How Eataly Makes Innovation Local

by Rebecca Dalzell

With rooftop dining, a carefully curated selection of fine Italian foods, and a steady stream of wide-eyed shoppers, the first U.S. Eataly, in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, is an entrepreneurial feat in its own right. Now, as the brand moves west — Los Angeles and Las Vegas will soon join New York, Boston and Chicago locations — a passion for showcasing regional specialties is fuelling the expansion.

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Every week, Jos Vulto drives from the Catskill Mountains to New York City to deliver his small-batch cheeses. The self-taught Vulto partners with local dairy farms to make flavorful cow’s milk cheeses, like the pungent washed-rind Ouleout, which has made him something of a celebrity among cheesemongers.

One of his stops is Eataly, the gourmet Italian marketplace with two locations in Manhattan. His friend Greg Blais, the Salumi & Formaggi manager of Eataly United States, “has been a great supporter of my cheeses since the very beginning,” says Vulto, who started aging cheese in a Brooklyn basement. Blais even asked Vulto Creamery to make a blue cheese exclusively for Eataly. The aptly named Blais Blue, designed according to Blais’ tastes, is the result of their collaboration.

Such connections with local producers have powered Eataly’s stunning growth from a single address in Italy to more than 35 stores around the world. The constant search for the finest local ingredients energizes the staff and makes each location different.

“We have a lot of stores, but it’s really not a chain,” says Nicola Farinetti, CEO of Eataly United States. “This is something that nobody else has figured out yet.”

As cooks and managers in Boston, New York and Chicago — and soon, Los Angeles and Las Vegas — seek out the highest-quality products nearby, it naturally creates regional differences. Blais Blue may not be found in the Midwest, but the Chicago Eataly has a wealth of Wisconsin cheddars to choose from.

Farinetti says that the use of so many local ingredients fundamentally changes each store. The variation between milks, for instance, forces Eataly to tweak gelato and cappuccino recipes from place to place.

“One of the fun parts about opening Eataly Chicago was sourcing all the incredible products that are available in the Midwest,” says Chicago general manager Jason Goldsmith. He tasted milk from nine different farms before deciding on “the crazy quality milk” from Lamers Dairy in Appleton, Wisconsin.

“Eataly is not a chain; Eataly’s a family,” says Farinetti. “Just like [people in] a family, stores have the same last name and carry the same values, but they develop their own personality. This is exactly the way we approach business.”

Farinetti’s father, Oscar Farinetti, founded Eataly in 2007, opening the first store in an abandoned Carpano Vermouth factory in Turin, Italy. Like those that followed, the original has aisles of fine Italian foods — wine, olive oil, chocolate, pasta, soda — but Farinetti also devoted a corner to a small museum about vermouth production, Il Museo Carpano.

The vermouth museum illustrates the company’s emphasis on learning — all stores offer classes and demonstrations — as well as its desire to make each Eataly distinctive. The Munich, Germany, store fills an airy market hall; in New York, its 108-year-old Flatiron District building, which once housed the International Toy Center, has tall ceilings with marble details.

As it expands, Eataly has never become complacent. The only formula is a constant pace of change. “We are a market. Markets change,” says Nicola Farinetti. “We always embrace that.”

Each location presents new opportunities and challenges that keep the stores feeling fresh.

“What makes me excited on a daily basis is having people coming to me with ideas that are much better than ones that I had,” says Farinetti. “We have incredible talent within each location, and we empower them to make decisions. It is a creative environment where people feel pushed and allowed to have ideas and deliver them to customers.”

An asset of the Flatiron location is a large rooftop, a rarity in Manhattan, which hosts the popular restaurant and beer garden La Birreria . While some New Yorkers come to sample the cask ales brewed on-site, the main draw is drinking outdoors with a view of the Empire State Building.

Business was good year-round, but the managers sought to make it stronger. They decided to give La Birreria a winter identity and opened BAITA, an Alps-inspired seasonal restaurant, in 2015.

For executive chef Fitz Tallon, this was a chance to introduce customers to new aspects of Italian cuisine. “Regions in the north of Italy, like Piedmonte, have very interesting foods,” he says. “A lot of these areas are heavily influenced by German or French foods. It’s different from what a lot of people think of as Italian food, which is southern Italian food.” At BAITA, Tallon serves unusual dishes like sciatt, battered and fried piave cheese, paired with lesser-known Alpine wines.

When opening the Chicago Eataly, the largest in the country, “the guidance that we received from ownership was to make sure the store is unique,” says general manager Goldsmith.

So Chicago’s busiest restaurant, La Pizza & La Pasta , gamely chimed in on the city’s never-ending conversation about pizza, offering crusts not found at other locations. Its Neapolitan pizza makers bring a scholarly devotion to tradition and pies distinct from the local deep-dish variety.

They have developed four Neapolitan doughs that draw on centuries of regional recipes, including rustica dough, a precursor to the modern style, that was originally made with a mix of grains from leftover bread scraps. Flavorful and hearty, it resembles a whole-wheat crust.

Goldsmith says Eataly celebrates the competition and the diversity of Chicago’s pies. This winter it began collaborating with other Chicago pizzerias, like the original Pizzeria Uno across the street, on joint dinners.

“Their product is super high-quality, but it’s very different from ours,” Goldsmith says. “Ultimately, we want people to think about the food they’re eating, where it comes from, how it’s made.”

Though embedded in the local culinary culture, Eataly stores around the world are united by a commitment to the homeland. “I was born and raised in Chicago,” says Goldsmith. “But I basically go to Italy every day.”