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Depending on your perspective, 60 years can feel like a lifetime or the blink of an eye. For the Pusateri family, the last 60 years has been a time to watch the city change and modernity continue its frenzied course, to see young family members mature into key roles at Pusateri’s Fine Foods, and to endure as older generations said their last goodbyes. Marked by hard work, passion, joy, heartache, and the type of educated leaps of faith that define successful entrepreneurs, the 60th anniversary of Pusateri’s Fine Foods is a milestone of gratitude and celebration. A company that has grown from one local corner store into a chain of indispensable food emporiums, Pusateri’s Fine Foods boasts a bigger footprint than when it started, but its core values of customer service and quality remain unchanged.
Surveying the Pusateri family’s first foray into retail — a small produce market opened on St. Clair Avenue West in 1963 — things would have looked world’s away from Pusateri’s Fine Foods’ current shrines to gastronomy. Unless, that is, you focused on the produce area. There, in summer, bushels of sun-ripened tomatoes and mounds of Sicilian eggplants might still evoke visions of nippycaponataandpenne alla Normain shopper’s minds. “My husband’s family, my father-in-law, started the business on St. Clair. We started as your local, neighbourhood, little corner grocery store,” explains Ida Pusateri, family matriarch and co-owner of Pusateri’s Fine Foods. “We started out with fruits and vegetables, then they introduced Italian products. … Being Italian we knew what [customers] wanted,” she adds. What set Pusateri’s apart was an obsession with excellence. "We were very much foodies,” adds Pusateri. “We were known for our quality and the neighbourhood flocked to us because of that high quality that we always carried. We started with that and that’s what brought us to the next step.”
As Pusateri’s Fine Foods’ reputation grew, it quickly became a go-to for local families and those willing to make the trek to St. Clair. With increased popularity came an interest in offering more products, both from close by and afar. Now taking up three connecting stores, Pusateri’s Fine Foods added a butcher and deli counter to its original location. Customers also found a slightly larger smattering of imported products lining the store’s shelves. “With the love and having that passion for [food], it was something that we were learning along the way but it was fun,” explains Pusateri of the quest to find interesting tidbits with which to tempt shoppers. "It was opening up our eyes as we were opening up the eyes of our clientele.”
In 1986, Cosimo Pusateri, son of founders Salvatore and Rosaria, took over the family business. It was a changing of the guard that set the wheels in motion for the company’s future. Not only had Cosimo Pusateri grown up with the business, “he was very much a visionary,” affirms Ida Pusateri. "His vision was always to have the best store with the best products in it.” That same year, Pusateri’s Fine Foods moved to a new flagship store on Avenue Road. “My husband, Cosimo, that was always his dream. To expand the brand to more than we ever sold on St. Clair, in terms of products. To venture into many more departments than they had originally,” she adds.
With the new store, came myriad opportunities to impress. "On St. Clair, the quality of produce was at the forefront. It was the main differentiator. … We also carried very generic basic staple Italian items. That’s what that neighbourhood wanted from a local grocer,” explains Paolo Pusateri, head of marketing. Having entered a new, very affluent, neighbourhood, however, Pusateri’s "wasn’t an Italian community store anymore because Avenue Road and Lawrence wasn’t an Italian neighbourhood,” he adds. “That was the opportunity to reach the next level and to create this food emporium and realize this vision that my father had that was inspired by Italian markets, and bodegas in New York.” Cosimo Pusateri spearheaded efforts to import artisanal-level products and be among the first to offer them to his loyal customers. “Toronto was not an evolved food culture back then,” observes Paolo Pusateri, “the family wanted to bring in products that weren’t seen in Canada at the time. Even Parmigiano Reggiano, it wasn’t widely available really at the time. Olive oil, you could really only get basic stuff. … It took years to build that assortment.” The end result? Consumers can now visit any Pusateri’s Fine foods and find everything they like in one spot. “We are big on sourcing,” explains Ida Pusateri. “We source from what we think are the best players, the best artisans and the best makers. …What we bring is that convenience of not having to go to various spots to get the bread you like from Blackbird or the cake you like from Delysées. … We bring everything under one roof and let people enjoy.”
Today, Pusateri’s Fine Foods employs close to 400 people, including four members of the Pusateri family. The company comprises a central kitchen and four locations, with another scheduled to open later this year. Located in the heart of Little Italy, on College Street, the newest store will include a novel food service concept designed for urbanites who long to eat well but are strapped for time. Online, Pusateri’s Fine Foods can be found on Uber Eats, InstaCart and at Pusateris.com. There, customers can peruse a giddy assortment of goods, ideal for gifting or squirrelling away. From Pusateri’s brand groceries and locally-sourced products to floral arrangements, curated food boxes and enough prepared bits and bites to cater any size of gathering, the website is as comprehensive a one-stop shop as its brick and mortar predecessors.
What would Cosimo Pusateri think of the business if he could see it today? “I think he would be very proud. I really do,” asserts Ida Pusateri. “It’s not an easy business to be in. But when you stick with it because you love it and you get up every morning for the love of what you do, it gets done. I think he would be proud.”
A rarity in an immensely competitive industry, Pusateri’s Fine Foods is a family business that continues to evolve and grow along with the city where it all began. “Our customers are advocates for the brand,” explains Paolo Pusateri. “Not everyone is a Pusateri’s shopper but the people that do come here are proud to come to Pusateri’s.” They may not be on the payroll, but people who have grown up with the brand, who trust it, who seek it out and who, perhaps most importantly, are now passing on a love for it to the next generation, are all part of the extended Pusaterifamiglia. “They come for the freshness. They come for the variety, the quality of things,” notes Ida Pusateri. “There’s that level of trust with our customers. … That’s what keeps us happy and that’s what keeps them happy. A happy customer makes us happy.” Fuelled by devotion to the business and the family, with a legion of loyal supporters, 60 years might soon feel like a mere chapter in the history of this storied local gem.