This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Eataly World and the Future of Food Shopping, first released on October 10, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Okay, hard hat on, I have to tighten mine.
SILVIA ZANELLI: That’s the part dedicated to sweets, and you see all the big bags there, there’s sand for the beach volley inside.
GRABER: Those are the sand for the volleyball court!
NICOLA TWILLEY: No! Amazing!
OSCAR FARINETTI: Eataly World is one monument. Is same Colosseo. Is same El Duomo di Milano. Is same for you—you are American—Disneyworld.
GRABER: That’s right, there is actually a new Disneyworld-style theme park being built just for food.
TWILLEY: And we got to visit!
GRABER: In case you’re wondering who we are, we are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this week we’re in Italy. At least for part of the show. Not just for fun, I hasten to add…
GRABER: But because that’s just where the new theme park is about to open—in Bologna, in northern Italy. And it’s called Eataly World.
TWILLEY: You might have heard of Eataly—it’s spelled EAT-aly, like a mash-up of eating and Italy. It’s a store, there’s one in Chicago, LA, Boston, a couple in New York, a whole bunch in Italy and a few others around the world too—London, Tokyo, Istanbul.
GRABER: And we went to Eataly World—the ultimate Eataly—not just because we wanted to get the exclusive, behind-the-scenes, sneak peek at a site everyone is going to be buzzing about in just a few weeks.
TWILLEY: Although we totally did want to get that scoop for you. But also, we wanted to understand what Eataly World means for how we shop for food.
GRABER: This episode, we’re asking where did the modern supermarket come from? Have we always shopped for food this way? How will we shop for food in the future? And what does that say about our relationship with food?
TWILLEY: That’s the history, but you know we’re also all about the science—and so this episode we’re diving into the economic logic of food retail. Turns out grocery stores are terrible at making money. But why? And what can Eataly show us about how to make the business of selling food pay?
GRABER: And on top of all that, you’ll get to join us behind the scenes at Eataly World and go truffle hunting!
TWILLEY: OK, picture yourself in the 1800s. You need food. Where are you going to get it?
MICHAEL RUHLMAN: It would have been a sort of an old wooden structure. You walked in, there would have been a counter, and a clerk or clerks behind it. And you’d come in with a list of stuff you needed and they’d fill it.
GRABER: Michael Ruhlman wrote a book called Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. And he’s describing a log cabin. It’s literally Little House on the Prairie style.
RUHLMAN: You’d ask for a pound of nails and they’d put it in a little paper bag for you. You’d ask for a pound of sugar. You’d ask for a slab of bacon. You could get tools, shovels, shoes, any number of things. That’s how that’s how it basically was up till the Civil War.
TWILLEY: These log cabin style general stores, these were where you’d get your dried food, your cured food—anything that didn’t go bad quickly. For fresh food, most people pretty much grew their own, and then canned and preserved it for the winter.
GRABER: But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, life was changing in America. A lot of people started moving to cities, they weren’t growing and canning all their own food, they needed more options for buying food.
TWILLEY: And the market responded. You start getting shops that specialize in perishables. Greengrocers for vegetables, butchers for meat. And then the grocer, that’s where you got your boxed and canned goods.
RUHLMAN: And for decades that’s how we shopped.
GRABER: But today, that’s not how most of us in America shop for food. There’s one huge centralized store and that’s where you get everything. So how did we get to this? How did we end up with a supermarket?
TWILLEY: You don’t think of the supermarket as a thing that someone invented. But it is and they did!
RUHLMAN: It was invented by Michael Kullen. And he called it King Kullen. And it was in Queens.
GRABER: Michael Kullen worked for a normal general grocery store—again, at the time, grocery stores were stores that sold dry and canned goods. But Michael had an idea.
RUHLMAN: This Kullen fellow said we should put everything under one roof—we should have dairy here, we should sell meat, we should sell everything.
TWILLEY: So Michael went to his boss and said, how do you like my genius plan?
RUHLMAN: And he was rebuffed. And he said I’m going to go out and do this on my own. And so he found space in Jamaica, Queens, a 3000-square-foot former parking garage, and turned it into the first supermarket. A market that had produce, that had fish, that had meat, that had dairy, that had groceries. And that was the first supermarket.
