A Southington landmark will soon make a comeback. Tops Supermarket plans to reopen on March 30 after a devastating fire burned the grocery store to the ground last March.
In his 40 years in the grocery business, John Salerno has hung on through a roller-coaster ride of changing consumer tastes, merchandising trends and competitors.

But for the past year, he and partner Betsy Tooker have been through the toughest business challenge of their lives: first watching their store burn to the ground, and then rebuilding it.

“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think this would happen. I’m 69. I didn’t imagine I’d be doing this now,” Salerno said Wednesday outside the nearly rebuilt Tops Marketplace in Southington’s Plantsville section.

On March 3 of last year, flames ravaged the little independent grocery store that the Topsche family founded more than 65 years earlier.

Shoppers and employees alike fled to the snow-covered parking lot as fire ripped through the building; nobody was hurt, but all that was left of the 14,000-square-foot supermarket was smoldering rubble. Investigators concluded the blaze started accidentally near a bank of pizza ovens, but damage was so extensive they couldn’t pin down the precise origin.

The community reaction was immediate and passionate.

Facebook and online news stories were inundated with comments from readers deeply upset that a local institution was gone, and longtime customers asked how they could help bring it back. Individuals and community organizations created a GoFundMe campaign for Tops, and held Zumba and yoga classes as fundraisers.

In the end, the community donated about $20,000.

Some donors explained that they wanted to keep a small-town, independent grocery store in Plantsville. Others said Tops won their loyalty for hiring generations of Southington High School students for its part-time jobs. Fred Kuriger, past president of the local Rotary Club, said what made Tops special is that Salerno and Tooker donate extensively to charitable causes in town.

“I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I can’t think of anybody comparable, anyone who donates so much. It really is a community institution,” Kuriger said. “You could probably go to any organization here and you’d be told they’ve raised money or donated food and supplies.”

Salerno and Tooker said last week that the community’s support drove them to take on the daunting job of rebuilding. Insurance covered more than $3 million, but that still left a $500,000 gap that Salerno and Tooker made up through financing and by taking new mortgages on their homes.

“Of course there’s a financial component, but I’ve never been a rich man with this,” Salerno said. “And there’s a certain amount of pride. When you leave this Earth, you want to leave something good behind. In the food business, you can help a lot of people.”

The immediate concern after the fire was just financial survival. Salerno started driving for Uber to supplement his Social Security, and he and Tooker slowly built a catering business using kitchen equipment on loan.

But as the spring of 2019 went on, they noticed that the local youth programs, school sports teams and community groups were all conducting their usual fundraisers — but without the contributions from Tops.

“To see everything go up in smoke was hard, but then we saw all these other things were still going on. It was another reason to go forward (with rebuilding),” Salerno said.

Salerno’s daughter, Janalynne, played a big part in negotiating with the insurer and with contractors to make rebuilding possible. The goal was to reopen with a state-of-the-art, upscale operation with a heavier concentration on prepared foods.

“We see a resurgence of small, local stores with millennials. They associate local with fresh, and we buy a lot of local and organic food,” Salerno said. “You have to have the right formula. Right now a lot of people want high-quality meals at home. They want to eat fresh and healthy, but they want you to make it easier to prepare.”

The new store will have a larger meats and deli area, and will feature a pickup window so shoppers can pre-order food and then pick it up directly from the parking lot.

Tops kept eight key employees throughout the past year and is hiring more now that its official reopening of March 30 is closer. Tooker will handle most of the day-to-day management.

“This place is just a part of me,” she said. “It’s family.”

The original article can be found at the Hartford Courant.