Celebrity Chef Lidia Bastianich's Empire of Eats


By Katie Kramer, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal Report

Entrepreneur, chef and Italian grandma Lidia Mattichio Bastianich thinks a table — particularly one heaped with fresh pasta — is an excellent place to do business.

She's invited PBS viewers to tutti a tavola a mangiare or "come to the table and eat" on her series of Italian-American cooking shows since the 1990s. Today, Bastianich oversees an empire of eating including restaurants, cookbooks and Manhattan's retail-and-restaurant food hall Eataly, which she describes as "50,000 square feet of Italianisimo."

The indoor marketplace is devoted to the Italian culture of eating and shopping, featuring artisanal retail products and a colorful array of fresh food, from rabbits and Romano cheese to seafood and vegetables.

Eataly opened in September 2010. Up to 12,000 shoppers a day can arrive on a weekend, ready to spend at one of seven restaurant service areas or product-centric stations like meat, fish or local produce-devoted Le Verdure, with an on-site vegetable butcher.

The pasta department produces 2,500 pounds of the fresh stuff each week.

Bastianich's business partners include son Joseph, and chef Mario Batali, restaurateurs with a stable of successful and award-winning Italian restaurants across the country. With Eataly, the free-standing New York restaurants the trio owns together — seafood-themed Esca near Times Square and the four-starred Del Posto — and Lidia's two Italian restaurants in midtown Manhattan, perhaps the most successful Italian-Americans in the hospitality industry own 11 restaurants in a city with more than 18,000 places to eat.

They partnered with Oscar Farinetti, an Italian businessman who opened the original Eataly mega-market in Turin in 2007. In its first year, the Italian marketplace reportedly earned revenue of more than $54 million dollars, with the average shopper ringing up 130 euro at the register per visit.

Farinetti told the Italian press he hopes the New York location will generate $55-60 million in annual sales.

A celebrity chef today, Lidia Bastianich began as a small business owner with a bank loan.

Recalling the first restaurant she founded in the Forest Hills section of Queens as a 24 year-old mother, pregnant with her second child, Bastianich says, “It was very, very tough. The first place that we had was 11 tables. We depleted all of our savings.  My mother and father gave us from their savings. And we went to the neighborhood bank just to give us an extension of a cash flow to operate.”

Felidia, her Manhattan flagship, turned 30 this week. The restaurant staff is celebrating with a special $85 tasting menu of greatest hits and seasonal dishes, including pear and pecorino cheese ravioli and osso bucco with spring barley risotto.

Dinner entrees at Felidia range from $25 to $40 and favor classic northern Italian dishes like steamed full-fish Branzino, deboned at a serving station in the dining room. On Manhattan’s east side, the restaurant is a few blocks from the United Nations and has drawn a heavily business and diplomatic crowd.

Guilio Terzi di Sant’Agata, the Italian Ambassador to the United States and Italy’s former representative at the United Nations calls Bastianich “a tireless promoter of Italian culture,” and believes her dishes inspire those “seeking a healthier, more Mediterranean lifestyle.”

“Chemistry was my college interest. Cooking is about chemistry,” says Bastianich, who had little formal culinary training, but credits passion for Italian flavors and her tight-knit immigrant family with giving her a professional start.

She arrived in the United States in 1958 as a 12 year-old political refugee. Born in Istria, a Croatian peninsula once a region of Italy, Lidia’s family was sponsored by Catholic Charities and brought to New York.

“What I learned being a young child was respect for food. Don't throw anything away,” Bastianich says when sharing tips for recycling bread that’s gone stale, and “respect for others.”

Bastianich says “what really makes your business is your workers — their commitment, their knowledge, how you train them, how you treat them. They have to make the entity a winning entity.”

Lidia’s Italy is the umbrella organization for Bastianich’s personal brand. Including seven restaurants, cookbooks, Italian vineyards, travel company, QVC cookware line, and the packaged pasta and sauces line, Nonna Foods, Lidia’s company impacts the employment of about a thousand people. Eataly employs 600 workers.

More than 600,000 people work in restaurants in New York State. Almost one in ten workers nationwide are in food services.

“Restaurants have helped define neighborhoods” in urban areas, says New York City Commissioner of Small Business Services Robert Walsh. The local government organization worked with Eataly prior to opening on placement for 300 permanent jobs the market created.

“We pre-screened 4,000 applicants before narrowing it down to 1,000 candidates,” Walsh says. Job-seekers interviewed for all types of positions from human resources to line cooks and waitstaff.

The face of a brand that’s a family business with her adult children, Bastianich is also related to many of her closest business partners. “But that’s Italian, you know?”

Long before cookbooks and opening her own home kitchen to PBS viewers, Bastianich’s mother — now 90 and still in charge of the family garden — would regularly roll out the pasta dough to make gnocchi for restaurant diners. “We would feed the kids, then she would take the kids and put them to bed. I would finish work.”

“When I say, ‘everybody to the table and eat,’ I mean it,” says Bastianich. “That is the glue, the center the holds the family, that gives security. Good food brings everybody to the table.”

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