GRABER: This is in the 1930s. And you might be picturing your local Safeway or Albertson’s, but scale that way down. It was much much smaller—it had only about 200 products in it.
RUHLMAN: By the 1990s, that had gone up to 7000 products, an extraordinary number. Now we have between 40,000 and 50,000 products.
TWILLEY: In other words, our supermarkets today have 200 times more products than King Kullen. Which is kind of insane.
GRABER: Michael Kullen didn’t just come up with this idea for a supermarket out of thin air. There were other changes afoot, changes in technology that made his idea possible.
RUHLMAN: What allowed this to happen was refrigeration. Once we had refrigeration, then you could have all manner of food.
TWILLEY: Hold that thought folks—we are coming back to refrigeration. Many times actually, because I’m writing a book about it right now! But refrigeration, as near and dear to my ice-cold heart as it is—that’s not the only innovation that made the supermarket possible.
RUHLMAN: For instance in 1916, Piggly Wiggly introduced individualized shopping, where you pick your own food instead of handing your list to a clerk, who would then fill your order. You go around and self-serve.
GRABER: This was how you would have done your food shopping beforehand, you would have just handed over your shopping list and trusted the clerk to choose your food. Now you need a basket to haul around the groceries you pick out yourself. That was an innovation, a basket on wheels, which was introduced in the 1930s. And then the larger shopping cart.
TWILLEY: Which I and my fellow Brits call a trolley.
GRABER: That had to be invented, too.
RUHLMAN: So all of these developments were very slow to happen. And they really wouldn’t take firm hold throughout the country until after World War II.
TWILLEY: Michael’s point is, when King Kullen first opened, it brought all these innovations together: self-service, shopping baskets, refrigeration, everything under one roof. But it still took a while for the supermarket concept to catch on elsewhere. And even at King Kullen, people shopped the old way for the most part—picking up groceries on several trips a week rather than doing one big shop for the family.
RUHLMAN: Usually the man would be working, and if there was a car he would be using it. So the woman of the household would have gone shopping three, four times a week, and would only have been able to bring back as much as she could carry.
TWILLEY: And refrigeration! That was a problem too.
RUHLMAN: Because you didn’t have a good refrigerator at home, you had a cooler, but you only it was mainly to keep leftovers. You didn’t store food in it because there wasn’t much space. So we did our shopping on a regular basis. Once we had cars and refrigerators, then we could start making big runs to the supermarket and fill up our car and fill up or pantry and fill up our big fridge.
GRABER: After World War II, people started leaving the cities in droves for the suburbs. And the Interstate highway systems were being built, and there were cheaper tracts of land for supermarkets to buy and build bigger and bigger stores on. And the country’s food system was changing, too.
RUHLMAN: All this material for making bombs and driving the war effort, now they had to find some use for it. And we ended up putting it into fertilizer for the soil and creating mass produced foods.
TWILLEY: As it happens, the nitrogen-fixing process that makes explosives is the same process you use to make fertilizer. So that was an easy switch. And then tank factories are churning out combine harvesters to allow farms to scale up. And food companies that have ramped up production to feed the military during the war—they use that capacity to fill the consumer market with processed food after the war.
RUHLMAN: So we had all this food manufacturing taking over. We had the highways and the spreading out into the suburbs, where you had plenty of parking. We had roads. We had the infrastructure of the 1950s. We had the automobile, the rise of the automobile. These are the main things that allowed us to have a supermarket that we know today, filled with processed food in giant stores surrounded by vast parking areas.
GRABER: This all sounds like what I grew up with, which are, you know, big supermarkets, with big parking lots, and basically a weekly trip to the market. That’s how Michael grew up, too.
RUHLMAN: So Saturdays were given over. That was our hunter gatherer day. We’d go and we’d collect our food for the week. And then we’d sort of stay inside and eat that food for a week and then go back out on Saturday and resupply.
GRABER: But even though these supermarkets look huge and impressive, they’re actually a really tough business to run, in terms of the economics of it all.
RUHLMAN: The food retail system, it works based on a one percent margin.
TWILLEY: One percent! I wouldn’t get out of bed for that!
