Food May 2007

The Supermarket of the Future

An exciting new Italian bazaar makes Whole Foods look like the A&P—and it’s coming to America.

Purists long upset by the corporate banners at the Salone see Slow Food’s role in launching Eataly—it provided a team of veteran tasters and opened its address book of artisans—as the definitive sellout. Slow Food itself is taking a somewhat cautious approach to the collaboration. It’s strictly a consulting arrangement, Roberto Burdese, Petrini’s longtime right hand and now the head of Slow Food Italy, told me. Slow Food continues to forbid the use of its snail logo on any product label. If the great care Eataly has taken in choosing its products were to be compromised, Burdese told me, or its commitment to local and small producers eroded, Slow Food would not renew its current agreement with Eataly.

Nothing much is likely to stop Farinetti, an informal man with a halo of curly gray hair, a wide, open face, and a friendly but shrewd expression. I got the sense that the fun he’s having with the market would be worth the 20 million euros he has already put into it. And Eataly, he told me, with a daily average of 8,000 visitors, is already headed into the black in its first year. He plans to open markets in nine other Italian cities, beginning in Genoa and going across and then down the country. In each place he will look for city-center, not suburban-mall, buildings, like the vermouth factory he restored in Turin, and offer host cities free restoration in exchange for concessionary rents. He also plans to open a small Eataly (8,000 square feet as compared with 118,000 in Turin) in Rockefeller Center, with two restaurants, next year—a showcase for the Italian chain, with Italian packaged goods. He mentioned even grander dreams of opening full-scale Eatalys in the New York City metropolitan area, but more in the five-year than one-year range.

Farinetti says he made his fortune selling optimism. Actually it was appliances, in a chain of a hundred markets that grew out of an electronics section in the supermarket started by his father, a third-generation pasta maker. The chain’s witty, peppy commercials juxtaposed washing machines with flocks of birds symbolizing hope. But however great his success (he sold the chain in 2002 for around 500 million euros), Farinetti wanted to get back into the original family business. Even while in the appliance business, he had started buying restaurants (he now owns 10), and once he got out of it he bought interests in several producers he particularly liked—and a pasta maker south of Naples outright. Farinetti grew up in Piedmont, a friend and contemporary of Petrini’s, and like Petrini had a socialist family background; his father was an officer in the partisan resistance during World War II. Farinetti took a strong interest in Petrini’s Slow Food from the start, and has given money to the organization’s new University of Gastronomic Sciences, some of whose graduates he already employs.

His full-steam-ahead approach and relatively unlimited resources worry artisanal-food supporters. Eataly will suck small producers dry, they told me when I visited. (Practically every conversation I had in and around Turin began, “Have you been to Eataly?”) Artisans will denature themselves struggling to increase production, only to be stranded when Eataly finds a cheaper competitor and stops ordering, the worriers said; Eataly muddies the small-producer message by stocking some products made by big companies. Piero Rondolino is the owner of Acquerello, a producer of excellent organic Piedmont rice for risotto. “Lavazza and Novi don’t need any more publicity,” he said, speaking of two big and successful Piedmont food producers represented on Eataly shelves. “I do.”

The counterarguments Farinetti offered me reflect his take-a-chance optimism. He encourages producers not to promise Eataly all of what they can make, he said, so that they will retain a healthy diversity of customers. If small producers don’t seize on this chance to grow, when can they? Who else will help them dream the big dream? According to Farinetti, the cooperative that raises the rare-breed meat Eataly sells (a co-op in which he has a financial interest) was already telling other Piedmont livestock farmers that if they changed their feed to include more grass and less commercial feed, they could now have a guaranteed market; the co-op is achieving its first expansion after years of trying to attract new farmers. The point is to get young people to see artisanal food as a viable career option and to lift artisanal foods out of their elitist ghetto. Niche is the most vulgar word I know,” he said.

Farinetti, then, is making his own rules and having a very good time doing it. Yes, Eataly prominently features the wares of companies he already owns or has invested in (including the meat cooperative). Nearly every shopper buys a package of pasta—often his Pasta di Gragnano—and in the market’s separate mineral-water room, the most visible brand is Lurisia, in which he has a controlling interest. But his philosophy and whimsy are visible too. Most of the water, his and the competition’s, is sold in glass, which Farinetti (rightly) thinks makes it taste better. And he sought out and sells a fizzy, not-too-sweet lemon soda in a trim bottle with a finger-friendly crease near the top and a little glass ball at the neck—a drink and a bottle that had been out of circulation for 40 years, and a cause of nostalgic tears for many of the pensioners who populate the market in the morning. His goal was to create a bazaar, a casbah, and he succeeded. Eataly is drawing attention to individual producers with a specificity, completeness, and lack of dilution by house and industrial brands that no supermarket in the United States can match.

In the packaged-foods area a whole set of shelves is devoted to different sizes of empty canning jars that Eataly commissioned from the French glassmaker Saint-Gobain. (A line of nicely designed and cheap china, glass, and tools is sold in a separate department.) Why? Because the best food is the kind you grow and put up yourself. So far, at least, the messages Eataly sends are the ones everyone who buys food should get.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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