many people need help to cook. We are always being asked to do cooking classes. But our cafés are busy, we can’t really use that space for chef visits or events. So, we decided to build a kitchen.

We are working on new locations in Calgary; we would like to have at least three stores there but it’s very hard to find the space we need. And another store in the Edmonton area. We will build rather than taking over existing spaces, so we will have the model store, with enough offices and everything else. Takes a lot of planning.

My son Massimo is growing up in the aisles, just like I did. The other day he told me he wanted to be the president of the Italian Centre Shop. I told him he would have to get a degree and work somewhere else for at least three years. He said, ‘that’s not what you did.’ Kids! He wanted to know how old I was when I took over the company. I was 39. He has a passion for people, but he’s got to earn it and he’s got to want it. He loves it now, but I don’t know if he’ll love it next year. I just want him to be happy.

We are trying to do more on climate change. We are working with the City of Edmonton to reduce gas emissions; we got rid of plastic cutlery and hope to be free of plastic bags in the next couple of years; we are keeping up with what best for the environment. It’s part of being a community. My dad always said: the more you give the more you get back. We are all in this together.

What do you see in 10 years?
I’ll still be working that’s for sure, I don’t plan on retiring. I hope we have a store or two in a different province and I hope we are doing more for the community.

Teresa’s last word
The table is where friendships are made, business is done, family bonds. All walks together, it all works. The world is a better place at least for a few hours.