Meeting Mr Bongiovanni

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Anthony’s grandfather and grandmother flank his then-toddler father in their North Melbourne butcher shop.

There have been many surprises attending the opening of long-awaited food emporium A.Bongiovanni & Son in Seddon – its size, scope, range and pricing just for starters.

What has not been so surprising are the varying levels of negativity that have arisen.

These seem to range from fears for smaller local businesses posed what is seen by some as a predatory carnivore to outright hostility towards what is perceived as an attack on community wellbeing by a moneybags outsider.

Doubtless that will continue to be the case and healthy debate will continue for a long time to come.

But spending time with the man behind the shop and its arrival, Anthony Bongiovanni, it’s impossible to deny the passion he has for Seddon.

He’s a businessman for sure – and a self-confessed ambitious one at that.

But he’s one who I am inclined to take at face value when he makes a determined assertion that he wants to see Seddon bloom.

As he points out, he has been a prominent community member for almost a decade and president of the Seddon Traders Association for the past four.

“I want a better Seddon,” he says. “I have a passion for Seddon. I’m not out to take people’s business away.

“I made a deliberate decision not to stock non-food household good so we wouldn’t be directly competing with the supermarket around the corner.

“With this sort of place, I couldn’t not stock bread – but considering the size of the place, we haven’t gone overboard. We certainly don’t want to hurt Sourdough Kitchen.

“We want to provide more options. I’ve never seen so many people on the street.

Anthony points out the wooden pannelling above the fruit and vegetable section. It took him and his father-in-law three weeks to install using wood from old fruit boxes of the type just visible bottom right.

Anthony himself is another surprise.

Where I’d had a mental picture of a suave Italian patriarch, I instead meet an enthusiastic young man in his early ’30s.

But he’s packed a lot of living and work experience into those three decades.

He has a long background in the liquor and building industries.

On his mother’s side of the family, there’s a history of fruiterers; on his father’s side is a line of butchers.

His grandfather’s butcher shop in North Melbourne was named C.Bongiovanni & Sons.

Anthony has continued that tradition by including “& Son” in the official name of his new enterprise after his own two-year-old son, Samuel.

At one stage, he ran a joint called Bongiovanni’s Food & Wine Bar in North Fitzroy, but it was too small to make it profitable.

Anthony is happy to see its failure as an outright positive.

“I lost just about everything, but it was the best thing that could have happened,” he says.

Anthony leased the building that these days houses Thirsty Camel – it was Betts Electrical then – in the mid-’90s, eventually buying both that building and the one next door, which housed a furniture store.

He resisted interest from the furniture folk in renewing and extending their lease, and entertained leasing proposals that involved the likes of a gym or yoga centre.

But they didn’t work for him.

“I wanted something that would boost Seddon,” he says.

I suspect the genesis of A.Bongiovanni & Son was long dormant but profoundly present in Anthony’s soul.

But things only really started moving when he was perusing Ebay one night and saw a bunch of good-quality shop fittings for sale. He rang the woman involved the next day, eventually doing a great deal the got him not just shop fittings but a forklift as well.

Then followed more purchases of fittings from Ebay and all of a sudden the plan was up and running.

There were major hiccups along the way, mostly notably with the securing of a strong, reliable electricity source.

Turns out the existing power infrastructure was woefully inadequate to service such a shop, and wasn’t all that flash at doing so for other existing businesses either.

The eventual cost was well above $200,000, with Anthony contributing about a third.

Anthony’s grandfather on the left.

Then followed the long and challenging job of securing products and distributors for them.

“I travelled interstate, I went to food fairs and farms,” Anthony says.

The shop carries more than 20,000 products and deals with more than a 1000 suppliers.

The likes of Raw Materials handle a range of products and producers, but many of the items that line the shelves of A.Bongiovanni & Son come from single-product makers so the work simply has to be done.

While the business does carry some cheaper items – incredibly cheap in some cases – Anthony is unapologetic about mostly following a top-notch philosophy that mirrors his own approach to food.

“Whether it be chips or sausages, I’m happy to pay a dollar more or eat a little less to get that high quality,” he says.

As we wrap up our conversation, we spend some time marvelling over photographs Anthony has of yesteryear scenes of Footscray such as the Western Oval, long-gone tram routes and shops.

Then he lends me a copy of Per L’Australia – The Story Of Italian Migration by Julia Church, a mind-blowing photo history upon which I plan to feast.

He tells me there’s further big plans afoot for A.Bongiovanni & Son, but only smiles when I press him for details.

Cooking classes?

Demonstrations?

Live music?

“There’s more,” he says with a smile.

And finally, he dismisses the moneybags suggestions.

“Everything here … I started from scratch.”

Heading back to my car, I stop by Sourdough Kitchen to inquire about how they feel about the new business just up the road, but they’re too busy to talk.

See earlier post here.

16 thoughts on “Meeting Mr Bongiovanni

  1. Happy to try a foodstore that saves me having to stop at unSafeway or Colesland… and stocks quality and variety – looking forward to it…. did have some delicious veal from here on opening day…

  2. Kenny thank you for this post. I’ve really been disturbed by the animus that this new store has generated and it’s been good to hear the other side of the story. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to visit soon.

  3. Good to hear about our new shop keeper

    The store looks fantastic and the produce range is excellent. In life there will always be people who don’t want change but businesses must constantly evolve to remain relevant. This is not woolworths or coles but a high end purveyor of fine produce.

