Amy Trubek: My conversation with food scholars of Italy revealed a shared belief that there is much potential for a collaborative, global research endeavor about the phenomenon that is Eataly – ranging from how it is organized, the values underlying it, and the consequences of its ever expanding empire. Here, Elisa Ascione provides crucial context for any further study.
Elisa Ascione, Umbra Institute
Eataly opened its first shop in 2007 in Turin, with a partnership with Slow Food. The creator, Oscar Farinetti, believed that Carlo Petrini’s mantra “good, clean and fair” could be incorporated into his vision of a new kind of supermarket. Farinetti was already a successful businessman, founder of a chain of electronics stores. He also hails from Piemonte, and had known Carlo Petrini for years. With the creation of Eataly, many of the Slow Food principles were used as strategies to create a place where smaller artisanal productions could be sold creating better wages for producers, and where consumer could be educated on different production methods, on the importance of origins, high quality and taste. It has been argued that Eataly, at least when it started, was an interesting model since it incorporated many of the ideals of alternative food movements (for example eating local and economic de-growth) into a successful modern retail chain (Venturini, 2008. p.2.)
Eataly, in fact, suggests that modern markets and technologies are not antithetic to traditional, highly localized practices, and although producers are asked to adapt to, and sometimes reach, new quality standards, they can actually benefit from the brand that Eataly provides. Eataly, for example, must follow strict standard hygiene checks, and for instance, some producers have been trained to follow those procedures, for example eliminating molds on some cheeses. Eataly has also a “fidelity and justice” contract with some of the producers, offering a three-year sale contract in exchange of the promise of not raising prices during that time. Eataly is in general more dependent on its providers than standard supermarkets, since they offer rare and unique products that cannot be easily replaced (Bosello, 2014.).
Overall, Eataly does not compete with other large retailers, but defines itself as complementary to them. For example, they emphasize less consumption and less waste: “Buy only what you need…but of good quality,” you can read on the walls of its malls. They want to convey the meaning that higher prices do not necessarily mean elite consumption patterns, if people pay “the right price” for products, but simply consume and waste less. However, since Eataly participates as a main stakeholder in many of the companies that produce food (such as water, wine, bread, salumi, and many more,) they are also able to keep their prices at a competitive level. Furthermore, just like standard supermarkets, Eataly employs people without specific expertise on the products (excluding the chefs and the category managers) allowing the use of a more flexible and cheaper labor force (Bosello, 2014).
Eataly offers products from large artisanal and medium-large industrial companies, and the boundary between the two is at times blurred. Starting with offering only unique and, even in Italy, not easy to source specialties, now Eataly also offers widely available Italian products. With the increasingly global scope of the Eataly stores, the meaning of such products might be transformed once on the shelves of Eataly’s marketsand bazaars(Colombino, 2018 p.80). As Annalisa Colombino explains, at Eataly even ordinary brands and products become part of an “imagined, epicurean, authentic Italian lifestyle” (p.81). She shows how the meaning of “local” food shifts with its international expansion, as many Eataly malls buy groceries, meat and fish from local farms, like the New York store that claims to make 70 per cent of their revenue from U.S.-based products, thus benefiting local suppliers. Italian producers have also benefited from the partnership with Eataly, Colombino explains: for example, thanks to the supply of Piedmontese beef sent to Eataly, a group of sixty farmers was able to keep their farms rather than closing them down as large retails were imposing on them the payment of low prices (p.83).
As many other grandi opere (large scale projects) in Italy, Eataly has been strongly debated across the political spectrum. Despite its success, some authors and commentators argue that Eataly has come to“betray” of Slow Food ideals, transforming ideals of change into a more mundane supermarket. Author Wolf Bukoski in his “La danza delle mozzarelle” criticizes the romantic narrative of the contadinoand small Italian producers used to sell more products, but de factostripped of any political relevance. The author claims that Eataly is in business with a powerful landowner of 900.000 hectares of land in Mapuche in Patagonia, while praising “farmers’ resistance”; it talks about “authenticity” while creating an artificial Disneyland for foodies. For the author, eating quality artisanal foods, as Eataly preaches, cannot bring any societal change, while change in social inequalities will also bring a change as far as consumption goes, including the ability to afford quality products. According to critics of this model, places like Eataly appeal to lofty leftist ideas of the artisan and the small producer that have survived global mass production, in order to fully participate in that very same market, not offering a real alternative, but creating a new elite brand around authenticity.
It’s interesting to note that Eataly has become a tourism destination itself, both in Italy and abroad. With the opening of FICO Eataly World, the shift towards the theme park, rather than the supermarket, is even more evident. FICO’s aim is to preserve“the heritage of Italian agri-food biodiversity”and teach people “about the culture, traditions, and craftsmanshipthat make Italian food the most famous in the world (with) tours to explore crops, animals, and factories, classes, multimedia rides, and restaurants.” With its 8,000 sqm theme park outside of Bologna, it represents and hosts some of the most famous artisanal and industrial Italian products, factories and restaurants. With three million visitors in the first year (over 70% from outside Bologna), and 50 million euros revenues, they are however still behind the 6 million visitors expected from the third year. FICO’s aim is to sell products and services, but also to educate by showing certain parts of the procedures of iconic Italian foods. It is in part like a museum of Italian foods, and as such there is curation.
Even if Eataly has been linked, at least in its beginning, to the political left and it has incorporated some of the ideals of alternative food movements, it would be delusional to expect that a supermarket, privately owned and embedded in the global late-capitalist market, could be a real “revolutionary” force. Smaller artisanal Italian producers struggle to survive because of the price of land, because of Italian bureaucracy, because of competition with cheaper international goods, because of organized crime, and for a multitude of political, economic and structural reasons that should be publicly addressed and changed. Although Eataly incorporates some of the Slow Food ideals (that do offer powerful critiques to contemporary food systems,) I do not really expect a private business to create any radical change. I think that we must turn to our politicians for that. On the other hand, I think that by actively creating new narratives around Italian foods, places like Eataly and FICO can probably help the Italian economy in increasing the volume of export of foods abroad by feeding on the imaginaries of local and international touristic consumptions.