RUHLMAN: That means that if you are a small— if you’re a family business with say twenty stores, doing five hundred million dollars in sales, half a billion dollars in sales, you’re still considered a small family business because you’re only making 1 percent margin. You’re only making five million on that five hundred million dollar sales, gross sales.
TWILLEY: Five million dollars sounds like a lot, but it’s really not for a business of that size with that many employees and that much overhead.
RUHLMAN: You know, what kind of business model is that? A little shift in sales can seriously fuck them up. A store remodel costs four to five million dollars. That’s a year’s profit for, you know, a business doing five hundred million dollars in sales. It’s a crazy business model. Nobody in their right mind would get into it. So I don’t know why people get into it.
GRABER: Supermarkets all basically only compete on price, and each one is trying to undercut its competitors for the cheapest block of cheddar cheese. So they make only a tiny sliver of profit for each product they sell.
RUHLMAN: We just kept driving that margin down in an effort to sell more goods and move more product. You can’t raise prices once they’re down, you just have to create bigger and bigger volume.
TWILLEY: Mom-and-pop supermarkets have mostly been bought up at this point by chains, because like Michael says, the only way you can make any money in a business with such small margins is by scaling up and selling more stuff.
GRABER: These tiny profit margins are not the only reason the supermarket business is such a challenging one. We talked about this all with Sunil Gupta—he’s a professor at Harvard Business School.
SUNIL GUPTA: So a large issue in a fresh produce department is a lot of food is wasted, which is called shrinkage. And the low margins of this industry means that shrinkage is a big part of your profitability or loss.
TWILLEY: A supermarket has lots and lots of super perishable products. That leads to a lot of shrinkage. And, like we said, the margins are terrible. And then it gets even worse for supermarkets.
RUHLMAN: Two things that happened in 1988 that really signaled the change of our food retail system. The first was Walmart decided it could sell groceries. And because of its vast distribution network was able to become the largest grocer in the country overnight, in 1988, when it introduced its first grocery stores. Once it did this, all marketers saw that anybody could sell food. And that is why other people such as Target got into the game, as did many other players.
GRABER: This might seem obvious, but I’m going to spell it out anyway: in a business that’s competing almost entirely on price, Walmart wins. They have huge warehouses. They move product all over the country incredibly efficiently. They purchase in such massive quantities that they determine the price of a lot of our food.
RUHLMAN: Grocers will shake their heads, saying you know, they are selling Capri Sun juice or whatever that juice is for the same cost that we can buy it. So how are we going to make our margins? And yet we have to sell Capri juice because our customer wants it. So they try and do as best they can, but they just can’t compete. Walmart has made the commodity food product impossible to compete with for the grocer.
TWILLEY: So that’s one huge threat to the supermarket business model.
RUHLMAN: The second thing was Whole Foods goes national. Whole Foods began in the early 80s. And in 1988, it decided to branch out buying new stores—not building new ones, but buying existing stores and opening Whole Foods in there.
GRABER: Whole Foods at the time was niche, and, even though it seems like a big deal now and people use it as a cultural meme, it still is really niche. Amazon and Whole Foods together have less than 2 percent of the grocery store market today. But Whole Foods is also important.
TWILLEY: Because it reflects and it encourages a shift in the way many Americans started thinking about food in the past couple decades. You get the rise of the farmers market, you get the start of more people caring about where their food comes from and wanting to know those stories.
RUHLMAN: That’s what it was. They made you feel closer. You know, they have a cheese person there. They have knowledgeable people in their fish departments telling you where the fish is from. They did a great job of merchandising food.
GRABER: There’s another aspect of shopping at Whole Foods that a lot of people seem to love—at least judging by the fact that Whole Foods is expanding that section of the store—and that’s the salad bar and the pizza oven and the station with all the cooked meat and mashed potatoes and stir fried tofu. The sushi counter. The pre-wrapped sandwiches.
RUHLMAN: Now with the busy American family, and our lack of cooking know-how and our lack of patience with cooking and our desire for speed and quickness and our busy lives, grocers see a bigger demand for higher quality prepared foods.
