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Putting people first

Teresa Spinelli on always doing right by staff and customers
Teresa Spinelli

Teresa Spinelli's father Frank, an Italian immigrant, opened the first Italian Centre Shop in Edmonton in 1959. Teresa took over the business after her father passed away in 2000. Today, Italian Centre Shop has five European-style markets in Edmonton and Calgary featuring its signature deli, with a huge selection of cheese, meats and antipasti; bakery; grocery; and café.

Canadian Grocer spoke to Spinelli about putting people first, standing out from the crowd and what’s next for the specialty grocer.

Tell us what the last few years have been like.

I’m proud to say that although our cafés and wholesale department closed during COVID, we never laid anybody off: we just repurposed people. That added a lot of morale in our stores. It also helped our team learn different parts of the store that they otherwise wouldn’t have. For example, a barista would have never known how the warehouse works. In terms of new stores, just before COVID hit, we were in negotiations with a space in Calgary. With COVID and some other issues, it felt like it was a sign not to move forward. When things got better, we started negotiating again, so in the coming weeks, we hope to have things finalized.

What are some other ways you keep morale up with your staff?
We’re like a family. If you’ve got 10 kids and you can’t feed 10 kids, do you get rid of the 10th kid? No, you eat a little bit less so the 10th kid eats. We very much live that here. For example, there was an employee at our Southside store who was working part-time hours and she had lost her other job. We would have done our best to give her more hours, but she never came to us. She just told her co-worker and he gave her his hours, which is pretty amazing. We take care of each other.

How do you make sure your stores stand out from the crowd?
We’re not just a grocery store: we definitely are a cultural experience. What makes us different is our team. We are a gathering place and we’re a community. Our cashiers know our customers and they ask questions about their families. In turn, our customers are very connected to our staff. I’ll give you an example, which is another big highlight; during COVID, one of our customers who did curbside pickup called me one day. She said, ‘You guys are doing a really great job. I want to give you $5,000 to give to your staff in Little Italy.’ I talked to her for a long time to make sure she knew what she was doing. [She did, and the $5,000 was spread amongst staff.] That’s just one example of how we have a real sense of community happening.

What is your business philosophy?

People first. We always put people first and all decisions in our company are based on people—not just our internal staff, but also our external customers. We focus on what they need and how we can make their lives better. I always say, ‘we do whatever we can.’ Whether we’re making a decision on a product, or talking about adding a role or deleting a role, we always think about what’s best for the people in our organization as well as our customers.

Is it a good time to be an indie/specialty grocer?

I don’t know that there is ever a good time for anything. You do the best that you can. Like everything, it’s got its challenges and it’s got its strengths and then you have to decide what’s best for you and what makes that work. So, for me, it is a really good time. Every job has a struggle, every business has a struggle, and it’s just what you make it. So, it’s a good time to be wherever you choose to be.

What’s next for Italian Centre Shop?

We currently have five stores: four of them in Edmonton and one in Calgary. We’re hoping to open two more in Calgary and then possibly Saskatoon and then we’ll see.

This article appeared in the May issue of Canadian Grocer 

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