If you know one place on Corso Italia it’s probably Tre Mari Bakery, a landmark that’s been around since 1960 – or even earlier, depending on how you count it.
Origins of the Business
Jim and Mary Deleo, who emigrated to Canada from Reggio, Calabria in the early ‘50s, first opened shop under the name of Imperial Grocers in 1956.
Entrepreneurs of their time, the Deleos wore many hats to meet the needs of recent immigrants living in the area. So in addition to groceries and dry cleaning, they often helped customers by writing letters to family back home, translating official documents, making doctor’s appointments, cashing cheques and advancing credit.
In 1960 they opened Tre Mari with two of Jim’s cousins who were bakers by trade. When the cousins returned to Italy a few years later, the Deleos continued on as sole proprietors, and two generations later it’s still in the family.
Though they are long retired, the couple still lives in the apartment above the bakery (uscio e bottega, as they say in Italian). And to this day you’ll often find Jim chatting with a friends at one of Tre Mari’s tables, as he was on a weekday morning when we first met with Franco and John Paul, two of the four Deleo grandsons who now run the family business.
The Four Brothers
The first thing that strikes you when you meet the Deleos is how young they are.
Franco is 29, John Paul 23. James, the only sibling to learn the baker’s trade, had already left for the day, having started his shift at 3 am. He’s 31. Alessandro, 19, works evenings and has just begun studies at Ryerson University.
Like their father, Joseph, the brothers pretty much grew up in the bakery – the family home is just a few steps behind the building.
“As kids we always made a stop here on the way to school,” said John Paul. “We’d come in through the laneway in the back, have an orange juice, pick up a sandwich and drink, and go to school.”
“You keep doing that for years and then one day you think, I want to make some money, and you start stocking shelves,” he said. “It just kind of happens, there’s no interview or start date.”
Unlike their father, though, the boys were encouraged to pursue their own career paths. Franco completed a degree in photography and worked in the industry for a few years before returning to the family business. Today he uses his creative talents on custom window displays and online photography, which has gained Tre Mari thousands of loyal social media followers.
John Paul tried university for a few semesters but his heart wasn’t in it – he knew he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his parents and grandparents. In fact his passion for the family business has made him its unofficial leader, despite his young age.
“John Paul is a big dreamer,” said Franco, “he holds us all together and inspires us to want to do better.” It’s a sentiment echoed by James when we met with him a few weeks later.
“There’s just something about recreating what my grandparents had,” said John Paul, “and slowly building it into something for my brothers and me, something that’s ours, that’s really my focus.”
Alessandro, though still in school, is beginning to see a possible future for himself at the bakery as well. When we spoke with him later that day, he told us:
“As I get older I see it as more than just ‘the family business,’ it’s an opportunity for me, and I don’t take that for granted. And the fact that my brothers are here is motivating too.”
To demonstrate how tight-knit the brothers are, here’s a little anecdote: James, Franco, and John Paul have all moved out of the family home, but everyone still lives within a block of each other and the bakery.
“I look around and I think, my mom’s here, my three bothers are here, why would I ever want to leave and do something else?” said John Paul about working at Tre Mari. Not all families think like that, but Deleos sure do.
Rallying From Grief
Like every family though, the Deleos have had hardships.
In 1999 Joseph and his wife AnnaMarie opened a second location of Tre Mari in Etobicoke, and James and Franco attended school nearby, so they could help out at the bakery. The business thrived for nearly a decade before Joseph passed away unexpectedly at the age of 54, in 2008.
The Etobicoke location was closed immediately and the family went into mourning. When the boys were ready to return to work later that year they decided to stay together and close to home, concentrating their efforts on the original Corso Italia location.
“I don’t know if we all would have stayed in the business, I was only 16 at the time and Alessandro was even younger, but when my father passed away it gave us that drive to stay together,” said John Paul.
AnnaMarie was the catalyst, rallying the family and starting the transformation of the St. Clair location, which had changed little since the ‘70s. She understood it that it had to evolve to survive, and that the family itself needed to channel its grief into something constructive.
