EGAN: Stagnant ballroom transformed into Italian grocery “experience”

“Life gives you lemons, open a grocery store and sell them.”

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When the pandemic hit, their well-known banquet business fell off a cliff – only “empty ballrooms and sealed bottles,” they lamented – not big fat Italian weddings.

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So Zacconis, who built and operates Sala San Marco on Preston Street, had to pause and regroup. Or endure a slow death.

But they had assets to work with: a huge space, a large commercial kitchen, a history of cooking, a list of experienced employees.

“Life gives you lemons,” says Tony Zacconi, who took over the business from his parents, “open a grocery store and sell them.”

So today is the opening day of Mercato Zacconi, an Italian grocery store carved out of a 500-seat ballroom trying to create a “shopping experience”.

There is not just wine to buy, but wine to drink; there is actually wine to drink while shopping for wine to buy. There is coffee to drink, there is private label coffee to take home. There is pasta to eat, there is pasta to make. Choose a food product and repeat.

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The 8,000-square-foot space features boutique counters for dozens of Italian cheeses, fish and meats, a wood-fired pizza oven and tucked away places to eat it all in a bright, shiny atmosphere. And if you need it, there is laundry soap and paper towels.

One in three boys, Zacconi, 45, said he spent the first few months after the shutdown (March 2020) hoping for a speedy return to normal. No. So the need for Plan B grew.

“I knew that if I did nothing, we would just die a slow death, and everything I have worked for my whole life, everything my parents worked for their whole lives, would have been a little wasted, right? ”

He looked at the companies that thrived during the pandemic: grocery stores and LCBO. And he took into account the changing landscape around Preston – not large Italian families, but high-rises of couples, singles, students and young professionals – and their desire for take-out and home delivery of quality food.

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Post now the lack of a large grocery store at Preston, and Mercato Zacconi was born.

It is in a way a return to the roots of the family. Tony’s grandparents ran a small confectionery on Bell Street in the 1960s. His father Joe, now 74, worked both there and supplied Italian products, sometimes on credit, in the village.

There he was one day this week, behind the lobby bar, waving a caulking gun and helping to get the place ready. He arrived from Italy at the age of 12, became an electrician and eventually dived into the restaurant banquet industry. Growing up Italian at Preston, he has many stories.

“Tony, your dad’s talking to the newspaper guy. He’s going to write a horror story.” This is Gina, his wife speaking, also busy taking care of the details at the last minute before Thursday’s soft launch.What she’s talking about, we did not ask.

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In the early days of the pandemic, Tony says his first thought was a “pop-up” merchant who would front Preston, at least bring in some revenue. But the more he looked, the more complicated a quick shop became.

So he decided to go big, inspired by the global Eataly store chain, an open, market-restaurant concept that also teaches Italian cooking.

“Millions” is how much the Mercato cost, Tony said, alone with about $ 1 million in new equipment. It’s been a hectic run since work began in January, and apart from the shiny new everything, the store now has Zacconi brand tomato sauce, olive oil, pens and gnocchi, eventually its own wine.

“It’s amazing,” said Lindsay Childerhose, executive director of the Preston Street Business Improvement Association, after touring the space on Thursday.

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She said Mercato was a “shining example” of small businesses’ resilient ability to adapt to the changing conditions of the pandemic. She mentioned Buchipop, The Burrow Shop and La Roma as other grocers who have incorporated home delivery as a solution to the COVID realities.

Childerhose also said Mercato is well positioned to serve an influx of hundreds, possibly thousands, of new residents in towers that go up at Preston’s north and south end and into Gladstone Village.

Taking risks, meanwhile, is how the Zacconians have rolled. (Joe tells a wonderful story about snow coming through an open roof just weeks before his first San Marco wedding in 1987.)

“Not really,” Tony replied jokingly for clarity for the opening day. His late grandfather, he adds, would be scandalized over how he “blew the budget” to open the business.

“I believe in the street,” Tony says. “I believe in the field. I have worked here all my life.”

There is, after all, an imperative that a pandemic cannot kill: he eats people, he eats.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email kegan@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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