TWILLEY: We think of supermarkets as places to buy food. But increasingly they’re places that make food, too. And then sell the food they made.
GRABER: It all started pretty simply, some supermarkets would sell rotisserie chicken, maybe—and then they noticed another opportunity.
RUHLMAN: When fruit was going bad they needed to reduce shrink, the term for waste in the grocery business. So they take fruit and they’d cut it up and use it and sell it in deli cups as cut fruit.
TWILLEY: And then they started selling a few pre-prepared dishes—meatloaf, lasagna, using up pre-ground meat that hadn’t sold. And it snowballed from there.
RUHLMAN: More and more realize that people want prepared foods, they’re struggling to figure out how to make money doing it.
TWILLEY: Because yeah, the prepared foods do help with shrink—you can cook the veggies that are a little past their prime and give them a second lease on life. But it turns out that the business of selling cooked food is also a hard one to make any money in.
RUHLMAN: I mean it’s hard to make money for a restaurant. Even when that restaurant has a wine and liquor license and can sell booze and wine for triple the price, it’s hard for restaurants to make money. It’s even harder for grocery stores make money serving prepared food, because it’s so labor intensive.
GRABER: So there are already a lot of problems. Walmart’s forcing the cost of food down, people want prepared foods but that’s hard to make money on. And now?
GUPTA: The retail industry is going through a big transformation. They are under pressure from Amazons of the world.
TWILLEY: You think Walmart is big? Meet Amazon. With grocery delivery, meal kit delivery—people don’t even want to go to the store these days. They don’t have time. They want their food delivered, they want it pre-portioned and packaged and easy—even easier. And Amazon is tough to beat when it comes to online retail.
GRABER: So does that mean that brick and mortar grocery stores are totally doomed? Not necessarily. At least, Oscar Farinetti doesn’t think so.
TWILLEY: Oscar is the lunatic and visionary behind Eataly and the Eataly World theme park. And that is where we’re going next, to see what his business model can tell us about the future of food retail.
GRABER: Today, the prospects for supermarkets aren’t looking so great. But the store we told you about at the beginning of the show, Eataly—it has branches opening all over the world. So we went to Italy to talk to the founder.
TWILLEY: Picture Mario from Super Mario Brothers. He’s the short round one with the mustache and the big smile. That is Oscar Farinetti, pretty much.
FARINETTI: I know only 200 words in English. It’s terrible for me.
GRABER: But luckily Oscar mostly talks with his hands. He waves his arms around so much that the biggest challenge during the interview was making sure he didn’t hit the mic.
TWILLEY: Oscar likes to say he was born into food. His dad ran a pasta factory and a coffee roaster. And then when Oscar was 18, his dad opened a mega Walmart-style combo grocery store-department store.
FARINETTI: Because my father was one entrepreneur-poet with big vision. And opening 1972 the first hyper market—one of the first hypermarket in Italy.
GRABER: Oscar started to work with his dad six years later, and pretty much the first thing he did was tell his dad that he wanted to get out of the grocery business entirely and specialize in electronics.
FARINETTI: I understand in the second day that this work will be the future. Remember, we stay in 1978. In Italy, the television was black and white.
TWILLEY: And record players were the size of houses. But Oscar saw the future. He realized that the next twenty years were going to see huge innovation in electronics. But he also found these clunky 70s era appliances kind of amazing already.
FARINETTI: But for me for example one washing machine don’t was one washing machine. Was one magic white box. When you introduce (ITALIAN).
TWILLEY: To translate: Oscar is saying you might see just a washing machine, but he sees a magical white box, a box where you can put in dirty things and clean ones come out!
FARINETTI: You understand? This is my vision. Was incredible, no?
GRABER: What was genuinely incredible was Oscar’s flair for the dramatic, even when he was selling things like washing machines or refrigerators. He’d ship fridges full of food as a surprise. He’d send a book along with a huge television to remind people to keep reading. And Oscar got rich.
TWILLEY: In the 80s and 90s, Oscar was boss of an entire chain of electronics stores called UniEuro. It was like the Italian version of RadioShack, but less depressing.
GRABER: But then in 2002, he sold the business to go back into food. Why?
