Pusateri’s Fine Foods

All in the family.

NUVO Autumn 2016: Pusateri's Fine Foods, Chronicle

It’s just before lunch, and the family that owns Pusateri’s Fine Foods is about the only one not eating. A photographer has commandeered Ida Pusateri and her brother Frank Luchetta to pose for a portrait with Ida’s three grown children—the next generation to run the family-owned Toronto business—inside the food hall they opened at Saks Fifth Avenue at Sherway Gardens in March. The sparkling white marble-and-glass emporium measures 18,500 square feet, and almost every inch of it is a foodie’s delight, from the jars of FunkyChunky pretzels and more than 22 varieties of olives to the lineup for Pingue Prosciutto at the meat counter. Ida watches the flow of customers contentedly filling up their carts, her eyes moving silently. She doesn’t miss a thing.

Ida, who turns 58 in October, talks in plain terms about how the business has gone from being a mere fruit stand in 1963 to a luxury grocery chain. Then as now, the company’s success depends on keeping it fresh. “We travel all the time, to Europe and the U.S., to see what’s new and exciting out there and what we feel is the next big thing,” comments Ida, ordering an antipasto platter to begin the afternoon’s long-overdue meal. No one is going hungry at Pusateri’s, not if Ida can help it. “From the beginning, it’s been all about bringing the best to consumers and giving them choices,” she continues, carefully chewing her words. “We offer better choices. That’s what we stand for.”

Toronto’s beloved gourmet food emporium began as a fruit stand in 1963. Their distinguishing attribute, then and now? Stocking the best stuff.

Pusateri’s, to use a food term, is rising. The Sherway Gardens location is just the first stage of an expansion plan that will see the owners make significant changes in how they run their business. Currently there are three Pusateri’s Fine Foods locations: Yorkville, Bayview Village, the newly opened Oakville Place (July), and that number will grow to four once the Avenue Road location reopens. Another Saks Food Hall by Pusateri’s will also open this fall in the Eaton Centre, measuring 25,000 square feet. With the new Oakville location (measuring 18,500 square feet), the Avenue Road rebuild, and additional expenses, total estimates are said to cost $45-million. “It’s pretty much 80 per cent funded by our family,” Ida says. (The remaining 20 per cent was not disclosed.) Besides a full-service grocery store with an on-site bakery, the Saks Food Hall by Pusateri’s concept includes Pusateri’s Café, with coffee, tea, and fresh-baked goods; seating for sit-down meals; and an undulating bar serving cocktails and Veuve Clicquot. The food hall is fully licensed and shoppers can buy their beef tenderloin medallions and boxes of salted crackers with a drink in hand, if they feel so inclined. It merges with the Saks retail space, so presumably one could also be sipping bubbly while buying an item of clothing. The mix of food and fashion, first realized with the opening of the Bayview location, was Ida’s brother’s idea.

“I called out of the blue and said, ‘I could build you the Harrods of North America,’ and Richard Baker [governor and executive chairman of HBC, the company that owns Saks] totally got it,” says Frank, a genial man who, as company president and CEO for the past 20 years, has been working closely with his sister and her children to move Pusateri’s forward. “Pusateri’s has an incredibly strong following in the Toronto market and Saks is new here,” Frank continues. “We can help draw the people in. We cater pretty much to the same clientele, so it made sense for Saks to align with us. We hope to follow them next into Saks stores in the U.S. It’s a new relationship for us, but I think it’s working.” Baker seconds that opinion. “Frank and his team have created a world-class gourmet food destination with Pusateri’s. When we were thinking about adding food halls to our Saks Fifth Avenue stores, we knew that Frank would deliver an exciting experience for our customers and help us create unique destinations.”

The food hall merges with the Saks retail space, so presumably one could also be sipping bubbly while buying an item of clothing.

The family dynamic and relationships are key to understanding Pusateri’s and how the company works. Frank is Ida’s younger brother, by 17 months. There’s an older sibling, but he did not provide Ida with an alibi when, as a young woman finishing up at Nelson A. Boylen Collegiate Institute in Toronto, she began to be courted by Cosimo Pusateri, a man six years her senior. That was in 1979, and Ida had just turned 20. She worked the register at a jewellery store in Corso Italia, the area in Toronto that was home to the city’s wave of Italian immigrants that arrived in the 1950s. Ida is a daughter of some of those immigrants, ones from Calabria to be precise, raised in a strict working-class Catholic family where her dad was a labourer and her mom was a homemaker whose Italian staples—including homemade meatballs, lasagna, and roasted peppers—launched the prepared foods division of Pusateri’s in the 1980s. Cosimo had spied Ida in Corso, where he was running the family fruit stand, and was taken in by her large brown eyes, long dark hair, and slender frame, asking a mutual friend to set them up. Ida immediately rejected his request, delivered in person, to go out with him. “I said, ‘I’m Italian. I don’t go out.’ And he said to me, ‘I am Italian too, and I have a sister. I get it. But you’re still going out with me,’ ” recalls Ida, animatedly describing the first time she laid eyes on her future husband. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Together they schemed about how they could see each other without Ida catching hell from her parents. The plan involved her brother Frank. Ida would tell her parents she was accompanying her kid brother on a walk to the park or the corner store—anywhere—so as to get out of the house unsupervised. Frank went along with the ruse. When Ida and Cosimo married in 1980, she gained an adoring spouse—Cosimo is on record as calling Ida “the perfect wife”—while Frank got a trusted brother-in-law with whom he had bonded during the many late afternoons he spent hanging around, watching the two fall in love. Just before dying in 1995 of colon cancer, Cosimo asked Frank to guide the business forward, and to take care of his family. “We were very close,” says Frank. “And he asked me to take over and see through the plans we used to talk about together. He always wanted Pusateri’s to be a great store, and I said I wouldn’t let him down.”

