Teresa Spinelli in one of her Edmonton Italian Centre Shop locations. The business has grown from one location and 30 employees to 509 workers spread across four shops.
Teresa Spinelli in one of her Edmonton Italian Centre Shop locations. The business has grown from one location and 30 employees to 509 workers spread across four shops. Codie McLachlan, Postmedia Content Works

Teresa Spinelli never expected deer heads and dead birds would spark a revolt among her staff.

The taxidermy decor her father had accumulated over 40 years of hunting was caked with dust and thwarting the paint job that the Italian Centre Shop desperately needed.

So she pulled down the relics — and nearly faced a mutiny.

“My staff went ballistic,” she says. “They grew up here and remembered stories from their dads telling them about the birds. Getting rid of the birds, to them, was unbelievable.”

Aside from one lone deer, Spinelli never restored the pieces. Instead, she updated the handwritten signage her father had placed around the store. Employees complained that the new signs were ugly.

Her father’s legacy began to seem insurmountable. Since opening the store in 1959 in Edmonton’s Little Italy, Frank Spinelli had deftly managed a market for Italian and European delicacies that also served as a gathering place for residents of the neighbourhood.

Everyone knew Teresa as Frank’s little girl, who took her first steps down the pasta aisle and worked her first job in the store as a cashier.

Certainly no one thought she would be the owner. That role was intended for her younger brother, Pietro, until his sudden death in 1996.

When Frank died from cancer in 2000, Teresa hesitantly took the reins of the shop.

“Everybody loved my dad and I had really big shoes to fill. Nobody, especially me, thought I could do that,” she says.

In her first year, Spinelli was miserable. She was newly married, missed her father and brother, and faced constant pushback from longtime staff that abided by Italian customs and saw no place for women in the business.

“They grew up with me, so they thought of me as a spoiled little brat. And now they had to take direction from me. That was tough, for sure,” she recalls.

“But I wasn’t trying to chase a dollar. It was about the people. I let the people know I was here to stay and that my vision was to grow more people and more stores.”

Spinelli learned every aspect of the shop and her staff, stocking shelves, cutting salami and working the till. She asked employees what needed to change and where they saw their future with the business.

The staff, many of whom had worked at the shop for up to 30 years, were eager to rise the ranks. Spinelli started to find ways for them to grow.

“I saw a shy girl start as a cashier who’s now one of our human resources generalists,” Spinelli says. “She did a presentation in front of 16 people a few months ago. She used to be so shy, she couldn’t look you in the eye. Now she has no problem doing that.”

As she took over leadership, Spinelli hand-picked a core group of staff and asked them to come up with a vision for the business.

“I thought they were crazy” when they proposed opening new stores, Spinelli says. Within a year, however, she opened a new location in Edmonton’s south side. “I could have never done that by myself, never in a million years.”

Rewarding the staff was equally vital to Spinelli. But family and friends were dumbfounded when she suggested a profit-sharing program. The notion was simple: The longer an employee stayed with the shop, the bigger piece of the pie they received.

Spinelli refused to relent when staff suggested that profits only go to management.

“Everybody at every level has to contribute. The cashier is the last person the customer sees,” she says. “So we had cashiers making $12 an hour who were getting a $10,000 bonus.”

She sought a better interest rate from the company’s long-time bank. When the bank balked, she went to Servus Credit Union, where she is much happier.

“We didn’t meet them in their office. They came to us, to look at our store and find out what our business is like,” she says.

“We’re on a first-name basis and there’s no hierarchy. It feels like a family-run organization.”

Spinelli also introduced better wages and benefits and allowed staff to enjoy a free lunch every shift. But those perks don’t completely explain why employees stay for as long as 42 years.

A newly retired staff member, who worked at the shop for 25 years, bought a house two doors down from the Little Italy location. Spinelli spotted her drinking a coffee in the cafe earlier that morning.

“She told me she misses her customers,” she says. “It’s like family. They just really like it here.”

Under Spinelli, sales have surged from $8 million in 2000 to $65 million today. In 2015, she opened her fourth location, this time in Calgary.

But those numbers aren’t her greatest pride. Rather, it’s the staff. What started as a modest group of 30 when Spinelli took over has grown to 509 employees who make up one large — and very close — family.

“We really are a gathering place and I think that’s what people love about us,” she says. “Our cashiers know our customers’ names. They know if somebody’s sick at home. That’s what people want — they want to be connected.”

This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Servus Credit Union