Dressed with vegetable spread and olive oil, the Spolumbo’s Special stuffs lettuce, tomato, prosciutto, mortadella, salami and capocollo between a fresh Vienna bun with provolone cheese. The hefty and flavourful sandwich is a fan favourite, but co-founder Tony Spoletini used to be embarrassed by it.

“The sad thing was when you really young, you were embarrassed of that sandwich because you wanted to fit in,” he said. “You’d trade it for peanut butter and jam, and then you realized you were getting ripped off until you were about 14. Your buddies are going, ‘You idiot, we were getting the best deal there!’”

Former CFL player Tony Spoletini started Spolumbo’s in 1991 after realizing Calgary didn’t have many high quality Italian sausage options. Photo by Paul McAleer.While he learned a valuable business lesson and started to embrace his Italian heritage as a teenager, football was his true passion. Tony, along with close friend Mike Palumbo and cousin Tom Spoletini, went on to play for the Calgary Stampeders, retiring in the early ‘90s with no real plan of their next careers.

“I was lucky to be married because the first six months after my football career, there’s a void. There’s a definite void,” Tom said. “I was already involved in the construction business when I was playing, so I had a little bit of a go-to. That competitiveness, that comradery that was part of the void that we were missing.”

The idea and early stages of Spolumbo’s Fine Foods & Deli began in 1991, getting its name by merging the surnames of its founders.

The retired CFL players realized that authentic Italian sausage was largely absent from Calgary’s food scene, so they went into business with a little help from Tom’s in-laws, the Tudda family, who own the beloved Stromboli Inn and Villa Firenze. The Tudda’s provided recipes and gave the trio space to make sausage in the basement of their restaurant.

While now a staple in Calgary’s food scene, the brand didn’t instantly take off. At first, restaurants were hesitant to switch sausage manufacturers when Spolumbo’s approached them, but partnerships picked up pace once a few restaurants started to feature the products on their menus.

With a capacity of 200 seats, the deli side of Spolumbo’s Inglewood location is always bustling with hungry customers at lunch. Photo by Paul McAleer.

“People don’t like change, but all it takes is like one person to believe in you,” Tony said. “You’ve got a higher-end product, no additives, no preservatives.”

Soon enough, it became clear to the owners that they needed to expand. Their first Inglewood location had only 20 seats, but they were losing business because the small space with limited parking options couldn’t match the demand.

“It took about six years to actually make wages and then the opportunity to buy the land that we sit on actually came up in ’96 and then we purchased it in ’97,” Tony said. “By the time we built and moved in here, it was August of ’98. Once we moved here, then we just started to grow.”

The current headquarters at 1308 9th Ave. S.E. seats 100 and is home to their 464-square-metre federal production facility, which ships fresh products to grocery stores across Western Canada such as Co-op and Safeway. They have also opened up other locations at SAIT and the airport.

Thousands of sausages a day get sent across Western Canada from Spolumbo’s federal production facility. An employee guides sausages through the casing machine before they get packaged on Feb. 5. Photo by Paul McAleer.

The expansions did not distract from the family foundation Spolumbo’s was founded on. To this day, Tony’s dad hangs around the deli daily and his mother, Aurora, oversees the kitchen.

“As soon as I see people eat and have a smile on their face, that always makes me happy. I don’t know how to use computer, I don’t know how to do anything else, but it makes me happy to see people eat and be happy,” Aurora said. “That’s what I did with my family, my kids, to bring everyone home and eat and have everybody smiling – that’s all, that’s why we create this.”

Aurora added that generosity is at the heart of her family and by extension, the family business. Spolumbo’s supports local teams and a variety of charities through fundraisers, offering wholesale prices to groups looking to raise money for their cause.

Tony has also helped rehabilitate various football venues around the city, including Shouldice Athletic Park.

“You just learn to pass it on. Once you’re in a position to be profitable or to make a difference, we just said, ‘Listen, we’re here today because of somebody giving us a chance,’ so it’s just our duty to pass that on,” he said.

“Philanthropy often goes hand in hand with success,” added Remo Trotta, the sales and marketing manager for Spolumbo’s. “The guys brought that with them and they maintained that. It’s not because they’re football players, it’s because they’re generous men.”

Spolumbo’s federal facility is inspected daily. Only a handful of employees know the secret spices that go into every batch of sausages from chorizo to chicken-apple. Photo by Paul McAleer.

When the 2013 floods affected the deli, an outpouring of support followed, demonstrating how loyal and compassionate the local community is towards the brand and the people behind it.

Despite the brand’s accomplishments, the owners believe Spolumbo’s still has room to grow.

“I don’t think it has [taken off] yet,” Tom said. “I still think there’s great potential in what we do. I think it’s been successful in Calgary for sure, I think it’s just a matter of spreading the word a little more.”

Tom Spoletini, also a co-founder of Spolumbo’s, says that the family dynamic is key to the businesses work environment. Photo by Paul McAleer.

While they still need to do their research, franchising is the next step for Spolumbo’s.

“If we’re going to go that franchise route, we need to get more educated on that,” Tony said.

Setting up shop in other cities is challenging because it relies on finding the perfect people for the job, those who can meet the high standards of the original location. The goal is to get their sandwiches, sausages and hamburgers to as many hungry Canadians as possible.

For now, Spolumbo’s recently partnered with HelloFresh, a delivery service that provides ingredients and recipes for its subscribers each week.

“We’re ecstatic to be affiliated with such a quality, international brand,” Tony said. “For them to go into local communities and source out the top local producers and then incorporate it for that area, to be a part of something like that is amazing.”

As Spolumbo’s continues to expand, the founders want to keep their original recipes and spirit intact. Whether they go to franchise route or not, one thing is certain: kids won’t be trading their Spolumbo’s Special for peanut butter and jellies any time soon.

pmcaleer@cjournal.ca

Editor: Sarah Allen | sallen@cjournal.ca