Rumours first began circulating that high-end food emporium Eataly would expand to Canada six years before an official announcement was made in 2016. It has taken another three-plus years to actually build the thing.
But the North American chief executive officer of the Italian marketplace-restaurant chain does not acknowledge any unusual delay, and says the Toronto location is finally set to open its doors by the end of the year.
“To me, it didn’t take that long,” said Nicola Farinetti, son of Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti. Scouting locations, signing on the right business partners, finding local food producers, and designing and constructing a complex of restaurants, cafes, bakeries, quick-service food counters, grocery stores and markets – it can take years, he added. "… It’s important that we do it right instead of fast.”
Doing it right was quite an undertaking for Manulife Real Estate, which has made Eataly a core part of the renovation of its Manulife Centre in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. Eataly will span 50,000 square feet over three floors of the building. To accommodate the layout the location required, Manulife filled in an escalator, built a bridge, and relocated the building’s office lobby.
“That was unique. We usually don’t move office lobbies to make something work,” said Michael Bardyn, managing director for greater Toronto at Manulife Real Estate.
The company undertook the work because of what it expects Eataly will bring to its retail mix. The brand is known for interactive experiences, and the location will host cooking classes, wine tastings, educational sessions on food and private events. For now, Eataly has no plans for e-commerce in Canada, and is focusing on the physical store.
“We chased Eataly because … it’s going to bring more people to the centre,” Mr. Bardyn said.
That kind of draw is crucial for retailers and commercial landlords, who have been looking at entertainment and experiences to draw more people into malls and other brick-and-mortar retail locations.
“If you don’t do that you’re at real risk of losing relevance with the consumer," said Tony Grossi, president of the Weston family-controlled Wittington Properties Ltd., Eataly’s partner on the Toronto project. In 2012, Eataly began discussing a London location with Weston-owned U.K. retailer Selfridges; the talks related to that joint venture led to trips to Toronto, and sparked discussions with Wittington about the Toronto project. Terroni restaurants acted as a consultant to educate Eataly on the Toronto market, but is no longer involved with the project, Mr. Farinetti said.
The first Eataly opened in Turin in 2007 and the brand has since expanded with locations across Italy, the U.S., Japan, Turkey, Brazil and Dubai. It is known for partnering with local producers in every market, including more than 50 at the Toronto location. While prices are higher than in a typical grocery store, the company says its products are higher quality and, in the case of local foods, more sustainable.
One example in Toronto is a small onsite brewery at Eataly, run by the owners of craft brewery Indie Ale House Brewing Co.
“For us it’s not about making a mass-produced product and putting it in a mass-produced channel. That’s a similar approach to theirs," said Jason Fisher, the owner of Indie Ale House.
One of the most successful markets in Eataly’s global expansion has been Manhattan, where it launched the first location in 2010 and made US$70-million in its first year.
Last month, Eataly bought out Mario Batali’s minority stake in the U.S. business, more than a year and a half after four women, three of them former employees, accused the celebrity chef of sexual misconduct. In May, Mr. Batali pleaded not guilty in a case against him stemming from a charge that he groped and forcibly kissed a woman at a Boston restaurant in 2017. The indecent assault and battery case is ongoing.
According to Eataly, the chef has not had involvement in the business since 2017. Mr. Farinetti said he does not believe the association has hurt Eataly’s brand. “Our customers understood how Eataly has nothing to do with Mr. Batali,” he said.
He believes a growing brand awareness will help draw customers in Canada.
“I personally believe that for sure we can develop three, maybe four locations in Canada,” he said. That could include an additional location in Toronto, or others in markets such as Vancouver and Montreal, he said, but the company will study customer patterns in Toronto before beginning any further development. Eataly is betting that consumers’ growing obsession with food will continue to drive profitability.
“It’s not something you learn about and stop caring,” Mr. Farinetti said. “… The food trend is not going to stop.”