Will Eataly take a bite out of Boston’s food scene?
The long-awaited opening Tuesday of Eataly in the Prudential Center was met with a mix of excitement and trepidation among the city’s food community, as local food purveyors steeled themselves for the economic impact that the 45,000-square-foot Italian food emporium — with its 600 employees and 10,000 products — would have on their bottom line.
The wildly popular Eataly chain, which has 30 global outposts, has made attempts to understand the competition and integrate the local culture as a way of warding off fears that the circus has come to town. And that work has paid off, as many industry insiders see Eataly as a boon for the city, its local food movement, and a stretch of Boylston Street that has long played second fiddle to neighboring Newbury Street.
But that excitement is tempered by anxiety that Eataly — a combination of grocery stores, restaurants, and a gourmet food court — might erode the profits of small storefronts or steal shoppers from the last big thing to hit the city’s food scene, the Boston Public Market.
And in the North End, the beating heart of Boston’s Italian community, the Mario Batali-run mega-grocery and restaurant empire was met with a healthy dose of skepticism: While they’re pleased at the celebration of Italian history and culture, the neighborhood’s longstanding restaurateurs scoffed at the idea that a corporate entity could possibly encroach on the near-sacred ambiance of their well-trod turf.
“They do a phenomenal job in New York, I love them and I hope they do the same thing over here,” said Frank DePasquale, a restaurateur and owner of more than a dozen establishments in the North End. “But you can’t put a whole neighborhood in 45,000 square feet.”
Ever since the rumors about Eataly’s arrival in Boston came into focus (and with it, word of its five bars, two cafes, and four restaurants), the sheer scale of its ambitions, particularly its plan to hire 600 employees, has sent ripple effects throughout the city’s food and restaurant scene, which was already in the throes of a hiring shortage.
“In terms of competition, it is the spaceship, it is the juggernaut. I don’t think they have a competitor,” said Matt Camilleri of RealFood Consulting, a restaurant advisory firm in Cambridge. If anything, the company will be fighting to keep that many employees, he said, as his firm typically recommends hiring 20 percent more staffers than any restaurant would need to set up shop. “That’s a huge snowball effect on the bottom line.”
Eataly jobs, however, may offer more specialized career paths than average restaurant gigs, and that’s something the restaurant industry is largely lacking, said Ilene Bezahler, publisher of the local food publications Edible Boston and To Market. Eataly “is getting to be a big enough company that there’s room for advancement,” she said.
It’s also a “phenomenal” opportunity for local food vendors, she said, noting that the company reached out to her for help sourcing regional products.
Eataly’s management team prides itself on tailoring each of its marketplaces to its environs, and the Back Bay location will celebrate local seafood, sourcing its fish from some of the city’s most well-respected purveyors: Wulf’s Fish, Red’s Best, and Island Creek Oysters. It also upped its local credibility by partnering with chef Barbara Lynch, who will run the marketplace’s seafood-centric restaurant, Il Pesce, one of four that will operate in the space that was formerly occupied by the Prudential Center’s food court.
It that regard, Eataly is at the forefront of a food hall trend that has mall owners, developers, and entrepreneurs looking to create new food-centered spaces that look nothing like the food courts of yore, said Garrick Brown, vice president of research at Cushman & Wakefield real estate brokerage, who has looked at the impact of food halls on real estate. He said there are about 120 specialty food halls in the United States but expected the number would double by this time next year because of their popularity attracting customers who might want to spend $5 on a slice of pizza or $100 on a dinner.
Nicola Farinetti, the Italian-born chief executive of Eataly in the United States, said the Eataly empire has been good not just for the company but for the businesses that surround it, including the 20 or so restaurants he said have sprouted up near its Flatiron location in New York.
“This is why landlords want us so badly,” he said. “Anytime anybody very good opens close to us, they’re always very happy.”
He said he expected a similar response on Boylston Street.
But Brown of Cushman & Wakefield said Eataly Boston will put competitive pressure on just about anyplace selling or serving food, from restaurants and grocery stores, to the Boston Public Market near City Hall or businesses in the North End.
“It’s a direct threat,” he said. “It ups the ante, all this food growth. It’s become even more competitive in a cut-throat business.”
The biggest impact may be felt at the Boston Public Market, which is not yet two years old, is about a mile away, and features only New England raised produce and products, many of which will also be showcased at Eataly. Chief executive Cheryl Cronin said she met with a team from Eataly several weeks ago to discuss ways the two markets could work together.
Cronin insisted they complement each other and that more markets, and more consumers demanding high quality food, is a win for the city. “It’s raising the bar in terms of what’s going on in the food world in Boston,” she said.
Valerie Gurdal, the co-owner of Formaggio Kitchen, has encountered Eataly staffers checking out her wares over the past months, and says she’s uncertain how her 900-square-foot storefront in the South End will withstand the impact of having the Batali behemoth nearby. “We’re a small business that relies on the neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t really know what effect it will have on the business, but I’m sure that it will.”
North End restaurateurs said while they appreciate Eataly’s celebration of Italian culture, their neighborhood can’t be replicated by any mall.
Damien DiPaola, a North End restaurateur, had a suggestion for any Eataly visitor looking for authenticity.
“You come to the North End instead of being cramped in a mall and being overcharged,” he said. “I’ve been to the Eataly in New York, and it’s very, very, very pricey. They’re marking their stuff up pretty good.”
A true authentic experience involves more than a good cappuccino and a wide selection of pasta, he said. It’s about traditions and treating your staff like family.
“We’re the little guys, and we take much better care of our employees than the big corporations do,” he said.
“I think I’m speaking for many of my fellow business owners when I say that Eataly does not really scare me.”