Feeding People: The Italian Centre Riot

by Mary Bailey

Several years ago, after the death of Teresa Spinelli’s father Frank in 2013, but not long after she became the president of the Italian Centre Shop, the manager at the time decided to do something about the lineup at the deli.

They would install a ticket number machine. People would take a number and wait until one of the busy deli staff could help them. Curious as to how this might work out, I popped down to the shop on 95 Street to see how things were going.

Take a Number

Pandemonium. Voices were raised. Men jostled, hands enthusiastically gestured, a punch or two may have been thrown. You could hear the commotion throughout the store.

Take a number for provolone? Pazzesco! Canadians may be known for their love of a queue, but southern Italian men do not line up. Or at least, they didn’t then.

Within a year or two things had quieted down. There were still a few friends of Frank who sauntered up to the counter as always, but with time even they figured out it was faster and easier to just take a number.

This was only one of the changes that were happening at the Italian Centre Shop. Frank was gone and now his daughter was the boss.

Change is hard. For all of us. It’s especially hard for anyone who identifies intimately with a place that is a touchstone—something that reflects culture and a way of life they may have left behind decades ago but still cherish.

Frank Spinelli opened the Italian Centre Shop in 1956 with the idea to bring a bit of home to the hard-working men he knew from his time in the camps—good coffee, Italian language newspapers and magazines—and as the store grew, European foods and wine grapes. (That’s a whole other story: F. Spinelli vs the ALCB.) It quickly became a social hub, not just for homesick Italians but for many European immigrants.

“There was no doubt that the business would be taken over by my brother,” says Teresa. “After all, in a very traditional Italian family that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

The death of Peter Spinellli, Teresa’s brother, changed everything. It was up to her to carry on Frank’s legacy.
“No one, including me, was sure that I could do it. Many of the employees had been working at the store for longer than me. They thought of me as the little girl who used to play cashier. Taking direction from a woman was a challenging task—not only for them, but for me too.”

How do you step into your father’s legacy? How do you thrive in a role that everyone is telling you can’t do and are not suited for? How do you succeed in an arena that you never dreamed you would be in?

Teresa credits her family and community.

“I learned to value the loyal relationships that my dad had created. These relationships had been earned over time, and I too must put in my time. I witnessed my parents, aunt, uncle and others in my community work tirelessly every day. Despite their hard work, they remained devoted to their community, giving back and prioritizing family. It’s from them I learned the value of community, contribution, commitment and connection—values that are paramount to me.”
She learned to listen to herself. ‘Your dad wouldn’t have done that.’ ‘What a stupid idea’. ‘That’s never going to work.’ Lots of self-doubt, but I kept focusing on what I wanted.

“I soon realized that my focus wasn’t on selling salami, it was on nurturing people. My goal was to cultivate our team and provide them with opportunities for growth.

“When we had our first visioning session, we were about 30 employees, I was one of three women. No plan, no processes, no job descriptions. It was chaos on a good day.

“Then they came up with this: ‘Our vision at Italian Centre Shop is to exceed our customer’s expectations of a cultural experience. The combination of our specialty products and services will lead us into future expansion with multiple locations.’

“I thought ok, they obviously don’t understand the challenges Maybe in five or 10 years we will get there.
“The visioning session was February 27, 2005. In July 2006—18 months later—we opened our second location. In just 18 months we had achieved something that I alone could not do.

“They did that, not me,” she says.

Teresa Spinelli

Frank’s wife Rita was a familiar face at the till (forever Mrs. Spinelli to me). When she died in 2023 after a long illness, Teresa wondered what to do with her mom’s house. First, it was filled with families escaping the war in Ukraine. Then, Teresa decided to talk to the Alberta Lung society. Recovering from lung surgery takes a long time. Families can be separated for several months, Now, while the association raises funds for a recovery facility, patients and their families stay at Rita’s house.

While Teresa and the Italian Centre are best known for things like the Boys and Girls Club project in Giovanni Caboto Park and myriad other public acts of philanthropy, much of Teresa’s giving (and advice and guidance) is quiet and personal, not in the public eye. Because community means giving back and that is everything to her.

Teresa once told me that she didn’t need to build a business empire. “I didn’t do it for me, I did it for them,” she said with her characteristic straightforwardness. Because a growing business creates more career paths for the 600-plus employees of the Italian Centre Shop.

Frank and Teresa Spinelli

And that is Teresa Spinelli’s superpower. We may think she builds grocery stores, but, actually, she builds people. She creates a way for people to succeed.

That is her legacy.

Mary Bailey is the editor of The Tomato and a fervent Italian Centre shopper.