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Updated: July 27, 2020

With community support, Tops Marketplace rebuilds after devastating fire

Photo | Contributed Tops CEO John Salerno Sr. with daughter Janalynne Salerno Gius (COO).


Category | Overcoming Adversity — Southington-based Tops Marketplace

After Tops Marketplace burned to the ground in a devastating fire in March 2019, it would have been perfectly understandable if John Salerno decided it was time to retire.

After all, he’s 69 years old and had a good 40-year run at the local family grocery store he co-owns with Betsy Tooker in Southington’s Plantsville section. He admits the thought briefly crossed his mind.

But two nights after the fire that investigators believe began in the kitchen near a bank of pizza ovens, hundreds of loyal customers and town residents flocked to the store for a candlelight vigil.

Cards and encouraging messages began showing up in the mail and on social media for the local business, which has been a fixture in town since its first owners, the Topsche family, opened it in 1951.

Then the community began contributing to a GoFundMe campaign, raising $20,000 to help rebuild the store, known for donating to countless youth sports teams and civic groups over the years.

“I knew that we were a positive presence in the town for all the time we’ve been there. But it just seemed that every organization we had ever given to — churches, boy scouts, schools — found a way to give back to us,” said Salerno. “It was just so overwhelming that I couldn’t walk away.”

So Salerno took the money he received through insurance and donations and then took out a loan for $500,000 to cover the cost of the year-long rebuild. During construction, he made ends meet by working as an uber driver and through catering jobs he and Tooker strung together using donated kitchen facilities.

As for the fundraising, the store pledged to channel any money donated back into Greater Southington, and in fact, has already begun doing so, Salerno said.

On March 27, just over a year after the fire — and right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic — Tops officially reopened its doors to the public. Salerno’s daughter, Janalynne Guis, had been helping at the store for several years but has taken on a larger full-time role since the reopening.

Although the new building encompasses the same footprint as the original 1950s-era structure, a reconfiguration provided more selling space and 18-foot ceilings offer a larger feel.

Salerno felt it was important to the community to keep the exterior looking familiar, but he took advantage of the rebuild to modernize the interior.

The store upgraded all of its refrigerated cases and added a hot-and-cold food program, although that is currently idle because of COVID-19.

Salerno said the best part of rebuilding is interacting with his regular customers again.

“When the people come in, they’re actually genuinely happy to see us,” he said. “You can tell there’s a personal connection.”

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