At Eataly, Local Suppliers Are the Key Ingredient

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5 min read

This story appears in the November 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Just because Eataly’s New York City flagship closes to customers at 11 p.m. doesn’t mean the store shuts down: Its massive bakery oven burns bright 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The wood-burning oven—imported in pieces from Spain and painstakingly reassembled brick-by-brick by Spanish technicians—produces thousands of loaves of fresh bread each day, handcrafted according to Italian tradition with key ingredients like natural yeast and organic stone-ground flour. 

The flour doesn’t come from Italy, however. It originates two hours north of Manhattan in the hamlet of Clinton Corners, N.Y., the site of Wild Hive Farm. The Wild Hive Community Grain Project, founded by Don Lewis to promote sustainable agriculture across the Hudson Valley region, is home to stone milling with granite grinding stones capable of producing flour that perfectly replicates the nutrient-dense, high-quality product indigenous to Eataly’s native Turin. This enables Eataly NYC to offer breads and baked goods that are virtually identical to those sold in the company’s 10 Italian locations. 

“When Eataly came to New York City, they looked all over the Northeast trying to find the right flour,” Lewis says. “Our flour is much different from commercial flours. Eataly’s focaccia has to have a certain crunch, then melt away in your mouth. Just any old flour doesn’t do that.”

Wild Hive Farm is one of hundreds of small, independent New York-area vendors and artisans essential to Eataly NYC’s growth. While each Eataly location worldwide offers Italian products like dry pastas, canned goods and olive oils imported directly from the motherland, all stores additionally source a variety of perishable goods and restaurant ingredients directly from local partners. “Something like 70 percent of our revenue in the New York store comes from U.S.-based products,” says Adam Saper, Eataly USA’s CFO and managing partner. 

Eataly USA is amenable to virtually any product that adheres to its core philosophy of buono, pulito e giusto (good, clean and fair). “You send to us a sample, and we do a blind taste test,” says Dino Borri, Eataly’s international brand ambassador. “We want to meet you first, and you have to tell us the story of where the food is coming from, and all the stuff about you and your company. It has to be related a little bit to Italian—not ‘Italian-sounding.’ We don’t want to sell ‘Italian-sounding.’”

Eataly NYC’s explosive growth has carried over to its producer partners. Cascun Farm in Greene, N.Y., has tripled its annual volume in the year since it began selling packaged chicken and whole birds to the store. 

“Eataly has become such a destination spot—it’s amazing to reach that many people and have them taste our products,” says Andrea Cascun, who owns the farm with her husband, Don. “Having our chicken in a place like Eataly also gives us a huge amount of credibility when we deal with other restaurants and businesses in New York City. Saying we have a relationship with them speaks volumes about our products.”

Eataly is also helping its partners manage their growth. When the store’s demand for Wild Hive Farm flour outstripped the farm’s capabilities, Eataly and Lewis negotiated a cash advance that enabled Wild Hive to provide its local growers with the stock, storage facilities and related resources necessary to increase their grain yield, in turn supplying Lewis with the raw materials to accelerate his flour production. 

“It’s a 0 percent loan that I repay on each 50-pound bag of flour,” Lewis explains. “Getting money upfront enables me to make a commitment to my growers—I can tell them, ‘Grow this 100 acres of wheat, and I will be there in the harvest to buy it.’ So many growers are growing on spec, and then there’s no market.” 

Before Wild Hive Farm teamed with Eataly USA five years ago, 50 or 60 acres of wheat was enough to supply Wild Hive Farm’s business, which at that time included a now-shuttered farm store, commercial bakery and cafe. Last year, local growers planted 300 acres of wheat to keep up with Wild Hive Farm’s Eataly-driven demand, and Lewis expects to approach 1,000 acres by the end of the year.

“I’m not in the flour business just to make a living. My ultimate goal is increasing the number of acres of wheat in this region grown for human consumption, because I want consumers to have access to flours grown in their region, specifically stone-milled,” Lewis says. “Eataly is my biggest client, and they’re very important to what I do, because they enable me to reach my goal.” 

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