Toronto’s Speducci Mercatto is Building Success One Customer at a Time

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Photography: Margaret Mulligan

Serendipity has played an important role in the success of Rosie Scavuzzo and her business partner, chef Gabriele Paganelli. A few short years ago, the partners in Speducci Mercatto — a 72-seat eatery in the Keele and Lawrence neighbourhood of Toronto — didn’t even know one other. Today, the dynamic duo is achieving success operating a 8,000 -sq.-ft. concept that melds together a restaurant, retail shop, wholesale butcher counter, prosciutto bar and curing room, as well as a private event space.

Paganelli is no stranger to the Toronto restaurant scene. For more than a decade, the renowned chef owned and operated Romagna Mia on Front St. — a restaurant showcasing specialties from his native Emilia Romagna region in Italy. Along the way, he garnered international accolades, including the Gold and Silver Spoon for risotto, a bronze medal at the 2002 Expogast World Championships and multiple awards from the Ontario Independent Meat Processors. He’s also the only Assagiatore Salumi in North America — the equivalent of a sommelier for cured meats. The chef always imagined one day, when he was ready to hang up his pans, he would turn his attention to doing what he loved most — making artisanal salumi, a skill acquired in Italy as a young man working on his family’s farm and retail shop. “It’s a lot easier than running a restaurant,” he quips.

After selling his popular restaurant, Paganelli got a chance to perfect that skill with a small retail business while continuing to teach culinary arts at George Brown College. As fate would have it, he got a call one day from one of his customers asking him to take a look at a space he owned with the intent that Paganelli might want to open a business there. After scouting the location, the chef quickly decided, “It’s not for me,” he recalls laughingly. After having worked in the downtown core, moving to the suburbs just didn’t appeal to him. Three months later, the friend called again, insisting he take another look and reconsider his decision. It was then Paganelli decided he would help him out for a bit while he found someone else to take over the space.

While Paganelli was transitioning into “retirement,” Scavuzzo was at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), where she worked in marketing and special events. Ironically, the same customer who approached Paganelli asked her to check out the space he owned. With her vast industry knowledge, he wanted her opinion on what needed to be done to turn it into a marketable restaurant. “I had never been to the area and it was at night and I was a little nervous, thinking ‘where is this guy taking me’,” laughs Scavuzzo. “It was literally vacant except for the beams,” says Scavuzzo. Realizing the spot needed a chef more than a marketing expert, Scavuzzo offered to help him source a chef through her numerous contacts. But she stayed involved, because in the back of her mind, she realized the space had potential. “The Cheese Boutique, in my mind, had that model — if you build it, they will come. Why would this be any different? Plus this place had parking and that was key.”

By June 2014, after almost 10 years working at MLSE, Scavuzzo decided to leave the behemoth and jumped into the fledgling project. “Gabe and I didn’t know each other,” she says. “But our mutual friend connected us. I had never even been to Romagna Mia, but when I tried his stuff I said, ‘Oh my God! This is the best I’ve ever had.”

While Paganelli stepped in to help Scavuzzo develop several menu items, a year later, the two became partners. Fast forward three years and they have built a successful enterprise that offers something for everyone. The restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, encompasses a 72-seat space with about 12 communal tables. Central to its success is the high quality of the ingredients and the food — whether on the menu, inside the retail shop or at the butcher counter.

Popular menu items include the salumi board (priced at $25 to $50 depending on size), the dry-aged meats and, of course, the various pastas, all made on premise. Fan faves include the Wild Boar Strozzapretti ($19) and Porcini and Wild Mushroom Pappardelle in a Rosemary sauce ($20). The average check at lunch rings in at about $32 per person, while at dinner it increases to between $40 and $50 per person. Last month, the restaurant’s menu was updated to include a few new items and prices were increased.

Most of the customers are regulars who feel at home in the relaxed space. They even serve as ambassadors to new customers when they come in for the first time, quips Scavuzzo. At lunch, customers are drawn in from the surrounding industrial area, which is dotted with auto-body shops and small businesses. The area, says Scavuzzo, is undergoing a transformation to more retail shops. Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s reputation for great food pulls customers in from across the city and outlying areas for dinner and during weekends. “We also get customers from as far away as Hamilton and Burlington,” says Scavuzzo. “We even have some customers from Chicago,” quips Paganelli. The restaurant is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., with reduced operating hours on Sunday (10 a.m.to 3 p.m.). “Sundays are so busy and popular, there’s no way we could ever close on Sunday now,” says Scavuzzo.

Looking back on the past three years, Scavuzzo remembers challenges along the way. “The first year was very difficult. Gabe was teaching at GBC and I was the only one here every day. I did everything: I worked the counter and served tables.”

Slowly the eatery grew from 30 seats to its current 72 seats. And right along with it, the menu expanded — primarily from speducci (meat skewers) and sandwiches to pasta, pizza, risotto and now fish and seafood. According to Scavuzzo, the business took off when it added a pizza oven and got its liquor license — a painstaking process that she worked diligently and relentlessly on for a year.

