Maltese Grocery LTD

Holding onto Family and Community in a Big-Box Market
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Sean Barr

Lisa Maltese, co-owner of Maltese Grocery LTD (Maltese Grocery), is passionate about food and her family-owned and –operated store. “We eat a minimum of three times a day so why not love what you eat,” shares Lisa, who continues sharing this passion with customers – who are more like extended family – since the Ontario-based store’s first transaction.

The fourth-generation family corner store started small in 1931 with Lisa’s grandfather and parents. “Our first location was on Pear St. in Thunder Bay, Ontario,” reveals Lisa. “The original store had about 14 different colors of flooring and paint, while my parents did patchwork and repairs. I remember pulling the little red wagon down to the local lumber supplier and coming back with bags of sawdust in tow. We would throw the sawdust on the floor so it didn’t get slippery in the butcher area.”

Not Your Average Big-box Store

“Although Maltese Grocery built an improved store in 1989, we are still located on the same corner Papa John used 82 years ago,” Lisa explains. In addition to a new facility, Maltese Grocery also expanded its customer base and offerings, all while remaining strongly committed to family and community.

“I run the operation with my brother, Dave,” shares Lisa. “Our store isn’t extremely large, only 1,980 square feet of retail space, but we do our best to move fine quality product.”

It is evident that Lisa is proud of how far the company has come. “You won’t find many stores like ours out there,” she continues. The small grocer manages to stay afloat amongst competition from corporate giants like Target and Wal-Mart by providing a diverse selection of produce; specialty foods, including aged meats and cheeses; and focusing on loyal customers and the community.

“The competition is stiff,” reveals Lisa. “We lost another independent grocery store in town this past year; they had been in business for nearly 24 years. It was a huge loss for the community.”

However, Maltese Grocery doesn’t compete with the big-box stores by trying to be one. “Our focus is customer service, quality and a diverse selection,” assures Lisa. “All of this is possible by our amazing staff, both past and present, greeting customers by name as they walk through the door.”

The family-run store also holds onto a sense of community support that Lisa says you won’t find in a big-box store. “During the Depression, my grandfather helped support the Italian immigrant community, allowing them to charge items to the store account, if they didn’t have the means that week,” she notes. “We still do that to a certain extent, because it’s about helping people in the community when you can.”

A Diverse, Specialty Selection

For a small corner store, Maltese Grocery brings a lot to the table. “We have 35 employees, including six full-time butchers,” mentions Lisa. “Our full-service meat department is pretty remarkable. You don’t just pick up a prepackaged sirloin, you pick the one you like from our meat counter and our butchers will cut it fresh, to the exact size and thickness you desire.”

That is not all the grocer does, however. “We also age our beef and that’s unheard of right now,” continues Lisa. “You need to age it for it to tenderize and taste better.”

Complementing its full-service meat department, Maltese Grocery boasts a fully stocked deli – cut fresh while one waits – a produce department and a fine selection of gourmet cheeses from around the world.

“We are constantly looking for new ideas and products to bring in from around the world,” Lisa explains. “We’re Italian so we originally started importing from Italy, but now we bring in goods from around the world, most recently adding Moroccan and Japanese products, as well.”  

According to Lisa, staying in touch with food trends is a huge part of Maltese Grocery’s business. “People’s appetites change with food trends; they don’t want to see an empty store or the same products on the shelves every day,” she explains. “Five years ago, no one knew what quinoa or kale was. Now it is far more common to see in peoples’ meals.”

Customer convenience is another deciding factor. “We also have to keep in mind that everyone lives a faster lifestyle nowadays,” notes Lisa. “If we can do some of the preparation and our customers can finish the meal at home, then we will to help them out.”

To support more offerings and specialty products, Maltese Grocery recently added brand-new, custom-made meat and deli cases, as well as narrower shelving, allowing customers more aisle space. Although Lisa and Dave decided to focus on the grocer’s interior, Lisa notes the store has undergone five renovations in the past, and she has a vision for the future. “Soon, we’ll be expanding the back-end of the store and the processing and loading areas,” she explains.

Despite further expansion and upgrades, both Lisa and Dave will remain focused on family values and giving back to the Thunder Bay community, supporting the city with a giant heart. “Going back to our father’s saying, ‘You have to spend money to make money,’ business at Maltese Grocery is about building connections with customers and getting them to come back,” says Lisa proudly. “We focus on one customer at a time and keeping them. Dave and I are so very fortunate to be part of the community of Thunder Bay; they have supported us all these years and shaped what and who we are today.”

For more than 82 years, Maltese Grocery LTD has been offering customers a unique shopping experience, unlike any big-box store; one that’s instead grounded in family ownership and a commitment to serving the community.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Aurora Importing
Jan K Overwheel Limited
Sofina Foods (Santa Maria Corp)
The Erb Group of Companies