The man behind the Eataly food empire is opening a massive attraction — part permanent trade fair, part agro-food theme park — that aims to create a showcase for excellence in Italian food.
Eataly's owner Oscar Farinetti hopes Eataly World, opening Nov. 15 in Bologna, will boost tourism and even food exports. The experience is designed to increase demand for Italian food along with brand loyalty and consumer interest in the 150 or so food businesses represented.
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Eataly already has nearly 40 stores worldwide, the newest one in Los Angeles. The company intends to list a 30 percent stake on the Milan stock exchange in 2018 or 2019.
Visitors to Eataly World can follow food production from field and stall right to their plates. They'll see grain growing in the fields, milled into flour, processed into pasta and served at the table. Workshops will show how to refine rice and hunt for truffles, along with cooking classes for making fresh pasta, sorbetto or pizza.
Eataly World includes 47 restaurants and bars, some 40 production areas making everything from gelato to candied fruit, 22 gardens and half a dozen stalls with cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. The site, covering 100,000 square meters (more than 1 million square feet) in a former wholesale fruit and vegetable market on the outskirts of Bologna.
Farinetti wants to do for Italian food what Milan Fashion Week has done for Italy's ready-to-wear industry: Create a global showcase for excellence that stimulates demand across the sector.
"I hope that this becomes the most important place in the world for whoever wants to study food, eat well and understand the history of food," Farinetti said during a preview this week. "In this, we need to think big, like in the fashion world."
He said his goal is to showcase "the simplicity of Italian food."
"Italian cooking, unlike that of the French, was created in the house. It was invented by our great-great-great grandmothers. Since it was born in home kitchens, it needs to be simple. But it is difficult to be simple, because it needs to start from the earth, and you need to have healthy soil, with very little chemicals," he said.
Eataly reported a loss of 11 million euros in 2016, down from a profit of 713,000 euros the year before, as revenues dipped 15 percent due to stronger competition and the end of a boost from the Expo 2015 world's fair. The company hopes new stores and greater efficiency will restore profitability.
Its Italian name FICO stands for Fabbrica Italiana Contadina, or Italian Peasant Factory. The acronym has a double-entendre: Fico means fig in Italian, or cool in Italian slang.
Fabrizio De Filippis, a professor of agriculture policy at Rome's state university, praised the initiative as a first to bring together Italian agriculture, the processing industry, gastronomy, commerce and tourism.
"It is exactly the incarnation of this capacity to put together these various pieces, which in the past didn't have much love for each other," De Filippis said.
Farinetti is aiming for 6 million visitors a year, half from abroad, for Eataly World. Its 150 food businesses represent the best of Italian regional food, like seafood from coastal Rimini and lamb skewers from southern Puglia. Farinetti hopes visitors will want to travel to those places to experience the origins of the food they've sampled at Eataly.
"If we want to double tourism, we need them to go to the provinces, which are wonderful. We can't have them just go to Florence and Venice, which are already packed," Farinetti said. "I would like them to see where things are created. The valleys of Taggia, that marvel, and all its olive oil presses. I would like them to go see the pasta makers of Gragnano, south of Naples. We need to convince the tourists to come see the Po Delta, Salento, the lakes, Arab-Norman Palermo."
Food and agriculture contribute 187 billion euros a year to Italy's economy, or more than 11 percent of GDP. The food industry has functioned as a driver for economic recovery, with exports in the first six months of this year growing by 11 percent, according to the Coldiretti agricultural lobby. Germany, France and the United States are the top three markets.