Mention the word sausage in Calgary and inevitably Spolumbo’s Fine Foods and Deli comes to mind.
You could say that entrepreneurs Tony Spoletini, Tom Spoletini, and Mike Palumbo – all former Canadian Football League players – have built a sausage empire in the city and have become synonymous with the popular food item.
The idea that began in the winter of 1992 in the basement of Tom Spoletini’s in-laws’ restaurant is now the king of sausage making and selling in Calgary.
When Tony Spoletini is asked how many sausages the company pumps out on a yearly basis, he has to stop and think for awhile – doing the calculation in his head and asking for input from one of his staff.
“We process over 20,000 kilos a week,” says the staff member, sitting at a table nearby.
“So that’s about a million kilos a year. There’s six sausages in a kilo. So we probably process in a year six million sausages,” chuckles Tony, who is the public face of the company.
“You know what kept us going, and it’s an old sports adage, I don’t think we looked beyond the first series or the first play. Our first goal was to survive and once we survived we said okay let’s start taking home a little bit of money and then I just think we kept our goals attainable and short. We never overextended and we always made sure we paid our suppliers, paid our staff, had money in the bank. Maybe the process could have been a lot faster. We took it a little bit more conservative but we never were caught so to speak with our pants down.”
Tony Spoletini won two Vanier Cups, the national university football championship, with the University of Calgary in 1983 and 1985. As a professional, he played with the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League and then the Calgary Stampeders. He won a Grey Cup in 1987 with the Eskimos and he was with Stampeders in 1991 when they lost the Grey Cup to the Toronto Argonauts.
“When I finished and retired after the ‘91 season Tom and Mike had this idea of doing authentic Italian sausages and promote it to restaurants and food services,” says Spoletini. “I decided I wasn’t going to go back and play the ‘92 season. I joined those guys. We started making sausages out of the basement of Tom’s father-in-law’s restaurant La Villa Firenze. We used those old 30-pound hand cranks and started hitting the streets and restaurants.
“But when we really got going is when this little deli two blocks down the street from where we are now became available and we bought the 9th Avenue Deli. We opened that July 7 of 1992. The reason for that is we thought it was futuristic. But it was like a 1960 German sausage machine. It was a hydraulic, 100-pound sausage machine. You fill it, you press it with your knee and it pushes the meat up and it shoots it out on the table. For us that was like state-of-the-art but it was really behind the times. We bought that deli because of that sausage equipment. But we needed cash flow so we kept the front end selling the sandwiches. We kept a few of the favourite sandwiches this 9th Avenue Deli had and added our own Italian flare.”
Initially the deli grew faster than the sausage business. Slowly but surely the sausage business grew. A few years later a piece of land became available a couple of blocks up the street and the trio bought it. They had money for the land but they couldn’t get the banks to loan them money to build.
“We ended up winning the Calgary Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year in 1997 and next thing you know everybody wants to invest in us. So on August 4, 1998 we opened up this new deli that’s got 100 seats and a 5,000-square-foot federal facility (approved) where we make the sausage and we can now sell that sausage really anywhere in the world,” says Spoletini. The old deli was about 2,000 square feet including the kitchen.
The current location in the trendy inner-city Inglewood neighbourhood is about 10,000 square feet altogether.
Spolumbo’s opened a smaller location in a nearby neighbourhood about a year and a half ago. Other locations are at the U.S. terminal of the Calgary International Airport and most recently at one of Calgary Co-op grocery stores.
“We’re very blessed. We have a great relationship with Co-op, Sobeys with a lot of the food service places, Gordon Food Service and we’re in Community Natural Foods, Urban Fare. We’re in City Market. We have a really strong presence in Calgary especially and southern Alberta. And you can find us in Edmonton too and places in B.C. and Manitoba. We really have a loyal and strong following in Calgary and surrounding areas,” says Spoletini.
He said people in Calgary like to embrace entrepreneurs and part of Spolumbo’s success is due to the three owners having their roots in the city and the story of their success is an interesting one.
“The story’s good but if you don’t have a good product to back it up you’re going to go nowhere,” said Spoletini. “We had a good story. We had a good reputation in the city and I think we provided a really good product. The story and the product just kind of worked. What set us apart first was doing a high-quality, low-fat sausage.”
The company, which is known for its customer service and community involvement, continues to add different services. For example, the main deli recently started experimenting with new alcoholic beverage systems which allow customers to pour their own beer and wine from automatic dispensers – while they have one of those six million sausages Spolumbo’s produces each year.