“I remember the first things we did were replacing the ceiling tiles and giving it a fresh coat of paint,” said Franco, “and we slowly kept going from there.”
Evolving slowly, organically, with respect for Tre Mari’s great history has been key to their success.
The Past as a Compass
“We needed to go back in order to move forward,” said John Paul, describing their approach to making it their own and to staying relevant to the changing demographic of the area.
That means staying true to their roots and honouring tradition is precisely what makes Tre Mari appealing to young professionals and families who have moved into the area – people who like the idea of shopping local and supporting traditional, artisanal businesses.
You see this “going back” in simple things like the “nonna” window display (pictured above) and black and white photographs on the wall, touches that Franco has used to signify the brothers’ connection with the past. Even the bakery’s website talks about its values as a family business before listing its products.
You also see it in the products Tre Mari sells. In the deli section, for example, they continue to offer a wide range of traditional Italian-Canadian brands like Mastro, San Daniele, Saputo, and Tre Stelle, but more recently they’ve added premium and imported brands like Pingue, Olli, Madeo, and Savello di Roma.
It’s the same thing with packaged goods and pastries: you’ll still find the staples that older generation Italians have bought for years (amaretti, zeppoli, sfoglia cake), but they’ve also added new, often non-traditional products like flavoured cannoli or apple cranberry bread.
“Don’t Forget the Bread”
As the Tre Mari tagline suggests, we’re not done here till we talk about the bread, and to do so we returned a few weeks later to speak with James.
Like his brothers, James doesn’t recall a precise time he started working in the bakery, it just seemed to happen naturally.
“When I was about 11, I’d come into the kitchen in the mornings and give the guys a hand, I was just curious and wanted to learn about it,” he said.
“Then in the summer time in high school I worked out at our place in Etobicoke during the summer. The baker would pick me up at 3 am and my dad would come get me around noon. Nobody told me to do it, I just enjoyed it.”
James is a hands-on guy who loves process of creating something tangible, but says the older he gets the more pleasure he gets in seeing its effects.
“You know what I enjoy the most? Coming out here to the front and seeing everything at its peak – the beautiful loaves of bread, and people enjoying it, half eating it while they’re on the way up to the cash. And thinking, I made that,” he said.
While Tre Mari still makes traditional Calabrese and Sicilian breads daily, James acknowledges they are not the bestsellers they were in his father’s or grandfather’s day.
“There just aren’t as many Italians in the area any more, so we tend to sell more white bread and Vienna loaves, and the Spacatelli buns are always popular for sandwiches,” he says, adding that multigrain, whole wheat and Portuguese bread are also consistent sellers.
But if there’s one bread that’s become Tre Mari’s signature product, it’s the ciabatta.
Ciabatta is similar to sourdough – it’s a multiple step process that includes mixing and cutting by hand, and several resting periods to give the dough the right dense-yet-airy consistency. Many factors, including the atmosphere of the room, affect the outcome.
In other words, it’s easy to screw up, and hard to do well consistently, especially when you’re making it seven days a week, 365 days a year, and there are multiple people involved in the process.
So as mundane as it sounds, it was only when James took over and started recording recipes, implementing quality controls and ensuring things were communicated to everyone in the process that ciabatta sales really took off. Because it no longer mattered who was working in the back, you knew how the ciabatta was going to taste.
The success of Tre Mari’s ciabatta might be the best example of what John Paul means by going back to move forward. It’s rustic and authentically Italian, yes, in fact many elderly Italian customers prefer it to the older products.
But it’s not only as good as the bread was back in the day: it’s probably better, because today James has access to tools and ingredients that simply didn’t exist in the past.
And the end, is there any better tribute to older generations than building on the foundation they laid for us? Isn’t that the archetypal immigration story? These are important questions for the Deleos.
“When you’re immersed in something and you’re just a kid you don’t really appreciate it’s significance,” said Franco. “St. Clair was just the street where I lived. Tre Mari was just the bakery.”
“Looking back on it as an adult though, I’m proud to be a part of it, it makes me want to honour the past with things we’re doing today.”