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The Name: Eataly

The Place: Well if you live in Italy or Japan you virtually can’t move for Eataly stores and there are around 30 globally – dotted about, one in Sao Paolo, one in Munich, one in Moscow. But none in the UK until a joint partnership opens in Selfridges later this year. Oh, and the US is quite well endowed too.

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The Story: Ah, bella Italia, famous in the gastronomic world for its…

Pizza! Yes that. And also for its infinite variety of…

Pizza! Yes, ok. And for its thousands of artisanal producers of…

Pizza! Just stop. The whole point of Eataly is to show the world that the food of Italy (once considered, especially in the US, as peasant food consisting of lots of stuff covered in red sauce) is actually some of the finest in the world. Heard of slow food?

No. And instinctively I don’t trust it: Well, either way Eataly is closely aligned with the Slow Food movement – its founders are all best buddies.

How long do you have to wait for a Slow Food pizza? I think we have got off to a bad start. Let’s try again. Do you like supermarkets?

Yes, they’re quick and efficient: Okay, imagine a really luxurious one where you can go and eat some of the lovely things you see on sale, say eat a pasta dish where the flour for the base is on sale next to the kitchen and you can take a class in pasta making and learn how to make the delicious thing you just ate.

Can you do it with pizza: Yes. Or Nutella or anything that has any connection at all with Italy. You can just buy, or just eat, or just learn, or any combination of the three. It’s unique.

Is that it then? It sounds kind of confusing: You know what? Sometimes the best innovations are the simplest ideas but just superbly executed. There are lots of shops you can eat in and lots of restaurants where you can buy bits of food but this thing is a phenomena. Founded in 2007 it is expanding at a rate of knots and no one is doing quite the same thing anywhere else.

So they just roll this department store idea out around the world? There’s no general flatpack roll out format, each one is tailored to its local market. The menu selection in the New York outlet for example is very different to the one in Chicago which will be 100% different to the one in Tokyo. That’s the secret trick of it.

Just run the secret trick part of it past me again: The founders always partner with a savvy local who will help them towards a successful integration into the local culture. This magic mix of restaurant and retail-tainment just won’t work if it is not pitched exactly right. In the States for example Eataly works as a joint venture with celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich and she runs the cookery school in the stores.

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Right, so how does it actually stock its shelves? Everything flown in from Naples? One of the driving raison d’etres is to reduce the food mileage from producer to consumer. Organic is important but more important is local so within the Italian stores the emphasis is on finding out the most regional suppliers. But yes around the rest of the world, thousands of oils, pastas and other unique ingredients which have never before been available outside Italy are shipped to the global branches.

I never knew they were so keen on Italian food in Japan: No one knew until Eataly opened. But remember there is always space on an Eataly shelf for products from the local cuisine – and they will try to marry the two in the restaurants if they can. For example people in Chicago specially like fried food so there is a restaurant that only sells that – Il Fritto.

It sounds healthier in Italian: Too true.

However, my ‘probably too expensive and over-priced’ alert is going off: Right, this is not Whole Foods. With this many products there are many entry levels and most people who visit will leave with at least a packet of pasta in their biodegradable bag. It may well be more expensive than supermarket food but it is not selling at the premium end either. And heck, Nutella is expensive wherever you buy it.

True. Who are the characters behind this venture? It’s Italian so of course it’s all about family. The chain was founded by businessman Oscar Farinetti who made pots of money in electronics. He loved the Turkish food bazaars in Istanbul and decided to use that as a model for Eataly. His son Nicola, at the fairly tender age of 31, is in charge of the immensely successful Eataly USA branch of the business.

And which are most successful? Well, I can’t tell you any figures because Eataly does not release any, I can only go on their store size ambitions as an indicator. Most Eataly stores are in Italy of course, the first opened in a disused Vermouth factory in Turin and by and large the company looks for absolutely cavernous spaces in the city centre to drive footfall and to house all the products and restaurants it deems essential. But even though there are currently only two New York stores and one in Chicago, one much of the buzz around the brand derives from America.  And expect Eataly to pop up in LA and Washington in the near future alongside the biggest store – Chicago at 63,000 square feet and containing an extraordinary 22 restaurants.

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Anything this money-making has to have critics: You are right. There are plenty of New Yorkers for example who will not set foot in their Eataly – on the grounds that it is now a tourist destination and such an unpleasantly crowded feeling. Think Harrods food hall for Londoners. And there are also the sort who think that lots of tiny producers are laying themselves open to financial ruin giving all their very limited output to one retailer. And others don’t like the fact that very big producers like Ferrero are represented on the shelves when they get plenty of mileage elsewhere. And then there are those who criticise Farinetti for pushing so many of the products that he has a stake in, like his brand of pasta or mineral water. Or the meat from his co-operative.

That last one seems a bit harsh: Yes, it is.

So all eyes on Selfridges in the autumn. Can we expect Gnocchi alla Anguilla to be served in London: Possibly. What is it?

Pasta with jellied eel: No, that’s not a thing.

PCMS is a global provider of IT software, specialising in retail services, including point of sale (PoS) software, contact centre and IT support services. It is a pioneer in developing mobile retail solutions, including customer shopping apps and mobile PoS. Its client list includes John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Whole Foods, as well as Walgreens in the US and fashion brands including Prada and Ferragamo across Europe.