Sixteen years later, optimism reigns for end to Little Italy's ‘food desert’ status

Mercato Zacconi
Mercato Zacconi, a new grocery store, opened on Preston Street last November, but critics say more supermarkets are needed to alleviate the neighbourhood's status as a "food desert." File photo

When the now-defunct Canadian supermarket chain Loeb closed its Booth Street location in 2006, Ottawa’s Little Italy neighbourhood was left without a grocery store.

Sixteen years later, that gap still remains, raising concerns among city officials and advocates, who’ve taken to labelling the area a “food desert.”

Despite a decade and a half with no progress, local representatives see an end in sight for residents hungry for accessible, affordable groceries.

Little Italy residents currently rely on dozens of mom-and-pop delis, bakeries and specialty retailers, according to Lindsay Childerhose, executive director of the Preston Street BIA, which represents businesses in the area. But with rapid residential expansion, including more than 7,000 rental and condo units either built or planned in the area, these small businesses can’t keep up with demand.

“We have so much development happening in Little Italy in the next five years,” she said. “We’ve got the Claridge development, the Icon tower, the SoHo and Gladstone Village developments. And the concern really is that there’s no brand-name grocer in the area to service the influx of new residents that we’re going to see in the next five years.”

"You look at areas like Carleton Place and Barrhaven, where there is exponential residential growth every year, there are a lot of new grocery competitors opening up. In Centretown, there (has been) considerably less residential growth."

The term “food desert” commonly refers to inner-city areas without walkable access to affordable, high-quality fresh food. According to the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, only 15 per cent of residents in West Centretown, where Little Italy is located, are within a 15-minute walk of the nearest supermarket. That number could change as the population grows.

But the expanding residential population may actually solve one of the challenges Little Italy has faced attracting big-name grocers, according to Dave Massine, owner of Loblaw franchise Massine’s Your Independent Grocer on Bank Street. 

“You look at areas like Carleton Place and Barrhaven, where there is exponential residential growth every year, there are a lot of new grocery competitors opening up,” he said. “In Centretown, there (has been) considerably less residential growth.” 

The influx in residents, Massine said, may make the area more attractive.

But other challenges have kept grocers away, including a lack of retail-zone space, which isn’t readily available in the densely constructed neighbourhood. 

“You think about everything that would go into creating a 40,000- or 50,000-square-foot retail space in Centretown, there’s not a lot of spots where you'd pop something like that,” said Massine. 

One space, however, has garnered plenty of attention: a parking lot at 450 Rochester St., bordered by Preston, Aberdeen, Beech and Booth streets, just a few blocks from the Carling LRT station. The site is the location of a proposed project by developer Arnon Corporation.

Grocery store proposal

The two-phase project would include more than 500 housing units and 46,000 square feet of retail space, including a 25,000-square-foot grocery store. 

The project received easy approval from the city’s planning committee in 2020, but since then, details about the project’s progress have not been forthcoming. 

Arnon president Gillie Vered said the company's work on the development is ongoing.

“The project continues to move steadily forward, though the timeline is not definitive,” Vered said in an email in early April. “Arnon is continuing its analysis, market studies and design process.”

Vered confirmed that the company was in talks with several grocery retailers, though he did not provide further details. 

Despite the apparent stall, the development provides some optimism that a name-brand grocery store could be on the horizon for Little Italy. Still, back at the BIA, Childerhose says questions about the project remain. 

Arnon Little Italy proposal
Arnon Corp.'s proposal for 450 Rochester St. includes a 25,000-square-foot grocery store on the ground level.

“We’ve heard about a few different prospects, and with those prospects comes concern from residents that whatever the new supermarket is, it will be aimed at a higher-income family bracket, whether it’s a Whole Foods or a Farm Boy,” she said. “We would really like to see new grocers in the area that are accessible and affordable for all residents.”

While the neighbourhood awaits updates from Arnon, progress is being made elsewhere. 

At the end of 2021, what Childerhose calls Little Italy’s “first full-service grocery store” opened at 215 Preston St. Mercato Zacconi, a locally owned Italian market, has already had a significant impact on the neighbourhood’s grocery needs. 

The store occupies about 60 per cent of the space at Sala San Marco, a banquet and events hall. Owner Tony Zacconi said it was the pandemic that prompted him to venture into the grocery industry. 

“When COVID hit, it basically decimated the whole hospitality industry,” he said. “So, I figured, I got a big space over here and I’ve got to do something with it.”

Zacconi, who is also vice-chair of the Preston Street BIA, said the project came with a steep learning curve and a massive price tag. New equipment alone cost over $1 million. And, as with most grocers, supply chain disruptions and inflation have posed challenges. 

“Some stuff isn’t available and sometimes prices are through the roof,” Zacconi said. “It’s almost not worth it sometimes, when a head of lettuce costs five dollars.”

The store carries fresh local produce, imported specialty foods and wines, vegan and vegetarian products, and prepared meals. The wood-fired pizza oven and in-house eating area and café also provide a unique experience for visiting customers. 

Mercato Zacconi doesn’t have much competition right now, but Zacconi isn’t too concerned about how a name-brand grocer in the area would affect his business. In fact, he said he hopes to see one soon. 

“I think there’s room in the market,” he said. “This is a whole different experience. It’s more than just a grocery store.”