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Posted: February 01, 2012

A gourmet grocery well done

Beloved Tony's Market began as a one-man butcher shop

Mike Taylor

Tony's Meats was born in 1978 shortly after Tony Rosacci and his 13-year-old son Daniel passed a shuttered 7-Eleven on East Dry Creek Road in what is now Centennial.

"Boy," said Daniel, "that'd be a good place for a butcher shop, Dad."

A few days later Tony Rosacci, who to that point had spent most of his 38 years cutting meat or managing someone else's meat departments in Detroit, Los Angeles and Denver, wrote a postdated check to secure a lease on the storefront with money he didn't have, thinking - hoping - the bank would approve of his business plan and give him a loan. When the bank turned him down, he sold his house - put it up for sale on a Friday and sold it two days later - to come up with $1,300 for the first and last month's rent on the shuttered 7-Eleven. Tony's Meats was in business.

"I was very optimistic," Tony Rosacci says 33 years later. "Our first goal was to do $1,000 a day, and we did that like the second week we were in business."

Explaining this confidence, the 71-year-old Rosacci says, "Well, I was younger then. I was motivated. I mean, I would cut the meat, I waited on the customers, I started at 5 or 6 in the morning and I got home at 8 o'clock at night. Anybody in this country can do anything they want, but there's a price to pay. And if you're willing to pay the price, you can do it. If you're not, I'm sorry."

Today the business now known as Tony's Market has grown to four stores and is known throughout Denver for its meats, seafood and produce, along with deli, bakery and catering operations. Tony Rosacci's Fine Catering feeds, among others, the Denver Broncos every day during the football season, and the Tony's Market on 950 Broadway boasts a bistro with wine and beer.

But Rosacci says the growth hasn't been spurred by any pivotal developments. Rather, he says, "When you have three kids in the business and they all want to make good money and they're all hard workers ... you have to grow." The product expansion, he says, has been merely the result of listening to what customers want and providing it.

At any given time, depending on the season, there are eight to 10 Rosacci family members spanning three generations working among the 275 employees of Tony's Market. Key among them are son Daniel Rosacci, 47, the CEO; son Mick Rosacci, 52, corporate chef; and daughter Avie Rosacci, 51, business development officer.

"There's nothing better than to realize your dream and then to see your kids carry on with the business, and you hear the things that you taught them taken to the next level," Tony says.

Those key principles clearly have been passed down. CEO Daniel Rosacci calls his father "probably one of the greatest entrepreneurs this state's had" and says that foremost, "My dad knows how to take care of customers. And he instilled that in us so heavily as children that it still is our foundation: If we don't take care of those customers, we have nothing."

Tony Rosacci talks passionately about his education in business. Not college, which he eschewed, but the one he received growing up in the inner city of Detroit. Raised primarily by his immigrant grandparents while his single mother was working at a ball-bearing plant for Ford Motor Co., he started working in a corner grocery store at age 9.

"It was three bucks a week, and I thought, ‘Man!'" Rosacci says. He laughs. "And I gave $2 of it to my mom."

On his office wall in Centennial, along with photos of Frank Sinatra and Muhammed Ali and an iconic Norman Rockwell painting of a butcher-shop scene, are framed immigration records of his maternal grandparents and the ships they arrived on from Italy separately before they were married - Michelangelo Vitale in 1903 and Paula Benedetto in 1909. The handwritten records show Vitale listed his occupation as "farmer," that he couldn't read or write, and that he arrived with $12 to his name.

"He's the one who taught me how to work," Rosacci says. "He worked from sun up to sun down."

Tony Rosacci took that lesson well. His description of his early years is one long, joyously told description of jobs and youthful money-making schemes.
"I was a street kid," he says. "It was a very Italian neighborhood. In order to get ahead, you didn't watch TV. You had to go out and hustle. And I hustled. I sold balloons at every Macy's Parade. I used to stay up all night blowing up balloons to sell them. I used to sell cuff links to old people in the bowling alley. I'd buy them down at the wholesale house for a buck and a quarter and sell them for four bucks a pair. I had newspaper routes. I worked downtown in Detroit in a bookie joint, the front end of a newsstand, making 75 cents an hour. And it's not even the money. It's the idea that, ‘Man, I did something not many people could have done, and I made money at it.' And it's fun! To have something in your mind and outhustle somebody. Because life is competition."

