We talked to the family who have run The Italian Store and Scarpone’s Quality Italian Foods in Calgary for 56 years
“It was one aisle, one aisle of groceries in the store. That’s all we could get. We couldn’t even find garlic, My Dad was like, ‘Don’t they have garlic anywhere?’ One aisle covered everything.”
Sera Duros laughs. Here we are sitting in the spacious café in The Italian Store at 5140 Skyline Way NE. Her parents, Alberto and Christina Iamartino, opened the original deli, grocery store and wholesaler, as Great West Italian Importers, in 1958. Sera was born the same year. Their first location was purchased by the City of Calgary as it extended Crowchild Trail over the Bow River. The proceeds of the deal allowed Iamartino to purchase a bigger warehouse and storefront in Inglewood, just across the river from the Italian neighbourhood of Bridgeland. Sera literally grew up in the family business.
“After school, I would take the bus and go help them do the shelves. They didn’t speak English very well so I even did most of their paperwork. Then, they started selling to Safeway. I remember I would go and fill up the shelves for Safeway because you had to make the stuff look good or they wouldn’t buy it from you. It was a lot of hard work. (But I knew) I was always going to be a part of the family business.”
Today, Sera is one of four partners who own and operate Great West Italian Importers. Alberto’s younger daughter, Sue, her husband Giovanni Oliverio, and Sera’s husband Mike, make up the rest of the management quartet. Together they run Great West as an umbrella company with two divisions: The Italian Store and Scarpone’s Quality Italian Foods. The former is the retail end of this family-owned food business. The latter imports products from all over the world, and packages food under its own Scarpone’s brand name. When Sera was asked about the boss at Great West, she answered, “We’re all the boss here.”
Giovanni Oliverio, AKA Gio or John, was on his way to law school when his canny father-in-law intercepted him. “I took a year off to work in the business and I just fell in love with it.” Respect and admiration are evident in his voice when he talks about the now 92-year-old patriarch. “After the war,” he says, “there were limited opportunities for immigrants. You’re not going to come to this country as a 40-year-old labourer and get a law degree! So he started his own business. He knew food. He had a passion for all things Italian and he just felt that it was something he could give back to the community, bringing in, at that time, these first-to-market products, bringing them in from Europe and being a distributor and wholesaler, for the new restaurants that were popping up. It was an immediate success.”
According to Sera Duros, the reason the business has been around for 56 years is the distribution of the workload among the relatives. She runs the retail store, her husband Mike looks after Purchasing, her sister in law, Sue Oliverio minds the money as the Controller, and her husband Gio, in his words, “drives the bus”, as the Operations Manager.
“We all have our own jobs.” Says Sera, “That’s why it has been so successful. We all are good at certain things. We’re not stepping on each other’s feet. We all have our own little niche that we like. And that’s what we stick to.”
Except, of course, when there’s a big decision to be made such as expanding the warehouse or buying the building next door to expand The Italian Store. Then all four sit around the table and hash things out. According to Gio, “If one of us feels extremely passionate about a project, even if it is not 100% consensus, we respect each other enough to…to give way. So it is not majority rules by any means. Sometimes it’s more just passion rules.” His sister-in law concurs. “I’ve always held back a little bit,” confesses Sera, “but the younger generation, Gio, and my sister, because she is 12 years younger than me, have a different vision. They had a bigger vision, which is great because they like to move forward, and ask the question “is this building for sale?” I would have never done that.”
Succession planning is already underway. Sera and Mike’s son and daughter and their spouses already work for Great West Italian Importers. Sera worries about the challenges of finding good staff as their older workers retire, and Gio worries about the stress on the management team of almost constant growth. But both remember the advice offered by the aging, but still very savvy, Alberto Iamartino. He told Sera, “Never look at what other businesses are doing. Never worry about everybody else. Just worry about yourself. Go straight and you’ll be fine. “
Photos by Ingrid Kuenzel