Here I have a whole bunch of friends coming in and all of the customers are part of the extended family.
—Tony De Luca
Tony De Luca calls it a fairytale story. His family moved to Winnipeg in 1959 from a tiny farm in Calabria in southern Italy, a region that was still impoverished and struggling after the war years. Canada was considered a paradise, because if you wanted an education or a job, you could get it.
With a combination of ingenuity, perseverance, a newly acquired business acumen and support from local individuals and businesses, the De Luca grocery store opened up in its current location on Portage Avenue.
It was a natural move for the family. Tony De Luca, co-owner of the store, says his passion for Italian cooking started at an early age. "I used to always hang around the kitchen with my grandmother and mother on the farm," he says. "I had this fantastic feeling every time we touched bread and yeast. It was such a magical thing to turn a whole bunch of flour -- that we sometimes even ground ourselves -- into this incredible food."
In the early years of the Winnipeg store, Italian cooking was unknown and ingredients that are so commonplace today, such as Italian pasta and tomatoes, were simply unavailable. "You had to be creative to make Italian food," says De Luca.
Tony's father was the backbone of the store and today the four De Luca brothers continue to run it.
The De Lucas were always forward-thinking, anticipating future trends. In the beginning, all the Italian products came from Toronto. So the De Lucas decided to open a warehouse that eliminated the middle man, and would supply Italian ingredients to other little Italian groceries in the city, and eventually to the big stores, too, like Dominion and Safeway.
Tony De Luca with his basil plants (courtesy of De Luca's)
Still, 95 per cent of the store's clientele was Italian. In 1981, when De Luca realized that was because people simply didn't know how to cook Italian, they opened the cooking school.
Tony is still there, alongside chef Anna Paganelli, offering sage advice, giving background on olive oils and tips on wine. "I get satisfaction from teaching, from sharing my knowledge," he says.
"Italian cooking is simple. People have always cooked the same way. The recipes get passed on through the generations. Now we know the scientific reasons behind why it works, but Italians always just knew," he says.
Now De Luca believes his clientele has reversed, so the majority of customers are non-Italian. And the return of the NHL has made an incalculable difference, De Luca says.
The Jets and their families have always been big supporters. "Teemu Selanne was here every day," he recalls. "When he was injured he would come in every afternoon." Recently, several of the players' wives enjoyed one of the wine events and often order food for their private functions.
Last year the store embarked on a major renovation. "The motivation was the new generation," De Luca says. "They wanted something modern, with a touch of class, something Italians are known for. But when I saw the estimate, I said, 'this is 15 times more than what we bought the store for!'" But his daughter, Carla, persisted. She, too, has a vision for taking De Luca's into the future.
And it has made a huge difference. Business has improved 25-30%, but what's more, says De Luca, "people who work here are now proud. They really like working here."
Tony says retirement is not even a consideration for him. "Here I have a whole bunch of friends coming in and all of the customers are part of the extended family. I feel like they feel like they're home when they're here."
He is also buoyed by the energy and enthusiasm of his daughter, nieces and nephews, who are continuing the tradition. "They all speak the same Italian language, which is food."