TWILLEY: Again, Oscar saw the future. He saw those early Nokia flip phones and he read the writing on the wall.
FARINETTI: Before this I sell one telephone, one organizer, one stereo, one photo camera, one video camera. We sell many products. Now all in this.
GRABER: Oscar is waving his iPhone around as he speaks.
FARINETTI: Is terrible, is not work.
TWILLEY: But there was something else. His whole life, Oscar has been in love with food. Electronics was just a fling.
FARINETTI: I love to eat when I born. Every time of my life. Is very normal for one people that born in Alba. Alba is the capital of the best food in Italy. Is the land of Barolo, Barbaresco, white truffle…
GRABER: Oscar’s first foray into the food world—that wasn’t such a hit. He started a restaurant.
FARINETTI: The name was Osteria (ITALIAN). It was one crash terrible. Because I don’t understand that is no possible only restoration.
GRABER: He means restaurant.
FARINETTI: Is no good. And after I have new idea of the integration.
TWILLEY: And this is Oscar’s genius insight: the integration. If I wanted to sound like a business school professor, I’d say, “the synergy.” Like we said, the restaurant business is a tough one. The supermarket business is just as bad.
GRABER: And that’s the thing you need to understand about Eataly. It’s this weird hybrid of two businesses that are equally difficult to make any money in, and yet, somehow, it makes money.
TWILLEY: Sunil Gupta, the Harvard Business school professor we talked to earlier—he’s so intrigued by this he wrote an entire case study on Eataly.
GUPTA: Given that the world is going online and Amazon is going to start Amazon Fresh and everybody else, the transaction based model is not going to survive on its own.
TWILLEY: Sunil, like everyone else we talked to, thinks that the traditional supermarket is pretty much doomed. But Eataly is selling food and making money, and Sunil wanted to know how.
GRABER: Turns out there are a number of reasons. First, they’ve cracked the prepared foods problem. Like at a lot of supermarkets, they use the food that is starting to look not quite so fresh, but is still totally fine and tasty. It goes to one of the store’s many restaurants and is transformed into a delicious dish.
FARINETTI: For example, the fish. The fish. OK. In my store of the fish, the first day is for to sell. In the second when is go in the restaurant. I don’t have nothing in the third day, you understand? Vai!
TWILLEY: So far, so similar to Whole Foods. But Eataly’s prepared foods are a little different—Eataly has entire mini-restaurants inside the store, where you can sit down and order restaurant-priced food and you can drink wine, which helps the bottom line too. Plus, because the restaurants are in a grocery store, people don’t linger as much and you can turn the tables faster. Whereas in most restaurants, profits are limited by the amount of people you can seat. It’s a win-win.
GRABER: Oscar’s figured out another way to make this hybrid work. Eataly’s system for cutting waste also means the menu at Eataly restaurants keeps changing, which keeps them exciting and new for repeat customers. And then what’s more, customers who’ve eaten a tasty thing in those restaurants, well, they’re much more likely to buy that tasty thing on their way out the door.
GUPTA: If you can easily find the same product that you just ate, right five feet away, there is much more greater likelihood that you’ll actually stop at the counter and pick up that that meat or cheese or whatever pasta—that you’ll say, oh let me try it myself. And by the way they provide the school just in case you want to learn more. So I think they sort of figured out that the desire of consumers to act on that impulse is much higher when they just had a great experience.
GRABER: A great experience—that’s a description you never hear about a visit to the grocery store. But this is where Oscar’s magic really lies. At the new Eataly store in downtown Boston, there are four restaurants and an Italian-style grocery store and a fishmonger and a cooking school. You can take classes on how to make that delicious pasta dish you just ate. You can watch the pasta maker behind the glass. It’s theater.
TWILLEY: And this brings us back to the other big trend in food retail, other than prepared foods. Merchandising, storytelling, turning grocery shopping into an experience. Like we said, Whole Foods started down this path back in the 80s. But Oscar has taken it to a whole ‘nother level.
FARINETTI: One big space when it’s possible to buy what you eat and is possible to eat what you buy. And is possible to learn all, no? This is the secret of my company.
GRABER: Shop, eat, learn—that’s the Eataly mantra. You hear it all the time there.
