Alumni Honour Award: I have 509 employees and none are related by blood, but I love every one of them

From the inner city to the boardroom, entrepreneur and community builder Teresa Spinelli says it's not about food, it's about people

Donna McKinnon - 12 September 2017

Sometimes opportunity knocks when you least expect it, but if you're Teresa Spinelli, you open the door wide and you keep it open.

Growing up in a warm but patriarchal Italian immigrant family, the idea of one day taking over the reins of her father'sItalian Centre Shop in the heart of the McCauley community in Edmonton was not something Spinelli thought much about, especially with an older brother in line for that job.

But when he unexpectedly passed away, followed by the death of her father, Spinelli was left with little choice but to step up and carry on with the much-loved business that had become integral to the inner city - a neighbourhood where she and her family still live.

Seventeen years later, under Spinelli's innovative, hands-on approach, that one store with 30 employees has grown to four stores with 509 employees, with sales in excess of $60 million. It has also become a major import and distribution business with a line of ready-to-go meals,Massimo's Cucina Italiana, named after her son.

Spinelli insists, however, it's not about the salami, it's about the people.

"It takes a village not just to raise a child, but to be successful at anything. I get the credit, but really they are the ones that do the work," she says, gesturing to the staff. "Even my dad - who was a very generous man - he donated thousands of dollars to charity but nobody remembers that. What they remember is him saying, 'Hey, your kid is sick, I'm so sorry to hear that. I know he loves these sandwiches, please bring him one.' That's what people remember. Nobody remembers the monetary stuff. It's really about connection."

Teresa Spinelli ('83 BA, Psychology), Alumni Honour Award recipient

By birth and by training, Spinelli has continued that tradition of treating the person in front of the counter, behind the counter, at the dinner table and in the boardroom as family. It has been a boon for business, but as a young person studying psychology, it proved to be something of a liability. During her field training as a social worker, Spinelli had difficulty maintaining a professional distance from her clients. "I cry just thinking about it," she says. "I wanted to bring everybody home with me!"

Still, she credits her Bachelor of Arts in psychology degreewith awakening a taste for knowledge, and of course, for reinforcing the power of connection. "University is not just about the degree; it's the people you meet, it's the discipline that you learn and it's lifelong learning that you need for everything."

On most days, Spinelli divides her time between the stores - chatting with customers, problem-solving with staff and growing her business; and dealing with ailing family members, her 10-year-old son and their new golden retriever puppy. It's a very busy life, but never too busy to give someone a hug, recommend the best canned tomatoes (which, by the way, are La Pavoncella, "because Italian tomatoes are sweeter"), or be part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Canadian-European Trade Agreement (CETA) delegation to Italy.

Although Spinelli routinely makes Profit Magazine's annual list ofCanada's Top 100 Female Entrepreneurs, and in 2012, received the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal for her contributions to this country, theUniversity of Alberta Alumni Honour Award recipient says she still faces daily challenges as a successful businesswoman in a male-dominated culture.

"Even today, if I'm with my husband - who has nothing to do with my business - people tend to talk to him," she says. "I have to interrupt and say, hey, I'm the business owner! I'm the one who makes the decisions. We've come a long way, but we still have a lot of work to do."

Spinelli has no plans to leave her home in the inner city, a community where she has lived all her life and continues to support through programs likeFood For Thought, which supplies food to school children in need. She also believes exposing her son to the realities of the inner city is important, but is quick to point out the necessity of community-building.

"Everybody knows everybody," she says. "It's not as bad as it seems. We feel very safe, but the social stuff is bad. My kid will make a friend and all of a sudden he's taken away from his family for whatever reason. Those things are hard. As I grew up and matured, I realized that I can't save everybody, but I can do the best that I can while those kids are in my house. So we try to make sure we know all our neighbours and they know us. There's so much culture. We love it."

Ultimately, Spinelli believes that community begins at the dinner table. "We all have busy lives, but if you don't eat together, when are you going to connect? My idea of success is to offer good quality food to people that makes them come home to eat, but I don't care if you cook or not. What's really important is bringing people back to the dinner table."

You are invited to see Teresa Spinelli accept her honour at the 2017 Alumni Awards ceremony on Monday, September 25 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.

Reserve your free ticket here.

Know another inspiring UAlberta grad? Nominate them for a 2018 Alumni Award. Deadline is Dec 15, 2017.