Teresa Spinelli; the little girl who played cashier, all grown up

“I was born into this business,” says Teresa Spinelli, owner of the Italian Centre Shop (10878 95 Street). “My father opened his store in 1955. My mother Rina was the cashier. We were raised in the store, behind the counter. I took my first steps down the pasta aisle.”

Teresa Spinelli

Teresa worked as a cashier in high school and in the office during university. “I thought I wanted to be a social worker. But I didn’t like it. I liked being in the store.”

“There was no doubt that the business would be taken over by my brother;’ she says. “We were a traditional Italian family. I was supposed to get married and raise a family.”

Things didn’t work out that way. Teresa’s brother, Peter, passed away at 32. Just six months later Frank Spinelli, Teresa’s father, paragon of the community, was diagnosed with cancer.

“The first year was very difficult. I missed my dad and my brother. I had many long-time employees, many of whom thought of me as the kid who used to play cashier. I was newly married. My middle name became stress.” she says.

“My father was an outstanding human being. He won many awards, contributed much to our community and our city. I had very big shoes to fill. No one, including me, was sure that I could do it.” -Teresa Spinelli

Many of those long-time employees had witnessed the first steps down the pasta aisle. They were grieving too, and not quite ready to accept Teresa in this new role. “My father was an outstanding human being. He won many awards, contributed much to our community and our city. I had very big shoes to fill. No one, including me, was sure that I could do it.”

“I started to gain respect because I worked hard; not just in my office, but on the floor. But I didn’t have the time, the knowledge or the energy I needed to bring our business into the 21st century. We were a multi million-dollar business and we ran it as if it were a corner store.”

Teresa’s education started. She took courses to learn about investments and finance. She joined a business group for support and to learn from other business owners. She hired an HR consultant to help build an organizational chart, develop job descriptions and a good wage strategy.

“My dad never had meetings. But I called a meeting because I wanted to put an end to the many rumours about selling the business. I let my employees know I wasn’t going anywhere. I let them know that the decisions I was going to make, not everyone was going to agree with. I was willing to discuss their issues or problems with the changes, but we were going to find the best way to implement the changes. It was going to happen.”

Teresa held a visioning session with key employees. From this, came the idea that Italian Centre Shop would grow with multiple locations. Two years, almost to the day after those meetings, the second store will open at 5028 – 104A Street.

You can tell the seasons by the produce aisles at the Italian Centre Shop. Spring is heralded by the tiny, red-fleshed blood oranges. Then come 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 of field tomatoes and riot of peppers from the Okanagan. 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 pannetonne; then on to the dove-shaped colombe bread at Easter.

It was in the spring, four years ago, that Teresa noticed there were no swings anymore in the park across from the store. “I called the city and they said that the community has to find the money for swings. Well, it was imortant to me that the park had swings. This is an inner-city park. Those kids have so little to begin with.”

Part of the city’s plan is that you have to go around the community and ask everyone what they wanted to see in the park. Our community is so diverse that this simple park project took on a life of its own.”

What started as a simple plan to replace the swings became a major revitalization program. The Giovanni Caboto Park now has a large set of swings, a statue of Frank Spinelli playing cards, and the Ortona Edmonton Friendship Fountain, a symbolic replica of the fountain in the town square of Ortona, Italy. It commemorates the Battle of Ortona, fought by members of the Edmonton Loyal Regiment. The original fountain was one of the few structures standing at the end of the 16 day assault.

Teresa is a powerful speaker whose eloquence and meaning come from her life as she has lived it. She connects with people in her down-to-earth fashion, telling funny little stories to illustrate her points. The impression is of a passionate, ambitious woman who has taken to the business like a duck to water. She credits her husband Mike for much of her success. They have learned to separate work (he handles the real estate) and their relationship, to make the best of both.

I push my cart through the aisles at the soon-to-be-remodeled Italian Centre Shop Number One, and wonder if the new south side store will have half the character. Of course it will. Gioia di vivere doesn’t come from a building, it comes from the lively mix of staff, music, and customers of all colours, ages and genders that sum up the Italian Centre experience. I reckon I’ll still be arguing about the amount of brine in the olives or requesting the other goat cheese ‘the one you keep in the back’ for decades to come, on both sides of the river.

“I consider myself very fortunate to have had the privilege to inherit a good, healthy business;” says Teresa. “I know now that I am not living my dad’s life. I’m living my life and I’m excited about the future.

Editors’ note: This story was written when the Italian Centre was opening its second store, on the south side. Now, the delightful Sherwood Park Store has just opened, joining stores in the west end and Calgary, bringing the total to five. And Teresa and Mike’s son, Massimo, is a teenager.