TWILLEY: It’s the washing machine trick all over again. The same way Oscar made home appliances thrilling—now he does that for food.
GRABER: Oscar pointed out that when you go to a store to buy a cell phone, there’s like a few paragraphs of description to convince you to buy say a Samsung instead of an iPhone. But at the grocery store, if you’re looking at five different kinds of apples? You get the name and the price. That’s it. Whole Foods started telling stories about food with little profiles of farmers, but that didn’t go far enough for Oscar.
FARINETTI: For this reason born Eataly because I don’t understand because these product don’t have one storytelling fantastic. When call me, ma, why you invent Eataly? For to describe one apple.
TWILLEY: Unsurprisingly, when Oscar first began writing his apple poetry, 10 years ago, everyone thought he was completely insane.
FARINETTI: Is all my life that the people think that I’m crazy. But I like.
GUPTA: He’s a—I think I’d call him a maverick or a visionary in some ways. So the lesson is how you can take an old traditional industry and completely reimagine that.
TWILLEY: And Oscar’s blend of shopping, eating, and learning—it’s a success. Italians actually shop at Eataly. And now he’s opened stores all over the world. Eataly rakes in tens of millions of dollars in profit each year.
GRABER: But reinventing the grocery store business was never enough for Oscar. From the very beginning, when he opened his first store in Torino, he had a grand plan for something more. Eataly World.
FARINETTI: Ah. Was my dream from the day after the opening of Torino. Because we have the integration of three activities, very important. To buy, to eat, and to learn. But the agricultural and the transformation?
TWILLEY: They were missing. The story of farming, the story of food processing—that part of the story still needed to be told. And Oscar had an idea for how to do it.
ZANELLI: We will have small lambs, yes, will be born here. But also cows, yes.
GRABER: Will people be able to see them giving birth?
TOMAS BARTOLI: I don’t know—why not?
GRABER: We were shown around the Eataly World site by Tomas Bartoli, he’s the architect for Eataly World. And Silvia Zanelli works in the communication department, she translated.
TWILLEY: Poor Tomas. He’s an architect, he’s used to working on grocery stores. Now he’s trying to figure out how to deal with pregnant pigs and mountains of animal poo.
GRABER: Tomas told us the poop will get carted off and composted. Eataly World will smell lovely. But yes, people can visit baby lambs and lemon groves and pasta factories. There are two hundred types of animals, two thousand types of plants.
ZANELLI: These are some of the fruit trees.
GRABER: We see figs.
ZANELLI: Yeah, figs, there are peach trees, and uh…
GRABER: There’s cheese makers making the cheese right there in front of your eyes.
TWILLEY: And a windmill grinding grain and an olive oil press making olive oil.
BARTOLI: This is production of sauces. It’s a corner of pasta. This is the vegetarian corner, vegetables corner.
GRABER: There’s 25 different restaurants. And then there’s a mini golf course.
TWILLEY: Eataly World is 20 acres in total, so that’s about a quarter the size of Disneyland. They’re expecting 10 million visitors a year, which is only a little less than Disneyland actually. And Eataly World is Oscar Farinetti’s pride, joy, and crowning achievement. It was still a building site when we visited. But picture a huge former fruit and vegetable warehouse with a cathedral ceiling, except for now it’s surrounded by greenhouses and little paddocks and vineyards.
GRABER: As far as actual Disney-like rides go… so, Oscar did tell us there would be rides. But what he calls rides? Turns out they’re more like museum installations where you learn about the human relationship with fire or with beer or whatever. There will be a holographic fire. But don’t expect thrills and spills. On the other hand, you can pick up a specially designed Bianchi bicycle—it has a basket in the front and one in the back with a refrigerated container—and you can ride your bike down the length of the whole place. It’s about three-quarters of a mile from end to end.
TWILLEY: There’s even a section on the future of food.
ZANELLI: So digitally you see all the plants growing, but actually you will be able to do it yourself for real. You take the little seed, you plant it, there will be webcams there so you can actually monitor your plant growing.
TWILLEY: It’s cool, you can watch your little tomato seedling growing on your cellphone, and then when it’s grown you can go back and pick it up! Which is really cute.
