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.
“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.