Food & Family

The Inspiration Behind Mercato Zacconi: Empty Ballrooms & Sealed Bottles

Do you ever wonder what it takes to start a business from scratch – in a pandemic? An empty ballroom & sealed bottles. The echo of booming music, the tapping of shoes dancing the night away and the popping of champagne bottles was sorely missed at Sala San Marco (the parent company to Mercato Zacconi) during the months of the pandemic. Rooms that were normally filled with families, friends and memories in the making sat idle for months. As a way to adapt to the new state of the world, Sala decided it was time for a little change.

Mercato Zacconi Construction

The idea for Mercato Zacconi was born out of necessity – remember the extraordinarily long lineups at the grocery stores during the beginning months of the pandemic? Tony took notice of the shortage of food options on Preston, “At the time, nobody thought the lockdown would be that long, but it kept dragging on and on and it seemed like there was no end in sight. So, the initial idea was to do a pop-up grocery store on Preston, just for a few months to serve the community, keep my guys busy and offset some of the losses we were facing. But when I dug into that a little deeper, I realized it’s more complicated than that and I didn’t want to do anything offhand – if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.”

Extensive research and thought went into pursuing this new endeavor – this was not something Little Italy only needed for a short time. It is no surprise to any locals that there is a lack of major grocery options in the neighborhood. With many student buildings and residential streets nearby, Little Italy has quite a dense population and it is only continuing to grow. Mercato Zacconi will not only help to provide a centralized food retailer to make groceries more accessible – especially for those who walk or take public transport – but also to disrupt the grocery store industry in Ottawa by introducing a whole new shopping experience.

A retail report was commissioned to see if the plan was actually feasible. A detailed explanation of the vision for the grocery store was pitched – a community marketplace where people could come to share knowledge, learn about obscure gourmet products, pick up quality prepared meals and meal kits, and genuinely enjoy their shopping experience. The report came back and the numbers were strong – now the hard part would be convincing Tony’s parents, Gina & Joe, “So, that’s when I decided to work on my mom and dad to convince them that it was a good idea. They were initially skeptical, with vaccines in the works, they thought things would calm down soon. They kept saying things will go back to normal! things will go back to normal! it won’t last!” Flash forward to October of 2021 and the world is still slowly making its way back to normalcy.


The vision came together from a marriage of many different things, “My inspiration was sort of a mashup of a few different things. One of which is from being in tiny grocery stores in Italy – there’s something really special about the comradery shared over food and local products there. Another inspiration was Eataly, I loved their concept, although, they’re on a much larger scale. After that, it was just about working with what we had – the space that is now dedicated to the store was a banquet hall of course, so it had ornamental chandeliers and crown molding, which all helped to make the vision come together. We were very fortunate to be able to marry the two businesses together in a way that complimented one another. For example, having our liquor license was great because it means we can serve cocktails and wine to our guests while they’re grocery shopping – what could be better? We shopped around and found grocery carts with wine glass holders and everything. It just perfectly embodies the experience we want our guests to feel here – relaxed & pampered. We’d really like to change the perception that grocery shopping has to be a chore, but instead that it can be a fun experience where people can gather and break bread together.”

In order to create the perfect store experience, there were things that were non negotiable, “Our private label was the most fun part – finding really cool products and working with small vendors and small manufacturers to help get their product out there and making these specialty products more accessible to the community. It’s good for local conveyors and producers and it’s good for our guests.” The private label boasts delicious Italian staples such as pesto, roasted garlic tomato sauce and truffle infused olive oil, to name a few. Mercato Zacconi will have no shortage of specialized Italian products and on top of that, it will carry a wide variety of traditional grocery store items – stocked for a full grocery shopping experience.

Despite all of the stress and the hardship that comes with organizing a construction site and ordering specialized equipment during a pandemic, the finishing touches are finally coming together. Sala San Marco will remain the community staple it has always been, continuing to welcome parties into their three grand banquet halls, which you can find here. Mercato Zacconi will welcome guests in the early days of Fall – into a market, restaurant, bistro and social house that makes going to the grocery store an outing to look forward to.

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