Explore a brief look into the everyday workings and economics of a local panetteria. With a straightforward business philosophy, Milano’s GustaMi is the producer of great bread, pastries, and pizzas. With the pandemic, however, new uncertainties amass on the horizon.
Milan shares with other Italian cities several key characteristics: looming churches and imposing cathedrals, Renaissance statues eternally posing, vast piazzas, and a love for locally sourced cuisine. The business that exemplifies this appreciation for locality the most is the panetteria, or bread shop (though they usually sell much more than bread). With the basic ingredients of flour, water, and yeast, panetterie all over Italy are able to combine these three into various works of culinary art. Each also has its own distinct identity, with many acting as a center for bread-related needs for their neighborhoods. In my neighborhood, the small chain store of GustaMi occupies this honorable position.
Spurred by curiosity into the inner mechanisms of this humble shop, I requested and gratefully received some answers to my questions by GustaMi’s owner’s wife, Ivana. The following is a summary of our interview. Please note that she responded in Italian and thus her answers were translated into English.
GustaMi is a small panetteria with four locations around Milan. With 30 employees and a lot of competition from larger chain stores like PAM and Carrefour, GustaMi has to work the extra mile to make itself stand out. With a business philosophy expressed by the motto “per amore di acqua e farina”, the owners of GustaMi strive to bring to their customers fresh products made from local ingredients with no food conservatives. According to Ivana, their bread simply contains “flour, water, and yeast”; nothing else. For six days a week, starting at 5am, the owner and other bakers arrive at their stores to begin baking. GustaMi bakers bring back the old ways, using their hands rather than machines to work the dough and traditional cooking methods to create delicious bread with crunchy exteriors, and soft, decadent interiors. The rest of the workday consists of selling these products to customers who are drawn into GustaMi’s shops by the intoxicating aroma of newly baked goods.
Alongside multiple types of breads, GustaMi also creates pastries, simple pizzas, and serves coffees at some locations. Once again, the emphasis is on “local and fresh”. “Local” is reflected in the form of ingredients that come in from nearby Italian producers of flour, yeast, and agricultural products like tomatoes. “Fresh”, on the other hand, comes from the fact that every product on GustaMi’s shelves is made that same day.
Despite these uplifting descriptions, it is difficult to operate a small business. Profit margins are generally much tighter than those of a larger company that has the benefit of economies of scale and discount rates. Additionally, if an employee tasked with baking is lost, then the costs of training a new baker are high. A smaller workforce necessitates more task-splitting and little room for comfort. Moreover, manually making bread every day is an arduous physical task that can be taxing.
With this year’s pandemic, GustaMi’s road ahead has gotten tougher. Like many small businesses around the world, GustaMi relies on close connections with its community and foot traffic to bring in revenue. With the restrictions on movement bringing in less customers, GustaMi management was faced with difficult decisions. They were able to retain their 30-person workforce thanks to committing to an 80% retention of the workers’ original salary, with the final 20% paid by the cassa integrazione. For those not familiar with the term, the cassa integrazione is a fund provided by Italy’s National Institute for Social Security (Istituto nazionale della previdenza sociale) in order to help businesses retain their employees. They also had to spread the employees’ workhours, as they could not utilize everyone fully due to lower revenue.
Ivana also stated that attaining ingredients has become increasingly difficult. For example, GustaMi has had trouble procuring alcohol, an ingredient that is crucial in some pastries. To remedy this, GustaMi was forced to start searching for alternatives, a risky move in the science of pastry-making. As pandemic restrictions also require that people no longer sit down at cafes, eateries like GustaMi had to develop their ability to provide to-go containers. For example, attaining disposable, portable cups for espressos has been challenging, as GustaMi vies with every other business that sells ready-made coffee (so essentially nearly all eateries in Italy) for a limited supply.
As Ivana stated, “è tutta una catena”; the supply chains for GustaMi have gotten more sluggish as operations have been reduced. They have to make orders for supplies much earlier in order to be able to receive what they need on time. This is an issue that all small businesses have had to contend with in the past nine months. In addition, as all Milanese citizens are familiar with now, only one to two customers are allowed in GustaMi at a time, every time with a mask. No mask, no business.
Regardless of these difficulties, Ivana expressed with that trademark Italian optimism that GustaMi is still moving forward. When asked about how the pandemic has influenced GustaMi’s future, she responded with “con voglia di mettersi in gioco di nuovo” (“we have the desire to get back into the game”). She conveys that Italians are a people with a history of hanging on through tough situations, and that small acts of genialità will pull them through.
GustaMi is one of many small panitterie in the city of Milan. One can find it by the following enthralling fragrance of their bread or simply by looking on your phone map. Tough times are ahead for all small businesses, so please take the opportunity to support your local shops when you go shopping. In grim times like this, good bread can be a repose for the weary.
A special thank you to the staff and owners of GustaMi for being so open and helpful with the interview.