GRABER: And in fact Oscar’s vision of the future of food is, unsurprisingly, pretty rose-tinted.
TWILLEY: We talked to Sebastiano Sardo, he used to work with the Slow Food organization before he joined Eataly. And now he’s the one who’s in charge of figuring out how to get all the animals, plants, and food artisans all together in one giant theme park. But he told us, not everything gets the green light.
SEBASTIANO SARDO: There was the project of getting some insects also because they’re starting to raise insects for food but we didn’t feel it so attractive. I don’t know. It was, bah.
TWILLEY: We may all be eating insects in 20 years, but that’s not part of the Eataly World experience. It’s a theme park. But Oscar really does want visitors to understand more of the story behind their food, the way it’s grown and processed. That’s something he tries to communicate with words and pictures at a regular Eataly store. But there’s something magical about seeing it in person.
GRABER: Not all of Oscar’s poetic dreams can be translated into reality, though.
SARDO: The buffaloes. I would have loved to have some buffaloes but it was difficult.
GRABER: You need water buffalo milk to make the famous Italian buffalo mozzarella. But the buffaloes? Even Sebastiano couldn’t make that work.
SARDO: Because they need more space and they need more space, they don’t need the context full of people like this one. They’re quite wild. And we’ve been told that buffaloes can become very nervous about it. So we decided not to put them.
TWILLEY: No one wants to deal with an anxious water buffalo. And then there’s the issue of the white truffles.
SARDO: The truffles—allore.
TWILLEY: Yep. White truffles are very delicious, but we don’t actually know how to farm them. So, during truffle season, fresh truffles, harvested somewhere else, will have to be buried in the ground every night, for visitors to go quote truffle hunting with specially trained dogs the next day.
GRABER: Hey, it’s a theme park. Not everything in there is real.
TWILLEY: So there’s no bugs and no water buffaloes. Instead, there’s lots and lots of poetry. But here’s the thing: poems don’t pay the bills. And Eataly World is going to be free—no hundred dollar Disney park pass there. So how is Oscar making this all add up?
ZANELLI: Yeah, there will be no entrance ticket here, so money will come from the people’s experiences. So their choice is to attend courses, events, eat here, buy food.
GRABER: Tiziana Primori is the CEO of FICO, the company that was created to run Eataly World. She’s got decades of experience in the business world. She fully expects to have Eataly World make money, and she has the business plans to show for it.
TWILLEY: First, nothing you do once you get inside Eataly World is free. The truffle hunting? That costs money. So do the pasta-making classes. And the gelato you’ll eat after your beach volleyball. And of course all the meals and drinks you can consume there, and all the groceries you’ll buy to make those same meals at home.
ZANELLI: Everything will be paid at the end, so the cashier will be at the end.
GRABER: So any event you decide to do, it just kind of gets ticked off and then?
ZANELLI: Yes, yes, exactly.
TWILLEY: Man, that could be dangerous.
GRABER: Yeah, I think that’s kinda the point! And on top of visitors—tourists and locals alike—dropping serious cash on all the food and activities, then there’s the hospitality side of the business. There’s a giant conference center.
TWILLEY: There’s a dancefloor, there’s even a chapel if you want to get married at Eataly World. So that hospitality stuff, that’s another revenue stream. And then, Sunil Gupta told us, there’s the intangible value.
GUPTA: So Eataly World by itself may still make money. But the impact of Eataly world will be far more on the stores around the world.
GRABER: Sunil thinks that the impact of Eataly World—and all the millions of people who’ll visit—it’ll help make Eataly even more of a global brand. After experiencing Eataly World, all those tourists will then want to visit the Eataly stores in their home countries. And Oscar’s pretty confident he’s going to be able to entice millions of people to Bologna.
FARINETTI: I want that in the future the foreign tourists come in Italy say, OK, I want to go in Venice, in Florence, and in Eataly World. And I think that will be.
TWILLEY: This wonderland of food is opening its doors to the public in just a few weeks, on the 15th of November. And I actually really want to go back! When I first heard about Eataly World, I thought it sounded like a total nightmare. Disney is my personal version of hell and plus, you know, like any good urban hipster, I’m all about the tiny undiscovered gems rather than malls and megastores. But Oscar’s enthusiasm is contagious. And I’m curious—I want to see if he can pull it off.
