Facing prolonged post-pandemic recovery, Sala San Marco converting portion of Little Italy event space into food store

'It’s going to be a long time before people want to get into a room with 300 other people'
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Tony Zacconi, owner of the Sala San Marco Event & Conference Centre and president of Mercato Zacconi, with his father, Joe Zacconi, who first opened Sala San Marco with his wife in 1987. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Ottawa banquet hall Sala San Marco is bidding goodbye to big fat weddings as it transforms a significant chunk of its space into an authentic Italian food market that's scheduled to open by the end of the summer in Little Italy.

Mercato Zacconi will specialize in prepared foods and meal kits. Owner Tony Zacconi says it will also sell everything one might expect from a high-end food emporium, including a wide variety of cheeses, butcher and deli meats, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, bakery products and desserts, wood-fired pizza and focaccia, homemade pasta and a vast assortment of wine, along with beer. As well, it will carry flowers and gift baskets.

Sala San Marco’s 8,000-square-foot banquet room is currently under renovations. The area has been partitioned, with the larger space near the front to be turned into a 5,000-square-foot retail store that carries Italian foods and products. The existing chandeliers and crown moulding will remain intact.

“It’s going to be the nicest grocery store in town,” said Zacconi during an interview at Sala San Marco Event & Conference Centre, located at 215 Preston St. 

The new signage has yet to be installed but the front entrance continues to be flanked by the building’s signature pair of Venetian winged lion statues. 

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A pair of winged lion statues remain on display outside the Sala San Marco Event & Conference Centre, which is in the process of adding a new Italian food store, café and outdoor patio. Photo by Caroline Phillips

It's no secret Little Italy has a supermarket shortage. Plans are in the works to include a full-sized grocery store in Arnon Corp.’s proposed mixed-use high-rise development in Little Italy, closer to Dow’s Lake. No word yet on which food retailer it might be.

Zacconi says he isn’t worried about potential competition. He believes his mercato – which means market in Italian – will offer a high quality of food and service that’s just not available in Ottawa right now. He also wants the grocery shopping experience to go from mundane to marvelous. 

“I’m really, really excited about the new store,” said Zacconi, whose inspiration was Eataly, a wildly popular global chain of large Italian food halls. For those unfamiliar with that brand, think Italian Farm Boy. “I think Ottawa is missing something like this.”

Customers will be allowed to sip vino while they shop. There will even be cup holders on the shopping carts. The store plans to hold cooking classes and product demonstrations. Meracto Zacconi will carry its own private label specialty products. It will also be importing foods from Italy and getting its hands on hard-to-find brands and products. 

The floor plans include a designated seating area for shoppers who want to grab a casual bite to eat. There will also be a separate café and outdoor patio area. 

Zacconi, who’s aiming for an opening date of Aug. 17, says he’s hiring 61 new people. Veteran retail manager Tim Picotte, formerly with Walmart and Canadian Tire, has joined on as his general manager.

The store will also be stocked with some household staples and will offer some lower price options, recognizing that Little Italy is a mixed-income neighbourhood.

Zacconi, who is also vice-chair of the Preston Street BIA, said he wants to see more retail success stories in Little Italy. He looks to Preston Hardware as a shining example.

Smaller weddings

Sala San Marco was started 34 years ago by Zacconi’s parents, Joe and Gina. It was bought by Zacconi in 2009, although his parents and his uncle continue to own the roughly 20,000-square-foot building. Zacconi started working at the family business when he was 11, as a busboy.

Sala San Marco will remain an event and meeting space. It can accommodate 100 to 200 people in its reduced-sized main banquet room. Prior to the pandemic, Zacconi launched the more modern Amadeo room, named after his son, for groups of 50 to 60 people.

“I had noticed that the size of weddings and parties had been going down,” said Zacconi. “The days of 400, 500 people are gone.”

In many ways, the family business is coming full circle. Zacconi’s grandparents used to run Zacconi Confectionary, at 32 Bell St., just a little east of Sala San Marco. 

Zacconi says it’s the pandemic that’s led him back into the grocery business. Let’s face it, the special events industry has seen less action these days than a wallflower at the prom.

Sala San Marco tried waiting it out in the early days of COVID but, by September, Zacconi decided to hire Shore Tanner & Associates to do a study through its market research division, to determine whether his idea for a gourmet Italian food store in the neighbourhood would be profitable. The study determined that it would be.

The way the businessman sees it, he could watch Sala San Marco lose money, for who knows how long, or he could make a “huge” investment to ensure the business stays afloat. He thinks that the two businesses will complement one another.

He also believes it will take years for the special events industry to return to normal, if it even does.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before people want to get into a room with 300 other people,” he said, adding that the video conferencing platforms that became the norm during COVID could permanently reduce the need for certain in-person events.

As restaurants prepare to welcome customers back to their outdoor patios, starting today, the banquet halls will remain “last on the list” of businesses to reopen, he said. “Restaurants will bounce right back. We won’t.

“It think it’s a good direction for our family to go,” he said of Mercato Zacconi. “You’re always going to need a grocery store. People got to eat.”