A few weeks ago, Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne touched down in Winnipeg, where he spent the afternoon signing copies of his just released memoir, My Life.
The 320-page tome, a runaway bestseller in his native Finland, is packed with anecdotes about Selanne’s storied National Hockey League career, including his time as a member of the Winnipeg Jets. Still, if you reach the end and are hungry for even more tidbits about the Finnish Flash, you should pop by De Luca’s Specialty Foods store at 950 Portage Ave., a combination grocery mart/restaurant currently celebrating its 50th year in business, and ask for Tony. Or Vince. Or Frank.
"When Teemu played for the Jets, he was here three or four days a week for lunch, whenever the team was on a homestand," says Vince De Luca, whose late grandfather Vincenzo De Luca, together with his four sons Frank (Vince’s dad), Tony, Peter and Pasquale opened their flagship location, which specializes in a multitude of Italian foodstuffs including more than 2,000 varieties of cheese, in September 1969.
"I remember one time Teemu had injured his knee and even though he was on crutches, he still managed to make his way up the stairs for a bite."
Vince’s uncle Tony, whose daughter Carla heads up De Luca’s catering division, recalls a conversation he had with a regular customer one afternoon, after the fellow observed Selanne chatting with the elder De Luca over a heaping bowl of pasta.
"My dad barely spoke any English and at the time, Teemu’s (English) wasn’t so great, either, so he asked me, ‘What language are those two speaking, anyways?’" Tony says, seated in his former office, now the overflow area for De Luca’s mezzanine-level dining space, long famous for its all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
"I told him they’re speaking the universal language: food."
In the forward of the 2005 cookbook The Italian Way: Cooking With the De Lucas, Tony De Luca writes about growing up on a family farm in Calabria, Italy, "surrounded by 90 acres of olive and fruit trees, huge oak and chestnut trees and, of course, rows of grapevines." Sounds idyllic, right? Not entirely.
"Because there was little opportunity back home after the (Second World) war, Uncle Stano, our dad’s brother, left for Winnipeg in 1951. Seven years later, our dad decided to join him," says Frank De Luca, Tony’s older brother, who was 19 when he accompanied his father and brother Pasquale to Canada in 1958, leaving his mother and two other brothers behind.
Tony was next to arrive, though not entirely by choice. Because it cost money to send children to school in Italy past Grade 4, Tony’s father, who, after moving to Winnipeg, landed a job in the garment industry as a presser, habitually sent a chunk of his paycheque home to his wife Emilia, a percentage of which was earmarked for Tony’s education.
"That caused a bit of a stir," Tony explains, "because whenever my mom gave me money for school, I spent it on a ticket to the soccer match instead. After a few months, she wrote my dad a letter, saying it was time I went to Canada, too, as I was turning into a criminal."
To hear him tell it, it’s a miracle Tony, who was only 13 years old when he set off for Manitoba by himself, made it here, period. Unable to speak a word of English, he misunderstood the conductor’s instructions when he arrived in Montreal by train, via Halifax. The back cars were continuing on to Winnipeg but the front cars, where he remained seated, were headed for the nation’s capital.
"I didn’t know how to use a phone to let my dad know that I’d ended up in Ottawa by mistake, so there he was, driving to the train station every day to see if I’d finally arrived," Tony continues.
"In the end, I was eight days late but instead of being happy to see me, Dad was totally pissed off that I’d wasted so much of his time."
In 1969, by which point the entire De Luca clan had been reunited, Tony and Frank were approached by Louis Waterman, who operated a drugstore a few blocks from their home on Sherburn Street. Waterman told the pair he was planning to retire and if they were smart, they’d purchase his building and convert it into an ethnic grocery store that could cater to the ever-growing Italian population, then in the neighbourhood of 4,000 people, that lived in their neck of the woods.
Over pizza, the guys, none of whom had any retail experience to speak of, presented the idea to their father and siblings. A few months later, the five of them opened De Luca’s, which has since grown from 2,000 square feet to close to 15,000, thanks to an attached cooking school and wine store.
De Luca’s can lay claim to a number of firsts. Besides being the first locale in Manitoba to carry the distribution rights for Tic Tac breath mints, produced by the Italian company Ferrero, they were one of the first spots in town to sell authentic, unsliced Italian bread and also one of the first to sell olive oil for everyday, culinary use. Tony says before their store came along, olive oil was something you generally picked up at a pharmacy, where it was sold primarily as a topical ointment. Additionally, they were one of the initial places in the city to offer late-night shopping hours.
"Because most of the Italians we knew were juggling two or three jobs trying to save up for a house, we were pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to shop during the day like most people," Tony explains. "To make things easier for them, we began opening at seven in the morning while remaining open till 11 at night, Monday through Saturday."
"That was a fantastic decision," Frank pipes in, "because at 9 or 10 p.m. when people were finally getting off work, this place was packed to the gills, like church on Sunday morning."
Marco De Luca, Vince’s cousin, runs the company’s two-year-old operation in Oak Bluff, a spacious retail/warehouse/ production centre that includes a sleek coffee bar and 2,000-square-foot commercial kitchen that turns out scores of precooked meals, a segment of their day-to-day biz that has "skyrocketed" in the last five years. Although De Luca’s is presently a multimillion-dollar operation that employs close to 150 people, Marco, who began sweeping floors and washing dishes there at the age of 10, says it hasn’t been all "roses and candy."
Like most independent grocery stores, theirs took a hit when big-box conglomerates such as Real Canadian Superstore came along in the early 1980s, he says. Then, in 1989, the company that had been supplying them with imported Italian goods for years pulled the plug on their distributorship, which turned them "upside down, pretty much."
"Literally overnight, our cupboards were bare and we had to start over, basically from scratch," he says, taking a sip of his cappuccino. "That was when we decided to regroup and go back to our roots, by working with a variety of different (Italian) companies. We went with one for our cheese, another for olive (oil) products, another for pickled goods and so on and so forth. Instead of putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, we started to diversify and we’ve never really looked back."
Vince, who says he never saw his dad and uncles move so fast as the day Italian film star Sophia Loren was being interviewed at a nearby radio station ("The second they found out, they grabbed a bunch of cannoli for her and went racing out the door," he says, playfully poking his dad in the ribs), says it almost never fails; whenever he’s in a social setting and introduces himself, the second people around his age learn his surname, they have a story about visiting his family’s store with their parents or grandparents.
"It’s great to have that recognition and we’ve all been raised to respect that, to make sure we carry on the respect that is associated with our name and business," Vince says, adding his daughters, age 19 and 21, work part time at the store as well, around their university schedules.
"That’s one of the things that really hits home," adds Marco, recalling the time in Grade 5 when, the second he finished racing at a track meet, his dad told him to grab his ribbon and jump into the car because there was a big order for fresh pasta, and he needed all the help he could get.
"Any time we talk to somebody about the De Luca family, it’s almost always positive, which is rare in this day and age, especially in a business where your name is out front and where you can’t hide if things go wrong."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
As the first female photographer hired by the Winnipeg Free Press, Ruth has been an inspiration and a mentor to other women in the male-dominated field of photojournalism for over two decades.