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Reporter Eric Reguly (Kevin Van Paassen)
Reporter Eric Reguly (Kevin Van Paassen)

Eric Reguly

The future of the supermarket Add to ...

When you ask residents of Torino what to see in their elegant northern Italian city, they will steer you toward the Egyptian Museum and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the keeper of the Shroud of Turin. And, they'll say, "You have to see Eataly."

Eataly is a vast, new concept supermarket on the edge of central Torino, next to Fiat's headquarters. It is an unlikely blend of food bazaar, farm stand, educational centre, museum, eclectic dining experience and political and environmental movement - though one anchored firmly in the world of commerce.

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As a business, Eataly is a small monument to gastronomic anti-globalization, but one yearning for global exposure. In the United States, Whole Foods Market's rapid growth as a retailer of natural and organic foods is evidence of the industry's quickly changing dynamics.

Now, supermarket chains are paying attention to Eataly, which Atlantic magazine called "The Supermarket of the Future." Coop Italia, a large Italian co-operative supermarket chain, took a minority stake in Eataly in a bet the concept has strong growth potential.

Eataly hopes to turn its niche into big business, building on consumer demands for high quality and more locally produced foods. Eataly Torino, for example, gets 90 per cent of its products from Italy, and about half from the Piemonte region around Torino.

The chain is popping up across Italy, has opened in Japan and will soon open in Manhattan. The store's founder, co-owner and "slow food" advocate, Oscar Farinetti, says Canada could be next. "Toronto would be fantastic for an Eataly," Mr. Farinetti says.

"We're looking for the right partner here. There are a lot of Italians in Toronto and Italian food is very popular."

Shoppers say Eataly is not perfect, however. Loredana Cuttica, a trim, 50-ish office worker from Torino, shops at Eataly once a week, usually for high-quality pasta, milk and cheeses.

"The prices are reasonable for the quality you get, but the fruit and vegetables are too expensive and not fresh enough," she says.

"I still go to my supermarket for them." Prices for most products at Eataly tend to be 25 per cent to 30 per cent higher than those of regular supermarkets.

Eataly has its roots in so-called slow food, the "eco-gastronomy" movement, whose goals are to preserve endangered local foods, link independent food producers with customers, cooks and academics, pursue social justice for growers and promote the joy of eating food that wasn't invented in a laboratory and produced in a factory.

Slow food advocates include Prince Charles and the American author and farmer Wendell Berry, whose saying, "Eating is an agricultural act," confronts shoppers as they enter Eataly Torino.

The godfather of the slow food movement is Carlo Petrini, one of Time magazine's "heroes" of 2004 and founder of Piemonte's University of Gastronomic Sciences. His anti-fast food movement started in 1986, when he and his followers (unsuccessfully) fought the opening of a McDonald's next to the Spanish Steps, in the heart of Rome.

Mr. Farinetti, 55, comes from a long line of Piemonte artisanal food producers - his surname derives from the Italian word for flour, farina. His father has a grocery store and pastry shop.

The young Farinetti took the family business in a different direction in the late 1970s, when he opened an electronics chain called UniEuro.

He sold it for a reported €500-million ($798-million) in 2003 and used his fortune to get back into the food business.

Mr. Farinetti says Eataly Torino is profitable and expansion plans are under way. Toronto, London and Germany are under consideration.

Depending on their size, the stores each require an investment of €3-million to €10-million, though Eataly Torino has already reportedly soaked up €20-million.

Non-Italian Eatalys will at first focus on foods exported from Italy, making it more like a specialty store.

The plan is to buy fresh meats, vegetables and fruits from local producers, but it will take time for those Eatalys to develop a supply chain of artisanal products.

Mr. Farinetti thinks Eataly will help deliver the message that good food comes from soil and sun, not factories. "We have to understand what we eat."

***

THE EATALY EXPERIENCE

A walk through Eataly bombards the senses with aromas, colours, variety, energy and design flare that are almost entirely missing from the typical big-box North American supermarket. The supermarket is filled with artisanal products that invite the curious to read the labels to learn about the food's provenance and personality. Almost all of the food areas - breads, fish, cured meats, pasta, vegetables, cheeses, ice cream, coffee, beer, wine - have their own little restaurant or bar so customers can sample the items. On a September evening, diners and shoppers generated a train-station din. Loblaw's it isn't.

Eataly's bread and pizza are made in a wood-fired oven next to a pasta restaurant, with is long, curving marble counter. The bread flour is stone-ground by a local producer. An astonishing variety of cheeses includes Biano di Langa, made from cow and goats' milk. Its crust is covered with a velvety mould; the creamy centre is laden with truffle shavings.

Shoppers peruse the olive oil shelves as if they were mulling the purchase of fine wines. One extra-virgin variety, called Cru Riva Gianca, comes from 400-year-old olive trees in Liguria, near Genoa. The olive counter offered 26 varieties of olives in wooden tubs.

Eataly's beer shelves are stacked with about 120 craft beers from across Europe, from local Italian brews at less than €1 a bottle to the €29.80 Bush Prestige, a Belgium strong ale with 13 per cent alcohol.

Eric Reguly

ereguly@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

 

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