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Feeding the travellers: transport infrastructures and food & beverage services in Autogrill’s experience. By E. Balarini

Abstract: The article intends to contribute to the Glocalism journal’s issue on the themes of the Expo by relating Autogrill’s distinctive experience of glocalization and that of travel food & beverage, a sector in which it has become the leading global operator. From Pavesi’s “scientific” menu for motorists, tailored to the needs of the motorway traveller in the ’50s, to the Group’s contemporary experiments in Italy and other countries where it operates, the article will use Autogrill’s experience to describe the evolution of the connection between mobility and nutrition and the future horizons of food in travel channels.

With respect to the wider market of catering, travel f&b today is characterized by an acceleration of the dynamics of hybridization of food cultures and trends, as seen in the co-existence within f&b offerings in today’s airports and railway stations of eating styles and gastronomic traditions from different countries. In this scenario, the spread of a holistic approach to the business, geared to containing the energy, environmental and social impacts of the business, heralds in a new phase of “major transformation” in travel f&b that will see the emergence in the near future of new combinations of tradition and modernity, industrial and artisanal production, internationalism and localism, and consumption and re-use of resources.

Yesterday: auto and grillroom

 

1947 saw the creation of the “Pavesi biscuit factory refreshment station” at the Novara toll barrier on the Torino-Milano motorway. Italy’s motorway network was still to be built but the great transformation of the country was just round the corner and in May 1956 work started on the Autostrada del Sole. Just a few years later came “autogrill”, a neologism registered by Mario Pavesi as a trademark reflecting the “miraculous” growth of the period and the “hybridization” between local cultures and the American way of life. This faux Anglicism in fact encapsulates all the most powerful symbols of modernity: first of all the car (automobile), then the “grill”, an abbreviation of grillroom, a symbol of the United States, its classless catering and “American purchasing”, which was how the great novelty of self service was referred to in Italy at the time.

At the end of 1959, Pavesi and the architect Angelo Bianchetti went to see how motorway catering was done on the other side of the Atlantic and duly informed Italian readers, in Quattroruote magazine, that they will soon “be able to travel in almost American conditions [….]” thanks to the replication of the “bar-restaurants on the motorways of that model country”. Their main source of inspiration was the Howard Johnson’s chain, which by the end of the Fifties already had around 500 standardized restaurants scattered across the United States.

“All the HJs,” wrote Bianchetti, “are identical and provide the same products. […] Everything is standardized, including doses of dressing, the flavours of each dish (perfectly identical throughout the Confederation), and all the cooking procedures. Anyone entering an H.J. knows in advance, in minute detail, how much money and time they will spend and what they will find. […] We will not commit the error of installing in these highly functional buildings ordinary restaurants, perhaps with tastings of appetizing local specialities. Tagliatelle, fettuccine, agnolotti, lambrusco, elaborate dips: tourists can easily find these things in the places they visit. On the motorway, on the other hand, diets and services are designed on the basis of high speed and a high number of hours behind the wheel: light, nourishing, healthy and genuine food ready at all times of day and night[1]>/sup>.

In fact, the “motorist’s menu” offered in the Pavesi “autogrills” was developed under the supervision of the Physiology Institute of Milan University and designed on the basis of the performance expected of drivers: in the morning, butter and jam, fruit salad, Pavesini, coffee and milk; at midday, mineral water, butter, Crackers Soda Pavesi, consommé with croutons, ½ chicken, mixed side dish and dessert of choice. In the evening, mineral water, butter, Crackers Soda Pavesi, consommé with croutons, grilled beef steak, mixed side dish and dessert of choice.

The evolution of eating places, as of eating itself, is closely tied to the history of society and the autogrill undoubtedly performed an “innovation and modernization function […] in our country, because in post-war Italy, when supermarkets were still a thing of the future, the autogrill (intrinsically associated with two elements of extraordinary appeal and prestige at the time: the car and the motorway) was one of the most significant icons of modernity”.[2]

The autogrill, and the whole of motorway catering with it, came into being as a symbol of the consumer society and for this reason has continued to exert symbolic force down to the present day.

