By SHERIDAN ROY
Tops Marketplace co-owners John Salerno and Betsy Tooker were fighting off tears in front of the television cameras when they turned to the crowd behind them. “We’re going to rebuild,” Salerno said, giving a thumbs-up to the group. “We’re going to make it bigger and better.”
Salerno’s gesture was answered by chants of “Hometown Proud,” the motto for local market, a Plantsville landmark since 1951.
On Monday, March 4, more than 50 people gathered in a candlelight vigil to show their support for the supermarket owners after a fire consumed the building. The vigil group gathered in the McDonald’s parking lot on Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike across the street from the burnt-out carcass of Tops Supermarket.
“The community…it just…I just can’t believe it,” said Salerno. “The outpouring gives us energy to do it again.”
The Plantsville landmark experienced a devastating fire Sunday evening. As of Tuesday afternoon, investigations into the cause of the fire were still ongoing.
When the fire department received the call shortly after 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, the business was still open. Shoppers and employees still occupied the building.
According to eye witnesses, flames spread rapidly. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was already out of control. No injuries were reported, and there was no harm to surrounding properties.
“Grocery stores are notorious for fires like this because they have a lot of open space, and there’s a lot of space between the roof and the ceiling,” Southington Fire Chief Richard Butler said on Monday morning.
By 9:30 a.m., the roof of the building had collapsed into the store. Firefighters remained on the scene through Sunday night and early afternoon.
Because the roof had collapsed, the fire marshal and investigators faced difficulty inspecting the building to determine the cause of the fire. In addition, spot fires continued to pop up inside the building through Monday morning.
“We hate to see anyone lose a business, especially one that is a landmark in this town,” said Butler. “The family is very well known in town and well-respected, and we’re going to do all we can to assist them moving forward.”
It didn’t take long for the community to rally around the building and its owners. Nearby neighbor Sarah Orzech Roy saw the fire engulfing the store that she worked at as a teen.
“Tops was my first job and our go-to store for quick shopping. I remember even being young and my mom going there,” said Roy. “[John and Betsy] are very down to earth and giving people—very caring for the community and Betsy was so incredibly sweet with the kids.”
Roy said every trip to Tops was made a personal experience, “not like a chain store where you’re just another customer.”
Social media lit up with remarks about Tops Marketplace as the news of the fire spread. Many residents shared stories of how the owners had lent a hand in a time of need, be it supporting local programs like the Southington High School marching band, sending a fruit basket for a lost loved one, or supporting someone battling a terminal illness.
Salerno told supporters at the vigil that they are planning to rebuild, but he cautioned that it will take time.
The store has been the only supermarket to service the area in Plantsville since Doug Topshe founded the company in 1951. Salerno purchased it from the Topshe family in 1980, and Tops Marketplace has won awards as an independent grocers alliance (IGA) store.
From its beginnings with the Topshe family through Salerno’s era, the market has been well-known for its philanthropy with community organizations.
“John and Betsy and the Tops family have been an asset to our community and we stand behind them in this difficult time,” Town Council chair Chris Palmieri on posted on the council Facebook page Monday. “Huge appreciation goes out to our fire and police departments for extraordinary work last night despite the storm.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com. John Goralski contributed to this article.