GRABER: Yeah. I mean, I was afraid that it really was like Disney, like crazy kitschy rides and chocolate fountains everywhere. Not that I have anything against chocolate fountains. But it sounds like a lot of fun. I want to see the cheese being made and the olive oil press and the grape harvest. Plus I wouldn’t mind searching for truffles, even if they’re planted. As long I get to eat them afterwards.
TWILLEY: But we are talking about how we shop for food this episode. And is Eataly World really the future of food retail? I mean, even Oscar thinks it’s a one-off—he’s not planning to build another.
GRABER: We’re probably not going to see an Eataly World-style store in every town. Still, retailers are seeing some of the same trends that Oscar predicted a decade ago, and they’re starting to follow suit. Some Whole Foods, for instance, they have fancy all-glass meat aging rooms built into the store, in-store taco trucks, roof-deck farms and restaurants. Sunil predicts more and more food businesses are going to have to learn from Oscar’s model to survive in an Amazon-dominated world.
GUPTA: Almost every supermarket is moving up this experience path.
TWILLEY: It’s a trend that Michael sees, too. In his book, Grocery, he followed his local Cleveland supermarket chain called Heinen’s. And their newest store is more than a little like an Eataly.
RUHLMAN: You know, you walk in there. It’s a powerful force. It’s like a cathedral of food.
GRABER: And the point is, this new Heinen’s in downtown Cleveland is a place for shoppers to do more than just buy food. It’s an experience.
RUHLMAN: They can go upstairs and have a glass of wine, 40 different wines, or they can have six to eight different kinds of craft beers. They can get a hot meal. There’s a vast salad bar, salads made daily. It’s virtually a full service restaurant, where you can actually buy the wine at at normal retail prices. People are meeting there. They have, you know, socials, they have oysters on Friday nights, and things like that. So it’s serving more as a social hub. And then you’ve got the people who live in the area coming in for their Cheerios and their potatoes and their milk and coffee.
TWILLEY: But that part—the Cheerios aisle—that’s the part of the supermarket that’s endangered. It’s too easy to get those commodity, non-perishable goods delivered by Amazon the very same afternoon, for less.
GRABER: There may always be some sort of cheap grocery store around for people who need something immediately. There may. But Michael walked around this gorgeous new Cleveland Heinen’s, and he asked owner Jeff Heinen what he thought the future of his business held.
RUHLMAN: And he looked out over the vast sort of center of the store, where all the commodity goods are, the Cheerios and the soda waters and the paper towels and the cake mixes and all that stuff. He said, you know, I see the center of the store shrinking. You know, this is all going to go away. And all we’re going to have is the specialty goods. You know, as grocers, we may go back to where we started, being purveyors of a very fine specialty goods. That may be our future.
TWILLEY: It makes sense. The supermarket was born in a particular time and place—it fit the logic of suburbs and cars and a society that wanted cheaper and cheaper food. Today, there are new forces in play: online shopping and delivery, a growing concern for where our food comes from. And so how we buy food will change, to reflect that. That’s the real lesson of Eataly—that the places we shop for food are a way to understand our evolving relationship with food.
FARINETTI: Now we got to eat because I like to eat, sorry.
GRABER: Yes, I think it’s very important. And with that, Oscar dropped the mic. And so will we.
GRABER: Once again, a huge, huge thanks to Toni Mazzaglia for translating and making everything happen. Go to Florence and take her food tour: tasteflorence.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Silvia Zanelli for helping coordinate our visit to FICO Eataly World, and everyone at Eataly who spoke with us. You can see pictures from our exclusive behind the scenes visit on our website, gastropod.com.
GRABER: Thanks also to Sunil Gupta of Harvard Business School and Michael Ruhlman. His new book is called Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with a special Halloween theme.
JAMES COLE: Yes. So thankfully I didn’t actually do any sort of uh—I didn’t have to do any practical elements for the study. I did do quite extensive research and I really couldn’t find anything that was done on a concrete kind of way to establish the calorie values of a human.