    As it is a “treat yourself” shop it will be interesting to see if they can keep the range going in lean times- I hope they do

  4. All this debate is very interesting and probably ought to be viewed in the context of the area changing substantially over time. Without having visited the new shop yet, I get the impression that for many longer-term residents the prices of many specialty (and organic) products will rule this out as a regular place to shop. But more recent arrivals, who have had to buy into or pay rent at much higher levels and who probably have higher incomes, will be prepared to pay more for quality. Let’s see how it pans out for other businesses. But for those of us residents who have been here for a while (early ’80s) shopping is a mix of loyalty and practicality (i.e., price). I almost always support Footscray Cellars in Charles St because they are friendly, helpful and reasonably priced, and because they were there years before the other outlets. Sometimes I pay more than at larger outlets elsewhere, but it feels right. But people have to consider what they can afford.

    • Good points, Roger. People have the choice. I’m right into practicality and a lot of the fancier items in the new joint will never seduce me. But when I was there yesterday I noticed kiwi gold kiwifruit – which I love with my brekkie meusli – were selling for 60 cents, which is a whole helluva lot cheaper than where I usually get them. And their house brand pasta is a bargain. I think most folks are smart shoppers – certainly the ones who check out CTS and FBB with any regularity. Horses for courses and all that.

    • I think it’s great that this supermarket has opened – great for locals, non locals & other businesses in Seddon. After recently chatting to the folks at Sourdough Kitchen & someone who knows the owner at Pompello I’m told business hasn’t dropped at all, in fact Sourdough is busier than ever. Here is someone trying to add something with substance to the area – why hate on that?? Seddon and all of the other good business’s within will thrive.

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  6. Thanks Kenny for this insight. It has been fascinating to read and hear the reactions to people in the ‘hood. It seemed as though they had tried to avoid going head to head with the locals, and your article confirms this. Although Anthony doesn’t mention Pompello, they have less quantity, but much deeper range than Bongiovanni and offer a much more hands on service. Over the long weekend called in Sourdough kitchen, and they had been absolutely run off their feet and were really keen for the new cafe ‘Common Galaxia’ to open to take the load off their coffee machine! It was something like 300 for one day. Yes, Seddon is really humming!

  7. Hello Ken, have been enjoying your blog for a few years now, and love it as a way for keeping in touch with the western suburbs of Melbourne. It is amazing how quickly Seddon has changed. When I left Seddon Sourdough Kitchen was still just a rumour, and I can certainly imagine the area has changed a lot now with the new arrival (supermarket). Just wondering what effect you think the new Supermarket will have on some of my favorite businesses of Seddon. In particular I worry about Pompelmo who wasn’t mentioned in the interview… so I hope that they can survive with the bigger competition? Do you think they are targetted by the new establishment? Anyway I’d like to know your thoughts.
    p.s. It is fantastic to see that a Coles or Woolworths hasn’t moved in to Seddon… yet….

    Cheers,
    Gus

    • Hi Gus! Thanks for visiting! Where are you now?

      There hasn’t been negativity here at CTS, but there was at Footscray Food Blog – check out Lauren’s story and the subsequent comments here.

      So my story on Anthony has been a nice counterpoint to all that.

      My own views? It’s early days but I think the comments by a couple of local traders that this happening has put more people on the street are significant. It seems that just like that – (sound of fingers snapping) – Seddon is on the cusp of becoming a foodie destination. I can’t see it being anything but positive.

      I think Pompello, Sourdough Kitchen and all the rest will be fine.

      I also think it pays to keep in mind that some of the businesses that people seem to be concerned about are not exactly old-timers themselves.

      Taking a slightly more macro view, there may be fears that Seddon and the near west in general is going to yuppified to death and end up like Brunswick St or Chapel St. Weekend hordes, mediocre cafes, parking nightmares and so on.

      But I have faith things will stay real.

      We have some prime assets going for us – namely industrial landscapes, trucks, pollution and generally being on the wrong side of town.

      As for Seddon, on the basis of the buzz in the air over the past week, I’m loving it. Though you can be sure we’ll be watching closely.

  8. I can’t believe people would knock put down such an enterprising, ambitious guy as a moneybags outsider. What century do we live in? Tall poppy syndrome at its best.

    This store will bring new business to Seddon, and encourage more people to visit there. It will result in more jobs, and be a further boost to a great little local economy. I live in Yarraville and rarely stop in Seddon, but I’m looking forward to my first trip to this supermarket this weekend. Chances are, I’ll stop in at a few other shops in the neighborhood while I’m there.

  9. After reading this last week, I finally got there to check it out last night and I love this place! I think it’s exactly what Seddon needed and it’s nice to have somewhere open until a reasonable time where you can get nice, fresh fruit and vegetables without hiking to Yarraville or Footscray.
    I’m a terrible pre-planner and although I’m happy to buy housey items at the other supermarket, my emergency vegetable experiences there have not been great.
    I think we really lacked somewhere convenient with the basics and I’m thrilled this place has come into the neighbourhood. It definitely brings a nice buzz with it too!
    Although it was tempting to spend a small fortune on all the yummy items on offer :)

  10. If the man on the left is your grandfather. The man the right is my father Emillio Bongiovanni. So that’s Emilio’s brother Camillo. So does this mean we r related somehow? I live in Melbourne Australia.

    • I can assure you that the man on the right is my brother ” Emilio Bongiovanni ” . I was not aware that Emilio had a son.

      Rodolfo Bongiovanni

  11. Pingback: A.Bongiovanni & Son | Gram Magazine

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