1/31/2013 12:02:00 PM

Eataly Explosion: Inside the Italian Market's Success and Expansion Plans

Just step one foot into New York City’s Eataly, and it becomes immediately apparent that the brand is still as hot as a freshly-fired pizza pie, even nearly three years after opening. And with 10,000-15,000 visitors per day, there’s no sign of the Italo-enthusiasm slowing down.

Founder Oscar Farinetti, who opened the original Eataly in 2007 in Turin, along with more than a dozen other locations throughout Italy and Japan, teamed up with restaurant powerhouses Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joseph Bastianich to open the New York branch, the first in the U.S. The 50,000 square-foot shrine to pasta, salumi, gelato and all things Italian-oriented debuted in August 2010. Now further expansion is planned for Dubai, Brazil, Turkey and the U.K., while a Chicago branch is firmly set for the fall. It doesn’t end there. Farinetti just inked a deal to include the emporium and its restaurants on MSC cruise ships.

Lidia Bastianich cites the authenticity and quality of the products for Eataly’s explosion, adding that piazza-like concept resonates with shoppers and diners. “Eataly is for me like bringing a block of Italy to NYC. The way the food is displayed, the way aromas flow, the way tastings are offered, the quality of the products and the focus on artisans feels like a little corner of Italy in Manhattan. And it’s also a social phenomenon. It’s a gathering place. People come, you have something to eat, and you go around with a cart shopping with a glass of wine. How civilized is that?”

When the behemoth first opened in New York, however, business owners in Little Italy complained to the New York Post that by taking away business from smaller groceries and restaurants, Eataly was “giving Mulberry Street the pointy end of the boot.” But three years later, the sentiment Downtown seems to have changed.

Little Italy Merchants Association President, and Sambuca's Cafe owner, Ralph Tramontana says: “In retrospect, I can say that Eataly and Little Italy complement each other. There is absolutely room for both. If you want to shop indoors, with a huge variety, go to Eataly. If you want a family atmosphere or family-owned business, and to walk and shop in an entire historic district, come to Little Italy. I’m actually proud as an Italian that something like Eataly exists and that there has been this huge explosion of interest in Italian food. I've been in business 18 years. When I first opened, people wouldn’t know the difference between a cannoli and calamari. Now people know more because of exposure from places like Eataly.”

Other high-profile Italian purveyors feel the same way, “I think that Eataly has helped increase the availability of quality Italian products,” says Cesare Casella, chef and owner of Salumeria Rosi on New York’s Upper East and Upper West side. “I think that they have continued to do what I have done with Salumeria on a larger scale. We think the same way and have the same philosophy and I think they are helping to increase the variety of the Italian food scene in New York.”

That variety is certainly staggering - according to Eataly’s spokespeople, the emporium sells over 70 different types of olive oil; makes 1,000 pounds of mozzarella per week; uses over 28 legs of prosciutto a week; and between the restaurants and retail, sell about 6000 and 6,500 pounds of pasta per week. (At holiday time the number leaps to 8,500 pounds).

New York’s Eataly has expanded its own right since opening, too, by enlarging its cooking school, La Scuola, and adding Birreria, a 150-seat beer garden to the 9 other restaurants and cafes. They have also reorganized some of the shelving for better crowd flow, something they don’t anticipate be an issue in Chicago, which will have 10,000 more square feet than the New York branch.

But will what works in New York play in the Midwest too? “I hope so,” says Chicago chef Tony Mantuano, owner of Spiaggia, Terzo Piano and Bar Toma in the Windy City. “Eataly will be a welcome addition that helps put the stamp of approval on what we are trying to do here. I don’t know if it will be as much a game-changer in Chicago as it will already reinforce a lot of the good stuff that is going on out here. Our clientele will now have more reference points - for example, we are using real balsamic vinegar from Emilia-Romagna - and to be able to tell people where they can buy it really helps to educate as to what the real deal is. The more examples of that, the more people will come and eat at our restaurant as well.”

Mantuano does have one tip for the Chicago shop, however, “The only word of caution for Eataly is…I’m not sure your New York prices will work here. I remember the last time I was there, I saw this salumi, and I thought it looked great, and I grabbed it and took it to the counter and check out. My wife was with me and I was looking around and she asked, ‘Did you really mean to pay $62 for salumi??’ That might not work in Chicago.”

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