Italian Centre Grocery Chain Owner Discusses Expansion

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By Mario Toneguzzi

Edmonton-based Italian Centre Shop is building on its burgeoning success and looking to expand its operations.

The company, with three stores in Edmonton, opened its first location in the city in 1959 and followed that up with its south store in 2006 and then the west store in 2013. It expanded to Calgary in 2015.

Teresa Spinelli, owner of the grocery store, told Retail Insider that the company is contemplating a second and possible third location in Calgary, another one in Edmonton as well as entering into the Saskatchewan market, particularly in Saskatoon.

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“We’re growing quite quickly. We are on the list of Canada’s fastest growing companies,” said Spinelli. “When I took over in 2000, our sales were $8 million and we had 30 employees and now 17 years later we’re at $65 million in sales and 509 employees. So we’ve grown quite a lot in a short span.

“We’re still hoping to grow. We’re hoping to open our second location in Calgary and God willing hopefully a third one. We’re looking at Saskatchewan right now. We’re looking at a smaller footprint here in Edmonton and Sherwood Park (a suburb of Edmonton). So we’re always looking at great opportunities because we think what we do is a little bit different than what everybody else does. I don’t know what that is but whatever it is it really seems to work.”

In terms of expansion, the key is finding the right footprint and the right people to run a store in these different locations.

Spinelli was the guest speaker last Wednesday night in Calgary for a networking event put on by the Canadian Italian Business & Professional Association’s local chapter.

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“I think we’re successful because of our people,” said Spinelli. “We’ve got really, really great employees. My employees really connect with our customers and my cashiers know the customers’ names, they know if they’ve got kids, at the the deli they know what their favourite meat is. They’re very connected to our customers and I think that really makes us successful.

“And we really try to provide a great experience - a really great cultural experience.”

The store’s history begins in 1951 when Frank Spinelli left southern Italy for the silver mines in the Yukon.

In 1959, Spinelli started selling Italian magazines, pop and chocolate in Edmonton.

“Soon the ever-growing local Italian population floods him with requests for all kinds of home-grown Italian favourites,” says a history of the company on its website.

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In 1964, Spinelli became famous in Alberta for leading a lobby to legalize homemade wine. The law changed in 1964, the same year he took over full ownership of the Italian Centre Shop. That legislation was a boost for business as the store became the biggest supplier of grapes and wine-making equipment in Western Canada.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Italian Centre Shop “becomes much more than a grocery store. A gathering place for churchgoers on Sundays and for the young men who enjoy sharing meals and card games with Frank Spinelli.”

Frank Spinelli passed away from cancer in 2000 and it was then that daughter Teresa took over the family business.

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Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary has 37 years of experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, city and breaking news, and business. For 12 years as a business writer, his main beats were commercial and residential real estate, retail, small business and general economic news. He nows works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Email: mdtoneguzzi@gmail.com   

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