Rino Cioffi knew he was on to something when his customers repeatedly told him they just didn't have enough time to cook.
No problem, said Cioffi, and so began his expansion plans for his deli and catering department at 4142 and 4156 East Hastings St. in the heart of North Burnaby.
Cioffi hired chefs Jeffery Siemens and Andrew Matheson, whose combined 25-plus years of experience has included cooking at such landmark Vancouver eating establishments as La Bucca, Cioppino's, Kettle of Fish, Il Giardino, Parkside and Cafeteria.
But with family obligations putting a premium on both Siemens' and Matheson's time, they both chose to work for Cioffi, with the big benefit of being home for dinner with the wife and kids.
"Time is the big enemy for most people," said Cioffi. "I still get a lot of people coming in to buy meat, but many people just don't have the time to cook that meal.
"And for guys like Jeffery and Andrew, they've worked at some of the biggest restaurants in the city. They know how to cook, they know what tastes good. Now they just want to do that and have some time with their families."
Cioffi is cognizant of the high Italian cooking standards his customers expect, as his mother frequently is in the back helping out.
In fact, Mama Cioffi insists we try her homemade sfogliatelle Napoletane phyllo pastry dessert, which includes baked ricotta cheese.
"Eat, eat," she tells us, and it's hard to argue with the piping hot and decadently delicious dessert.
Watching with an amused look is deli manager Giuseppina Pannozzo, who's in charge of making the traditional Sicilian can-noli.
With 19 years of experience at Cioffi's, Pannozzo has known Cioffi since he was six.
"How can you not enjoy working here?" she said.
"We're making great food and people are telling us how convenient it is. Everybody has busy lives, but they don't have to give up good food. ... That's what we're here for."
What that has meant for Cioffi's customers is gourmet food cooked before their very eyes and sold to them at deli prices.
Everything from traditional lasagna to Italian arancini fried rice balls is made in-house, with fresh ingredients and either ready to serve or ready to be cooked when taken home.
Matheson and Siemens came up with the idea of traditional Italian panini sandwiches and there are two they are particularly proud of.
"The roast beef is great," said Siemens. "We get the guys in the butcher shop to set us up with baron of beef, we slow cook it and we slice it right onto the bread," said Siemens. "We add a bit of horseradish aioli and it's a great sandwich."
As for Matheson, he's a big fan of the traditional muffuletta sandwich, featuring a muffuletta loaf covered with layers of marinated olive salad, capicola, mortadella, salami, pepperoni, ham, Swiss cheese and provolone.
"It's a classic sandwich," he said.
That's the type of quality Cioffi was looking for when he conscripted Matheson and Siemens. The duo have a penchant for producing a wide variety of dishes that can run the gamut from lamb stew to potato croquettes to truffle mushroom artisan pizza to macaroon desserts.
"Rino has given us an open slate to create what we want," said Siemens.
Judging by the relentless stream of customers buying out almost every dish, the biggest problem for Cioffi is keeping up with the demand.
"I personally love the calzones," he said. "Just a little ham and cheese and a quick deep fry. I love them."
With most dishes under $10, the deli items are affordable and incredibly filling. And because of the chefs doing the cooking, there's absolutely no compromising on food quality.
"We have dishes here where you would be paying $25 to $30 for and you're getting it for under $10," said Siemens. "The trend now is people want their food quickly, but they don't have to give up quality."
Walking with Cioffi through his market in the final hour of a busy weekday, you get the sense the place could be open 24 hours and be busy at all times.
But because Cioffi values his family time and his employees' family time, the staff can work hard and enjoy the fruits of their work.
"My wife's waiting for me in the back," said Cioffi. "And the guys love having the time with their families."
That doesn't mean they don't work some nights, as Matheson and Siemens also oversee a growing catering business.
"We were in West Vancouver a couple of nights ago, making dinner for 150 people," said Siemens. "We'll be expanding into halls, schools, anywhere where people want a great sandwich, great Italian food or great desserts."
And perhaps then they'll be working hours closer to what they did in previous jobs, but it will be on their own terms.
"We have a lot more control of our time," said Siemens. "The food quality is as high as ever, but now we have more time to enjoy with our families."