Rosacci tries to impart the lesson of hard work on young employees every chance he has.

"The first thing I tell them is, ‘There are one-baggers and there are two-baggers,'" Rosacci says. A one-bagger, he explains, does just enough to get the job done. But, he says, "Occasionally you see a kid who goes from checkstand to checkstand and bags for two checkers. It's a competition for him. Well, who do you think is going to end up owning the supermarket? I've told that story hundreds of times. Sometimes it clicks in their minds. They're potential two-baggers, but they don't know that that's what the world wants."

Then there's the education of his youngest son, Daniel, the CEO since about 2000. Daniel's work with the family business began when he was in junior high, and he would sweep floors and wrap meat. From there he graduated to sausage grinding. He became a journeyman meat cutter while still in his teens.

By 21, he was meat manager, personally responsible for $4 million or $5 million in meat sales. He was in charge of a crew of 20 to 22 people, all older than him.

"It was a challenge," Daniel says. "I'd run the crew, but I also knew that they had a lot of seniority on me. They were also my professors."

Tony says he wanted his eventual successor to go to college and get a business degree, but in the end a form of home-schooling won out.

"I said, ‘You just go to CU or wherever you want to go and get a business degree, and I'll pick up the tab,' Tony recalls. "He went to see one of his counselors, and his counselor said, ‘You want a business degree? Go work for your father.'

"So he stayed with me. He's never worked for anybody else. So he knows me inside and out, and he's got a better business degree than anybody. He amazes me sometimes with how well he thinks things out. He's the future of the company. Just brilliant. I'm very proud of him."

Tony Rosacci, a self-described hands-on guy, says his youngest son is more of a big-picture guy, better suited to running multiple stores and setting up systems to make them run smoothly. As an example - and perhaps for comic effect - Tony recalls, "When Danny wanted to start an HR department, I said, ‘What the heck's HR? The only HR I've ever seen is home runs in the box scores.'"

More seriously, Daniel Rosacci says that from the time he was in his mid-20s, his father would take him to every meeting that related to the company. It was a crucial part of both their continuing educations.

"Every time we went to the CPA, every time we went to the lawyer's, every time we went to the tax attorney, whatever it was, I went along," Daniel says. "And those people literally became, again, my personal professors. And that's kind of how I learned the other side of the business. I guess he and I learned it together. That's probably the one single thing he did that really helped me and the company be able to grow. He and I grew together as far as running the business side."

Russ Buttacavoli and Tony Rosacci are best friends with similar backgrounds. They met on the golf course 25 years ago. Buttacavoli, 66, grew up in the Bronx where for a time he drove a taxi at night and sold insurance during the day. Like Rosacci, his formal education ended with high school. Also like Rosacci, he grew up hustling.

Buttacavoli's success in insurance sales eventually brought him West in 1974, as he was tabbed to open branch offices in Colorado and Los Angeles. Later, he owned the largest Merry Maid housecleaning operation in the country, which he sold. In 1986, he launched Beau Visage Skin Care & Spas, which employs about 70 with locations in Greenwood Village and Littleton.

He says one of Rosacci's obvious attributes is his personality. "First of all, he does a very good job at welcoming people and making people feel as though they're friends," Buttacavoli says. "He's got that kind of personality where he draws people in. And of course, he works enormously hard. And he pays particular attention to the small things in his business."

Buttacavoli says one other asset that has helped Rosacci as a businessman is his intuition. He relates how he first noticed Tony's Meats in 1979, about 10 years before actually meeting Rosacci on the golf course.

"My wife and I were driving up Dry Creek. It was like a country road. And I see a sign that says Tony's Meats," Buttacavoli recalls. "And my EXACT words to my wife were, "Would you look at this (expletive) idiot! The guy put a butcher shop in the middle of nowhere where a 7-Eleven failed!
"And in later years Tony admitted that if he had an MBA or something and did all the research and site studies, he would have never opened up there. But he just went by his instincts."

Going with his gut - and always putting the customer first.

"It's been a fun trip," Tony Rosacci says. "Probably the most rewarding thing is the family being in the business and knowing there's a legacy there. A lot of people know Tony's. We're synonymous with quality, and we really pride ourselves on that."
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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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