Today: food & beverage in travel channels

 

Over 60 years have gone by since the founding days of Italian commercial catering for travellers and everything looks different now. The impetuous growth of mobility, and air transport in particular (now moving 8 million passengers a day 100 years after the birth of commercial aviation), fed the development of a significant food & beverage market for people on the move. The travel channels food & beverage market now has an estimated global value of over 45 billion euros[3] and provides ideal terrain for experimentation, a place where tendencies and changes in commercial catering can be shaped before they appear on high streets.

The pioneering experience of Pavesi, Motta and Alemagna on the Italian motorway network was followed in 1977 by government-owned corporations and then in 1998 by private enterprise again, this time a new-generation family business, Benetton, the current majority shareholder of Autogrill S.p.A. This privatization turned the Company from a niche operator on the Italian market into a leading travel f&b provider at international level, operating in 30 countries and across all transport channels: motorways, airports and railway stations. The Company’s internationalization process was not one of standardization but the opposite, through ongoing hybridization with the new markets it entered during the course of its expansion. From this point of view, Autogrill’s experience was emblematic of wider-reaching processes in commercial catering, where fears of increasing standardization of the offering gave way to syncretism of intercultural processes.

Coffee drinking was a case in point, as was the pizza and, in different ways, Chinese and Japanese food. Exported to the United States it was then re-exported from there all over the world with various methods and processes. The internationalization of Italian coffee was not, in fact, a process of cultural standardization but the result of reciprocal interaction in which different countries appropriated coffee drinking whilst adapting it to local characteristics and then re-exported it with different values yet again. Similarly, the Company’s offering grew over time from the standardization of the Sixties (mirroring the new mass society) to the multi-catering of the Eighties (the post-modern years) and the present day, when tradition and innovation co-exist and feed one another. Autogrill’s Italian headquarters has a research laboratory – Spazio Fucina – where its chefs and food experts develop gastronomic ideas, recipes and concepts that translate input from emerging eating trends into products that enrich the f&b offering in the Group’s points of sale. Spazio Fucina is also a forum for sharing culinary knowledge and traditions and regularly invites external chefs and food-experts.

The Group’s innovation and research capability is based on a network of international collaboration with culinary research bodies and world famous chefs to develop recipes and concepts. Examples include the partnership with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy (set up by the funders of Slow Food) and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), one of the world’s most prestigious culinary universities, and collaboration with celebrity chefs to open restaurants in major US airports carrying their signatures on signs and menus (currently Lorena Garcia, Rick Bayless, Todd English, and Wolfgang David Burke).

So an international team is constantly at work in Autogrill’s “concept factory” to create new ways to meet the needs of a clientele that’s always on the move. The development of new brands and concepts starts with analysis of traffic and flows of people in a given place and the study of traveller profiles in an airport, service area or railway station. The results of these analyses are used to create an ad hoc offering combination (certain types of store and not others, certain combinations of products and not others) meeting the specific needs of individual locations. This is how Autogrill develops innovative new brands and different ways of providing products for local and international customers. The capacity to read consumer trends and needs that go beyond national boundaries enables the Group to focus on the future and anticipate “What’s next?”, thus gaining competitive, sustainable and long-term advantages in each country it operates in.

Examples of success include Bubbles, wine & seafood bar originally launched at Schiphol Airport (The Netherlands) and revisited for Chicago O’Hare Airport, Beaudevin; a top-end wine bar originally launched at Brussels Airport and now also operating in France and in numerous airports in the United States and in Italy under the name of Rossointenso; Burger Federation, a gourmet burger restaurant concept, with personalizable menus and sustainable ingredients, successfully tested in US airports and recently introduced at Roma Fiumicino Airport as well. Autogrill also operates Restaurants du Monde in Paris, Europe’s biggest food court, in the Louvre, the world’s most visited museum. The f&b space here has seven restaurants and three coffee shops covering a total of around 1,800 m2, seating 700 people and serving 400 recipes representing the world’s gastronomic heritage. Behind the commercial offering at Restaurants du Monde – French, Italian, Spanish, Mediterranean, Asiatic and American, etc. – there’s all Autogrill’s know-how and capacity to address a multi-cultural public typical of global scenarios.

