Kristen Quito is head of product for Eataly North America, an Italian-inspired marketplace with locations in Boston, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and, most recently, Dallas. Founded in Italy in 2007 by Oscar Farinetti, Eataly has a very specific goal: “to gather under one roof high-quality food at sustainable and reasonable prices for ALL, celebrate Italian biodiversity, and create an informal, natural, and simple place to eat, shop, and learn.” Kristen joined OPN for a conversation about why Eataly offers organic produce, the importance of storytelling in marketing and consumer education, the company’s most popular organic produce items, and more.
How did you get started working in the produce industry?
My background is as a chef, so produce and farm-fresh ingredients have always been an interest of mine. For three years, I was the chef of Le Verdure, Eataly’s former vegetarian restaurant at our NYC Flatiron marketplace. The menu was highly focused on seasonal and local produce. Its location in the store also abutted our retail produce department’s “vegetable butcher” (an Eataly employee who preps vegetables for both our retail customers and chefs)—because, you know, at Eataly, we cook what we sell and sell what we cook.
In the past two years, I have moved over to our corporate product side and now oversee the retail produce program for Eataly North America. It’s been a steep but fun learning curve.
Kristen Quito, Head of Product, Eataly North America
What percentage of Eataly’s produce is organic, and why is it important for Eataly to carry organic produce?
The percentage of certified organic produce varies depending on location and seasonality, but it ranges from 25–50 percent. We don’t have the square footage that big-box grocers have, but we take pride in our selection. We carry a wide range of produce, including organic, convenience, and specialty products.
Clean, healthy, and environmentally friendly products are very important to us, so it’s essential that we provide our customers with the choice of organic produce when available. We have also seen a rise in demand for organic produce throughout the years as people learn more about its benefits (less chemical exposure, higher nutrient density, and positive environmental impact).
Produce department at Eataly Chicago
Do you source directly from any organic farms? If so, can you talk about those relationships—how you cultivate them and why they are important to Eataly?
Prior to COVID, for logistical reasons, we worked closely with our main produce distributors in each city to bring us local farm and farmers market products. During COVID, though, some of our main vendors took a step back from working with these farms or visiting farmers markets. After all, they had no restaurant business. We saw this as an opportunity to go direct to these local farms (for example, Harry's Berries and Murray Family Farms)—and fortunately many were willing and able to do so.
These relationships have been great, and we have been very fortunate to continue working with these farms and getting their amazing produce delivered to us straight from their fields—it just can’t get any fresher! Recently, our distributors started picking up produce from local farms again, so we now have renewed access to the farms that haven’t had the ability to deliver to us directly during these unfortunate times.
"Clean, healthy, and environmentally friendly products are very important to us, so it’s essential that we provide our customers with the choice of organic produce when available." -Kristen Quito
Can you tell us about some of the distributors you work with?
Baldor is our partner for retail produce in our East Coast locations (Boston and NYC), and it’s a great collaboration. They are well-versed in the produce world, and it has been very beneficial to us to have a partner that understands the ins and outs of the business and has in-depth product knowledge and farm connections. We also work with Charlie’s Produce in LA. They are a retail-focused vendor, and their product mix is about 65-percent organic/35-percent conventional, with a significant focus on local farms.
Eataly's East Coast produce distributor Baldor
Have you noticed any trends in organic produce sales over the last year or several years? What are some of your customers’ favorite items?
Organic produce demand has been consistently increasing as consumers become more environmentally conscious and desire healthy food options. Harry’s Berries strawberries from Oxnard, California is our bestselling produce item for the year, even given the limited seasonality. We buy and sell so many Harry’s Berries that we have been able to work with them directly. Frog Hollow Farm peaches and Murray Family Farms cherries are also customer favorites.
"We don’t have the square footage that big-box grocers have, but we take pride in our selection." -Kristen Quito
At all of its locations, Eataly prominently displays the Wendell Berry quote, “Eating is an agricultural act.” Can you talk about what that means to Eataly in terms of its mission and values?
This quote is really true of all food products, but it probably stands out in produce the most. At Eataly, we believe what you eat and how you select your food (aka shop) have an impact on our land and environment. While we are by definition an Italian marketplace, in highly perishable categories such as produce, meat, and fish, we strive to be as local and seasonal as possible because we believe it not only tastes better, but it’s also a better choice for the environment. And when it comes to the concept of eating locally and seasonally, there is nothing more Italian than that!
Produce department at Eataly's new Dallas location
Can you talk a bit about your company’s marketing and consumer education efforts related to organic produce?
Sure. We aim to label everything that is organic, and we charge a highly competitive prices for our organics. We also love to do “storytelling”—sharing the history, varieties of products, and sustainable practices of the farms we work with. We do this through in-store signage as well as via our website and social media.
During normal times, inviting our producers in for consumer demos is our ideal way to communicate. COVID has made this impossible, but we look forward to restarting this safely when we can.
Eataly uses in-store signage to tell the story of organic produce
Eataly has a lovely rustic produce display style—showcasing items in small wicker baskets. Can you give us some insight into your merchandising strategy?
Eataly doesn't have the same amount of produce square footage as a traditional big-box grocer, so we have to be creative in how we merchandise. We aim for a European farmers market feeling. It's important to us that apples are displayed just as beautifully as prosciutto!
"At Eataly, we believe what you eat and how you select your food (aka shop) have an impact on our land and environment." -Kristen Quito
How has the COVID-19 situation been affecting Eataly, particularly its produce department?
In most situations, we have seen produce sales grow, along with other fresh categories. Customers are seeking out healthy fresh products and cooking more. Space permitting, we have expanded our retail produce footprint in our stores, so customers feel safe while browsing.
Eataly's creative merchandising display for organic produce items (Los Angeles)
What’s your favorite part about your job?
My favorite part of my job is working directly with local farms for our stores across North America. For example, we have grown our farmers market relationships in LA and are now able to work closely with amazing organic farms such as Harry’s Berries, Murray Family Farms, and Apricot Lane Farms. Working more closely with our marketing team to bring these farms' stories to life is also another great part of the job.