Walking into Brent Park Store, customers are served up a smorgasbord of some of Europe’s most delicious and beloved delicacies.
Shelves at the Thunder Bay German-style deli are brimming with decadent cheeses, classic breads and pastries, and specialty chocolates.
The meat counter is stocked daily with a delectable array of cold cuts and fresh meat, and staff can easily design and build a meat and cheese tray or gift basket for special occasions.
That’s all complemented by a good variety of local products made right in northwestern Ontario – vegetables from Sleepy G Farm, Buster’s Barbeque sauce and meat rubs, and pepperettes from Rainy River Elk Company are all sold here.
What’s most remarkable about this little store, however, is that it’s been serving up much of the same, familiar fare to appreciative patrons for more than 60 years.
“Our main background is as a German deli; that’s what it was in 1961 when (Heinz Willmann) purchased it, and he turned it into a German deli,” explained Paul Trevisanutto, the store’s current owner.
“We’ve added stuff over the years – Dutch, Croatian, Hungarian, a lot of local stuff as well – stuff you can’t really find anywhere else, which is something I like doing.”
The shop's provenance actually dates back to 1909 when it was established as a general store in the Brent Park neighbourhood, in the city’s north end.
A number of proprietors had taken their turn at the helm before Willmann purchased the shop, but under his ownership it flourished for more than two decades.
Upon retirement, Willmann sold the store to his son, Roy, who then ran the shop for 32 years.
Trevisanutto began working for Roy – a cousin of a cousin – in 2012, but it wasn't a given that he would carry on the tradition.
“I originally thought I would end up owning a restaurant, because that was mostly where I had worked,” said Trevisanutto, a husband and father of young children who has formal training as a chef.
“It was eventually going to be part of the plan down the road, but I think (owning the store) gave me an opportunity to work kind of normal hours during the day, not kitchen hours, and still be in the industry.”
Despite any initial hesitancy, Trevisanutto comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, who have all held a strong commitment to community, something he's carried into his business.
This past fall, he donated 500 Halloween loot bags, which were given out by Bay Village Coffee in exchange for a donation to Our Kids Count, a community development organization that provides support to local families.
It speaks to a lesson he learned from his father long ago: “Give back to the community when you can, because the community supports you.”
In February 2020 the shop marked a major milestone. After more than a century in the same tiny location, Brent Park Store moved into a former convenience store outside of the residential neighbourhood where it all started.
The change wasn’t planned, Trevisanutto said, but when the property came up for sale, he saw an opportunity and grabbed it.
“It’s close by enough that we can move, technically, out of Brent Park, which is the neighbourhood that we were in,” he said, “but close enough that we’re not far away across the city.”
The new location has its advantages: expanded square footage, a larger parking lot, and better exposure from its corner location at a busy intersection with lots of through traffic.
Business has been brisker than it’s ever been in the years Trevisanutto has owned it. But whether that's tied to the new location, or to a surge in more people supporting local small businesses, he can't say for sure.
Either way, it's been an adjustment.
“It’s just been interesting, because we’ve had to learn everything during a pandemic,” Trevisanutto said. “We had to adjust to a new store, and adjust to a new level of how busy we are, like everything else going on.”
Some customers have lamented the change, Trevisanutto said, invoking the weathered charm of the old store, slanted floors and all.
But he’s tried to make the transition as painless as possible, and for the most part, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
"We're lucky here that people support the small businesses as much as they can,” Trevisanutto said. “So many people that I've talked to say they're shopping local first, so we're lucky that we have people that care about that stuff.”
Trevisanutto has retained the shop's name and its bright blue-and-white colour scheme, along with the Gothic-style lettering so familiar to its branding.
Photos and keepsakes from years past adorn the walls, giving visitors touring the shop a glimpse into its long and storied history.
But most importantly, the store is still stocked full with all the tasty goodies that customers have come to know and enjoy, and the smiling faces of staff – currently obscured by masks, but still there – continue to happily greet them at the counter.
More than a century after its founding, the spirit of Brent Park Store carries on.
“We’re still Brent Park Store,” Trevisanutto said. “Just bigger and shinier.”
This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.