The Company’s offering today is really very wide and diversified, not only in the Europe and the United States but also in Asia and the Middle East has also been significant. From the second half of the 2000s in fact, the Company put new impetus into its growth in the region and now has food&beverage operations in India, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In December 2006 Autogrill opened its first restaurants at Bangalore International Airport and is now the f&b market leader in Indian airports with over 40 points of sale in seven airports. In-depth knowledge of travellers’ needs enabled Autogrill to enjoy success with Indian travellers too, by offering f&b concepts in line with eating tendencies and the evolution of taste in India. The Company introduced internationally famous brands in Indian airports to cater for the increasing local demand for new experience of western taste but has also developed concepts inspired by traditional Indian cuisine, such as Taste of India, a restaurant specialized in Northern Indian cooking, and IdliFactory, a vegetarian food corner that offers a staple of Southern Indian street food (idlis) in an airport ambience.

In Italy too, Autogrill is and always will be characterized by diversification: it is an ensemble of catering concepts and spaces in which to enjoy a veritable food experience, an “immersion” in local flavours and food cultures. In new generation points of sale like Bistrot Milano Centrale and Villoresi Est, Autogrill has incorporated the concepts of artisan food preparation, local tradition, “km zero” and in-season ingredients in its offering.

Tomorrow: an oxymoron in your soup?

 

Numerous studies and surveys are saying that in the near future we will be eating food that’s been cooked quickly because there will be less and less time available but that the food will almost certainly be sophisticated, organic and certified. The tendency will be for some to eat increasing amounts of food considered “luxury” and for others to eat more “low cost” food but it is not impossible for individuals to follow both trends alternately (the economic crisis has accentuated the habit of saving as much as possible but also an increase in “consolatory” eating of food considered gratifying).

Food will be local and global at the same time, and so on. These tendencies will be particularly evident in catering for travellers, while mobility infrastructure has been “lived in” by a particularly dynamic and multi-cultural population. “The no man’s land of a transit lounge, wrote director S. Spielberg, “is in fact everyman’s land. […] A terminal has no history, tradition, dialect, but borrows bits of all this from everyone who moves through it”.[4] The airport becomes an “aerotropolis”, city of the future, but railway stations too are showing strong dynamism. The democratization of luxury is in fact bringing increasingly broad segments of the population into airports, while the development of high speed trains is populating railway stations with travellers belonging to more affluent classes. Lastly, it is very probable that technological progress in the near future will also re-launch the appeal and sustainability of road transport.

Travellers are changing and so are their eating habits on the move. 20 years ago you had the same offering everywhere, mainly coffee and sandwiches to be consumed in a hurry, while today’s travellers demand fresh, healthy food and maybe accompanied by more transparent information. People increasingly want to be informed about what they eat: what the various items contain, where they come from.

In the near future, to satisfy the needs of an increasingly diversified clientele operators in this sector will have to able to accommodate seemingly irreconcilable contradictions, synthesize, put together realities that are apparently distant if not actually contradictory or perceived as such. In the century of “mass personalization”, commercial catering produced on a global scale will be able to sell alongside a typical local product, in unique and above all environmentally sustainable locations. This is a challenge Autogrill has fully embraced. For example, in the Secchia Ovest service area, in partnership with Eataly, it will bring to the motorway for the first time the symbol that stands for quality “made in Italy” food all over the world. More in general, the Autogrills of the future along the Italian motorway network will also feature concepts that are very different one from another in terms of design, types of products and service. Large and medium size service areas will feature menus and gourmet products conforming to sustainability principles such as local production or “km zero”.

Milan Expo 2015 will offer an important occasion to effectively communicate this evolution. The mirror and vector of this transformation in progress will be the Duomo Store, a synthesis of all the experience accumulated in this direction but also, at the same time, a laboratory of permanent experimentation geared to continually renewing the experience of eating out (especially for travellers) and making it increasingly sustainable.

 


NOTES

[1] Bianchetti A., Le Oasi in autostrada, Quattroruote, January 1960.

[2] Fabris G.P., Il new consumer: verso il postmoderno, Milano 2003, pp.369-370.

[3] G. Biasci,  Gira Food Service Report, Milano 2012, pag. 16

[4] Bizio S., Transit lounge, la terra di tutti. Una conversazione con S.     Spielberg, in On the Move. Nel paesaggio di Autogrill, Milano 2007, p. 59.

 

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“Glocalism. Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation” is published by “Globus et Locus", Milan, Italy

 ISSN 2283-7949
   
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