Egan: Idle banquet hall looks to sizzle as Preston Street eatery and grocery store

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“Life gives you lemons, opens a grocery store and sells them.”

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When the pandemic struck, their famous banquet business fell off a cliff – only “empty ballrooms and sealed bottles,” they lamented – no Big Fat Italian Weddings.

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So the Zacconis, who built and ran the Sala San Marco on Preston Street, had to take a break and regroup. Or endure a slow disappearance.

But they had assets to work with: a giant space, a large commercial kitchen, a history of food preparation, a roster of experienced staff.

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

And so today is the opening day of Mercato Zacconi, an Italian grocery store carved out of a 500-seat banquet hall that tries to create a shopping “experience”.

There is not only wine to buy, but wine to drink; there is, indeed, wine to drink while shopping for wine to be purchased. There is coffee to drink, there is house brand coffee to take away. There is pasta to eat, there is pasta to be made. Choose a food item 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 hidden places to eat it all in a bright, glowing atmosphere. And if you need it, there is laundry soap and paper towels.

One of the three boys, Zacconi, 45, said he spent the first two months after the shutdown (March 2020) hoping for a quick return to normal. Do not go. Thus grows the need for Plan B.

“I knew if I didn’t do anything we were just going to die a slow death, and everything that I worked my whole life, everything my parents worked their whole life, would have kind of been wasted, is not it ?”

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

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Now add the lack of a great grocery store on Preston, and Mercato Zacconi was born.

It is in a way a homecoming of the family. Tony’s grandparents ran a small candy store on Bell Street in the 1960s. His father Joe, now 74, both worked there and delivered Italian produce, sometimes on credit, to the village.

He was there one day this week, behind the lobby bar, brandishing a caulking gun, helping to prepare the place. Arrived from Italy at the age of 12, he became an electrician and ended up embarking on catering-banqueting. Growing up Italian on Preston, he has a lot of stories.

“Tony, your dad is talking to the guy from the newspaper. He’s going to write a horror story. Speaking is Gina, his wife, also busy sorting out last-minute details ahead of Thursday’s soft launch. What she’s talking about, we haven’t made any inquiries.

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At the onset of the pandemic, Tony says his initial thought was a “pop-up” grocery store that would deal with Preston, at least generate some income. But, the more he looked, the more complicated a quick store became.

So he decided to think big, inspired by global chain of stores Eataly, an open market restaurant concept that also teaches Italian cuisine.

“Millions” is the cost of the Mercato, Tony said, with around $ 1 million in new equipment alone. The race has been hectic since construction began in January and, in addition to shining everything, the store now offers Zacconi brand tomato sauce, olive oil, penne and gnocchi, possibly its own wine. .

“It’s mind-blowing,” said Lindsay Childerhose, executive director of the Preston Street Business Improvement Association, after visiting the space on Thursday.

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She said the Mercato was a “shining example” of the resilient ability of the small business sector to adapt to the changing conditions of the pandemic. She mentioned Buchipop, The Burrow Shop and La Roma as other merchants who have integrated home delivery as a workaround to the COVID realities.

Childerhose also said Mercato is well positioned to service an influx of hundreds, if not thousands, of new residents to the towers that stand at the north and south ends of Preston and Gladstone Village.

Taking risks, in the meantime, is how the Zacconis have rolled. (Joe tells a wonderful story about the snow that runs through an open roof just weeks before his first marriage in San Marco in 1987.)

“Not really,” Tony replied jokingly about getting ready for opening day. His late grandfather, he adds, would be outraged at the way he “blew up the budget” to open the business.

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

There is, afterwards, an imperative that a pandemic cannot kill: mangie people, ate.

To contact Kelly Egan, please dial 613-291-6265 or email [email protected]

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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