As the restaurant evolved, the partners added staff, growing from five employees to today’s complement of 35, evenly split between the front- and back-of-the-house. Many on the team either worked with Paganelli at Romagna Mia or with Scavuzzo at MLSE, including Richard Renault. “Richard’s been great,” enthuses Scavuzzo. “In the two years that he’s worked there, he’s become a customer favourite, as well as a big fan of the concept.” “There’s an atmosphere here like no other,” says Renault. “It’s refreshing and features a real who’s who — ranging from business execs, blue-collar workers and nonne,” he says. Above all, he stresses, “It’s fun and relaxed. We want people reaching out across the table,” says Renault, referring to the family-style service.

Like many restaurants, the business came to fruition without a formal plan, says Paganelli. But neither of the two partners were fazed by that. Paganelli’s experience and background laid the strong foundation for the business while Scavuzzo’s marketing savvy and experience managing restaurant concepts, along with her passion for the business and strong contacts, allowed her to market the concept to a broad network of potential customers.

While the restaurant is the heart of the operation, a butcher counter blurs the line between grocerant and restaurant — allowing customers to purchase meats and salumi as well as imported Italian specialties for home while they wait for their meals to be brought to the table. Meats are antibiotic and hormone-free. Berkshire pork is sourced from Mennonite farms and supplemented by Paganelli’s own herd of 150 wild boar from his farm in Spring Water, Ont.

The chef started raising wild boar while he was working at Romagna Mia, knowing he would one day turn his sights to producing artisanal salumi. “Wild boar was the easiest to raise as I didn’t need to go to the farm every day,” he explains, adding their gestation period of two years (as opposed to four months) also made them ideal. “To cook pasta is simple; it takes five to 10 minutes, but to make salumi is a long process. It takes two years to raise the pigs and then two years to dry it,” says the Ravenna-born chef. Paganelli produces about 300 prosciutti a year, some of which are sold to other restaurants; not to mention the countless sausages and pancetta. Vegetables and produce are sourced from Etobicoke, Ont.-based Royal Produce Company Inc. “They go down to the market every day and bring us whatever we need,” says the chef.

And, if that’s not enough to keep the partners busy, the restaurant also features a private room where they can host parties for 60 (seated) to 100 (standing) guests. Last month, the partners signed an agreement with Factory 37, an event space across the street to supply them with food for all its catered events. “It gives us a huge space to cater for without the bricks and mortar,” says Scavuzzo. “There’s nothing much around here like this so people are looking for something that’s a little different and unique.”

The partners are in the midst of adding a bar to the restaurant space and Scavuzzo is equally excited by the addition of 30 parking spots, which means the business will be able to welcome additional guests.

Luckily, the fact the partners own the property means they’re not at the mercy of landlords. “If you don’t own the restaurant, your destiny sits in the hands of someone else. This gives us peace of mind,” affirms Scavuzzo.

Since opening three years ago, the business has grown and evolved. “We’ve built the business one customer at a time,” says Scavuzzo, referring to the word-of-mouth that has fuelled interest in the restaurant and the respected Paganelli brand. “Rosie ran a business for 10 years and I had a restaurant for 16 years, so our customers all followed us,” he says.

With continued growth expected, the partners are looking to add another two key managers to the team so “we don’t have to be here all the time,” says Scavuzzo, who, along with Paganelli, is there seven days a week. “When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s hard to let go of the reins. It’s not that we don’t trust people, it’s just that it’s your baby and you want to hold it so tightly because it’s still growing.”

As for the future, though the restaurant has a huge following and sales have increased significantly, the partners aren’t content to rest on their laurels. “We have Dragon’s Den in reverse here.” says Scavuzzo. “We constantly have people coming to us saying ‘I have a building for you; I can help fund you.’” But the partners believe there’s more that needs to be done to bring the business to its next stage and expand within the building’s own four walls first.

For a business that’s achieved success by tapping into multiple revenue streams, it’s a strong possibility the partners will find yet another stream to add to the mix. And, given their vast array of freshly prepared dishes ready to be taken home — and Paganelli’s line of five prepared sauces and soups — chances are that meal solutions is that logical next step. “It’s not big yet because we’re not pushing it, but there’s lots of potential,” Paganelli states emphatically. Given that the chef came to Canada in 1991 with plans to produce ready-prepared foods, his dream may come full circle one day soon.

“It was too early back then, but this is the right time,” he says confidently.

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Rosanna Caira is the editor and publisher of Kostuch Media’s Foodservice and Hospitality, and Hotelier magazines. In her capacity as editor of Canada’s two leading hospitality publications, Rosanna directs the editorial and graphic content of both publications, and is responsible for the editorial vision of the magazines, its five websites as well as the varied tertiary products including e-newsletters, supplements and special projects. In addition to her editorial duties, Rosanna also serves as publisher of the company, directing the strategic development of the Sales and Marketing, Production and Circulation departments. Rosanna is the face of the magazines, representing the publications at industry functions and speaking engagements. She serves on various committees and Boards, including the Board of Directors of the Canadian Hospitality Foundation. She is a recipient of the Ontario Hostelry’s Gold Award in the media category. In 2006, Rosanna was voted one of the 32 most successful women of Italian heritage in Canada. Rosanna is a graduate of Toronto’s York University, where she obtained a BA degree in English literature.

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