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Despite Global Turbulence, Italian Food Operators are Alive and Well in the Greater Bay Area

Story by Francine Brevetti  / Edited by Paolo Pontoniere

Italian Americans cherish their traditional cuisine, especially those products imported directly from Italy. But can Italian Americans rely on this precious resource during a pandemic? Or will the advent of the global Italian food operator Eataly change this arena for the better? 


Since the March 2020 onset of Covid, the producers, importers, and purveyors of Italian food products have experienced bumpy fortunes in supplying these favorite products to their customers in Northern California.


Italfoods, which imports food products from Italy, found that the closure of restaurants increased the public's need to cook at home. Retail businesses were left in short supply of many products loyal customers craved. 


Richard Armanino, director of sales and purchasing, says the pandemic spurred the company to introduce new products to the North American marketplace, like the latest brands of flours, pasta, sauces, and baking mixes from Italy.


"We have had steady growth over the last three years. (Despite Covid) we didn't panic or let go of people. We stayed too to our core values, and it has served us well," he notes.

But importers of Italian wines have had more difficult challenges. Both Siena Imports and Villa Italia have suffered from the closure of restaurants, their main customers.


Jason Chietti, vice president and sales manager of Siena Imports, reports this company suffered a double blow with the lockdown. Not only did its restaurant customers close, but the importer had already lost Whole Foods--its most significant client--when billionaire Jeff Bezos acquired that grocery chain. Since then, Siena Imports has been recovering, he says. "We've gotten better clients from those who are not interested in following a multinational entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos. People are going back to their local delis. We work now more with small independent grocery stores and wine shops."


What will he and the close-knit community of Italian food importers say when Eataly opens in San Jose on June 16, 2022? 


Eataly started in Turin in 2007 and has grown to almost 40 countries, with seven in the USA. Founder Oscar Farinetti explained his goal was "to gather high-quality food at sustainable and reasonable prices for all, celebrate Italian biodiversity, and create an informal, natural, and simple place to eat, shop, and learn under one roof.”


Will Eataly gobble up local businesses as Starbucks did with mom-and-pop coffee shops? Dino Borri, the company's global vice president of partnerships at Eataly, treats this question with elaborate patience. 


"I have heard this question many times," he allows. He predicts that the San Jose store in Westfield Mall will bring more traffic to the area as it has done in the two Manhattan stories. It will attract more Italian food stores and restaurants around it like so many chicks around the mother hen. But he will not be drawn about whether Eataly has destroyed any businesses.


When many of its clients lost employees, Siena Imports put its staff and family to work, reducing the gap in clients' labor forces. He says his staff was "stocking shelves, engaging people on customers' floors and delivering wine ourselves. As a result, we are tracking 5 percent better than 2019, our most recent good year. We were working at only 30 percent of capacity during Covid. Once restaurants got back online, we were back at 60 percent," says Chietti.

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Villa Italia experienced a similar trajectory. When restaurants, hotels, and small independent customers shut down, "a big percentage of our business evaporated," says its founder, Lorenzo Scarpone. So, the importer focused on its online business. Still, sales are only a quarter of what they were 10 years previously.


The company is getting some restaurant business back but, according to Scarpone, “the challenge now is to have inventory available." Turmoil among shipping lines has disrupted supply chains worldwide, and orders from Italy now require five to six months to arrive instead of the usual two. Furthermore, the crisis in Ukraine has depleted supplies of ancillary products such as bottles, labels, boxes, and fertilizer which that beleaguered country used to supply to Italian growers, Scarpone reports. 


"I wish we had more help for small importers. My suppliers in Italy are most small artisans. They have difficulties making things work every day." Their mentality is: "As long as we can feed the family and make a living is all good," says Scarpone, "They learned to sacrifice since World War I and World War II."


Carlo di Ruocco, who promoted espresso to the American palate, has found it difficult to import the machines that brew the blackish elixir. As with other importers, the closure of restaurants has meant fewer orders for both Mr. Espresso coffee and its machines. The several brands he offers can be seen on their website.


Italian manufacturers of espresso machines are having difficulty sourcing the metals that their machines require. As a result, it now takes six months to receive a machine ordered from Italy compared to the two before Covid, before the roiling of steamship lines and the war in Eastern Europe. 


Happily, one purveyor of Italian-style food has no problems with sales. Greg Taverrite of Make It Italian has based his recipes for sausages on that of his Calabrian Nonno's. In a few years, Taverrite's business, has leaped from selling at farmers' markets to serving retail chains, especially Whole Foods.   


While the website illustrates the many recipes Taverrite offers, he continues experimenting with new variations. "The educated consumer," he says, is his best customer. He acknowledges that a palatable vegetarian recipe still eludes him, but he continues testing.


It's important to note that these Northern Californian entities are all family-owned businesses. In each one, family members have shouldered the additional duties needed to keep in the stream of commerce. Let's see whether Eataly is a boon for them. As Chietti of Siena Imports reminded, "la vita e' l'arte di arrangiarsi."


And as all Italians like to say, "Pazienza."

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