Article published on August 2009 on the Official BAIA blog.
Italians living in the Bay Area are lucky. We can easily get all the ingredients for a real Italian dinner, or if we are lazy, we can get a real Italian dinner to take home. It’s not the big supermarkets that support our culinary traditions, nor the canned food aligned on the shelves at the corner grocery stores. What allows us to feel close to Italy is Ferrari Foods, a group of high quality Italian food stores spread throughout the Bay Area. Enter any Ferrari Foods store and you quickly realize that the store is not a well kept secret of the Italian community. All ethnicities of the Bay Area are well represented among the excited customers browsing through delicious items offered by Ferrari. The person that continuously scouts Italy for the best food and the most original ideas to bring to the store is Paul Ferrari, the CEO of the company and grandchild of the founder. I asked Paul a few questions to get his qualified opinions about his business and the status of the Italian food industry here in USA.
Paul can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?
In 1916 my Grandfather, Annibale Giovanni Ferrari, was sent to live in the US from the Emilia-Romagna at the age 16, when my Great-Grandfather Rocco Ferrari worried that the war might claim the life of another one of his sons. He worked for a while in food establishments in San Francisco. A childhood spent in the family’s gastronomia in Italy led to him opening the Parisian Delicatessen in San Jose in 1919. He called it this because at the time French food was considered the best, not Italian, though the food was of course Italian! The business later moved to Berkeley the East Bay (he always wanted to be near well traveled university professors and students who would appreciate his food) and I grew up playing in the shop with my dad Harold running it. My taking over the business the 1980s was the next natural progression.
The Italian community in the US is always struggling between old stereotypes (both positive and negative) and the new Italian reality (both positive and negative). What can we do as Italians and American-Italians to improve and modernize the perception of our culture in this country?
I strongly believe that education is key. Hollywood has helped to create a lot of these stereotypes, and what many Americans consider to be “Italian” is mainly representative of the southern half of Italy. While the south is a rich and wonderful land, it is not the whole of Italy and regionally very different of course. Since food is my background, and food is culture, I enjoy taking on the challenge of educating Americans through the regional food specialties we carry in our stores. Some of the items we carry even surprise Italians who may not have tried Troffie pasta from Liguria or Taralli from Puglia if they are not themselves from these regions.
You frequently scout Italy looking for new delicious products to propose in your shops scattered throughout the Bay Area. How has the food offered from Italy changed in the last 15-20 years? What changes should we expect in the future?
A new generation is starting to take over in Italy. About 15 years ago I was worried that there might be an expiration date on some of the small businesses I was working with. Many were run by an older man or woman with their children and grandchildren off investigating other professions. Now I see many of these younger family members finding their niche within the family business and bringing new life to them. It’s very exciting. With them they are bringing in innovation to add to the tradition. We see this reflected in new and exciting food combinations, innovative design in packaging and expanding product lines. It is wonderful though that the focus on traditional production techniques is as strong as ever. Another changing area is that there is a huge focus in the US on organic products, local, green… many of which are ideas that are innate in Italian foods from small producers like those we work with. While previously non-existent, marketing to this is becoming more prevalent in Italy as consumers are looking for official certification.
The Italian food tradition is based on small producers and local traditions. This doesn’t match very well with the American approach which is based more on big corporations and a large homogeneous market. Can Italian products thrive and succeed in US on a larger scale?
Yes, I believe so but I feel we are looking at two different markets. Italian foods offer simplicity and health, two key factors for Americans when they are doing their shopping. Many of the US consumers are looking for pasta, olive oils, vinegar and sauces imported from Italy, which thanks to big brand names are often cheaper than domestic brands yet offer authenticity. However there is also a separate, market for high end Italian specialty foods that include higher quality import cheeses, limited production olive oils, pastas created with bronze dies, more expensive regional specialty foods. These two different consumers will each help Italian products thrive but their buying patterns are different.
Ferrari Foods shops are concentrated in the Bay Area. Is there a cultural reason behind that (like a strong Italian presence), or is this a strategic decision of your company?
We are here because Annibale Ferrari came here. We are very fortunate to be in such a food & wine oriented part of the country and I still see room for growth here.
We see many times low quality non-Italian products sold under some supposedly Italian brand. Do you think in the long term this can affect the good name of real Italian products? How can Italy and Italians protect the reputation of their own brands and products against these cheap marketing tricks?
This is the main reason we opened an office in Italy. This was and still is big problem. This is the reason I am in Italy every 6-8 weeks visiting vendors, helping with production, making new contacts. It isn’t enough to find a producer, you must also maintain strong relationships in order to know exactly who, and what, you are working with.
It goes back to education as well. In our stores we spend a lot of time educating both our staff as well as customers on the key differences between true Italian food products and much of what you find out there. The DOP symbol is vital to this as well in protecting the products as well as the producers’ business in Italy. The law behind the symbol ensures that only products genuinely originating in a given region, and following traditional production techniques, are allowed to enter into commerce as such. The legislation came into force in 1992 to protect the reputation of the regional foods and eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products, which may be of inferior quality or of different flavor. When you purchase an item with this symbol, you are supporting the highest standards for producers who are continuing centuries old traditions. Conzorzi play a fundamental role as well in that they place special focus on initiatives aimed at protecting the quality and unique original characteristics of their product. They are dedicated to safeguarding the flavors and the diffusion of historical, cultural and traditional knowledge related to the product itself.
While the American food industry is strongly based on the concept of brand, as something that belongs to a corporation, the Italian industry is more based on “brands” without any specific owner (e.g. Taleggio, Lardo di Colonnata, etc.). Within Europe this problem has been addressed by the EU. What is the situation in the US and what should be done to better protect these “brands”?
We in the United States still have a long way to go as we are just starting to scratch the surface on this issue. Farmers markets, a focus on producers and the like are helping to bring awareness to this. People should get to know their grocer, their local restaurant’s chef, and ask questions about where their food is coming from and who makes it. When you see a cheese you love on a menu, ask if it’s local or imported (depending on the cheese you’d prefer one or the other). Again, symbols like DOP that protect authenticity are important. Going even further, it’s important to educate consumers that even with authentic Italian products, there are varying degrees of quality and the price is affected by this. It’s important to know that when you purchase cheese for example from a small Italian artisan, rather than a large Italian corporation, you are most like going to pay more. Much like when choosing to buy organic, the choice to buy from smaller producers is your vote to protect the quality and traditions behind the product.
I would like to thank Paul Ferrari for taking time for this interview. If you have a question for Paul or for BAIA please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below. I would recommend to visit your local Ferrari Foods store to experience in person the quality and variety of their selection. If you don’t live in the Bay Area you can find most of the Ferrari Foods products on Amazon!