“We offer better choices. That’s what we stand for.”

That was more than 20 years ago, but Cosimo’s presence still looms large at Pusateri’s today. Listening to Frank and Ida talk so passionately about him leaves the impression of a pioneering food industry entrepreneur whose creativity was as boundless as his work ethic. The oldest son of Sicilian immigrants Salvatore and Rosaria Pusateri, Cosimo was also born in Sicily, moved to Canada at the age of eight, and left school when he was 14. His non-English-speaking father needed a translator to help him with the family fruit stand; Cosimo was it. He learned on the job, waking early to accompany his father on 3 a.m. visits to the Ontario Food Terminal, where the goal was to be first in line in order to get the freshest produce. Important relationships—that word again—were forged with distributors this way. This is also what distinguished Pusateri’s (which began as that fruit stand in 1963) from other mom-and-pop grocery stores: they had the best stuff. In the mid-1980s, when the Italian immigrants who were the store’s original customers started moving out of Corso to more upscale neighbourhoods, Cosimo had the idea to follow the money. He purchased a 6,000-square-foot building at the corner of Lawrence and Avenue Road and in 1986 began creating his own food empire. The location, since expanded to 15,000 square feet of retail space, catered to upper-class non-Italians, who were drawn to the store’s deluxe and imported offerings like $100 cans of caviar and $62 bottles of rare balsamic vinegar. Cosimo’s gamble paid off.

Within a decade, Pusateri’s was selling $25-million in groceries a year, a number that had doubled by 2008. Cosimo had wanted to expand, and not even his death was going to interfere with his ambition. In 2003, Ida and Frank, working in tandem with Cosimo’s sister Toni Trozzo and her husband, Sam, opened a new $5-million location in Toronto’s posh Yorkville. And then the problems started. First, the Trozzos took Ida and Frank to court in a bid to take over the business. But Cosimo’s 52 per cent interest, passed down to his wife after his death, enabled Ida to get the upper hand in that highly publicized battle. In 2006, she won a court-appointed auction for possession of Pusateri’s, buying out Cosimo’s sister. She and her in-laws have rarely spoken since.

In 2010, Ida and Frank opened a Pusateri’s Fine Foods at the Bayview Village Shopping Centre, demonstrating their resolve to go forward. But then more difficulties followed in 2011, when the Avenue Road flagship was forced to close after Toronto Public Health uncovered an infestation of rodents and cockroaches. The story was widely reported on, with Pusateri’s suffering yet another bout of bad publicity. Ida and Frank, along with then-general manager John Mastroianni—a store veteran with more than 25 years of service who now serves as vice-president of merchandising—attributed the breach to human error during machine maintenance and cleanup, and vowed to fix it. They hired an inspector from Public Health to work with them to ensure their facility was cleaner than clean and then reopened. The Avenue Road location shut down again in August 2015 when a devastating fire tore through the building, causing millions of dollars in damage. The family has been rebuilding the store with a reopening date later this fall; the new look will include a licensed upper level restaurant where the company’s head office once was, as well as an open kitchen where chefs cook for customers. “From a bad thing, we’ve gone to a good thing,” says Ida, who chooses to see the difficulties of the past few years as a blessing in disguise. “It’s taken us to a different level.”

Helping to grow the business upwards are Ida and Cosimo’s children, Sam, Rosanna, and Paolo Pusateri—who are adults now. During the conversation, they sit respectfully, listening to the heads of the family business speak about the past, the present, and their plans for the future. Rosanna, who oversees the design of the new stores, says her contribution will be to “visually bring a new aesthetic to the business, a more modern look and feel that will also speak to our heritage.” Meanwhile, Paolo is focusing his attentions on the marketing side of the business and is using digital media to give Pusateri’s an online presence to complement what is on offer in the stores. “Marketing wasn’t a part of our business before. We relied more on our reputation,” Paolo says. “But now we want to make sure we have a voice, and we are working really hard to make sure that voice is speaking to our objectives and love of food.” “But it’s not a corporately run store, it’s still a hands-on business,” interjects Frank. “It always goes back to our roots,” says Ida, getting the final word.

Pusateri’s Fine Foods, 25 The West Mall, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M9C 1B8, 416-695-3130.