Alex Saper: The Innovation Interview

Alex Saper, Partner & General Manager of Eataly shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and how Google Glass could change food retail shopping experiences.

 Alex Saper started his career in finance but found himself unfulfilled. He wanted to peruse his passion for Italian food and wine and with his Italian language skills, began working at the Eataly founding flagship in Torino, Italy. As the company grew, he traveled to Japan to open more stores, studying the business to determine the best way to translate this amazing concept to his fellow New Yorkers.

Together with his brother, Adam, and New York restaurant veterans, Mario Batali and Joe and Lidia Bastianich, the very first Eataly USA located in NYC started to take shape. Two years later, Alex thanks his hometown for the continued support.

How do you define innovation, and what does it mean to you?

Innovation to me means taking something that already exists and improving it. This is what we are doing at Eataly: we are creating a new experience in a comfortable setting that is appealing to consumers.

Eataly is something new and different; it’s about the quality of customer service and the quality of the food. But in terms of innovation itself, we are taking the concept of European central markets and recreating them under one roof in America, all while simplifying the experience. Consumers get the full experience of an Italian marketplace without having to go to each individual vendor and take their wallet out 10 or 15 different times to pay for various items.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

It’s an interesting question. The food industry needs to embrace innovation to a certain extent. Owners, chefs, and industry executives are innovating, but if you look at the food industry over the past 20 years, food has definitely come a long way.

However, a lot of individuals are still working on the same kind of concept, the same kinds of restaurants. Very rarely these days does someone try a new restaurant concept, especially in New York City. In New York City, a lot of the restaurants have similar design, similar concepts, and similar food. It does not necessarily matter what kind of food they say they’re doing. The food tends to converge into a very similar thing.

So my sense is that we still have a lot to do in the food industry — not just in terms of restaurants but in terms of the food we buy and produce.

What is the best piece of advice that you have received?

The best piece of advice is something that I try to live by: I do not pretend that I know everything. No one knows everything. Listening to people and allowing yourself to learn from others is important.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

My greatest achievement is being able to do what I love. It is a dream come true for me to be involved with Eataly and to be running a business that has over 750 employees.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

While I still enjoy reading newspapers, I am starting to really get into digital. I am now reading some books digitally, but there is something nice about having a physical book in your hand.

What lessons did you learn when you started your career at Eataly in Japan that you applied to the opening of Eataly in New York City?

It is more than lessons, it was learning about how other cultures work. When you visit Japan, you see that it is a very, very different culture, and you learn how to adapt to and embrace the culture.

Eataly in Japan does very well because it is a different model that was built to embrace the Japanese culture, not fight it. In Japan they have a very strong food culture that we had to learn how to adapt to in the first few months that we were open. We have to understand the Japanese consumer and learn exactly what they wanted versus what Americans want.

Being able to adapt to different cultures while remaining Italian is one the most important lessons I learned. This experience of understanding consumers’ needs and wants and the way consumers buy food in Japan was very useful when we were opening Eataly in New York City.

What, if any, technologies are you using to track the flow of your customers through the store to optimize the placement of products and the overall customer experience?

We are not currently experimenting with any new technologies to optimize the customer experience. A lot of different companies have pitched us the concept, and we have passed since our store is an emotional place.

Most technologies cannot help you determine the emotional elements and impulses of consumer behavior. For example, when we first opened Eataly in New York City, the fresh pasta section was small, and we had shelves stocked with pasta we were selling. While the pasta was selling well, we decided to expand the fresh pasta station to allow consumers to watch us make the pasta and feel an emotional connection.

It is this emotional connection that software cannot tell you. On the other hand, software will tell you not to put your bakery in the store because you need more square footage to sell things, but this was not Eataly. At the end of the day, we sell more by showing consumers the food and how we make it — by creating an experience.

The experience directly correlates with the flow of consumers through the store. Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti studied this concept for five or six years before opening in Italy. When we opened the New York City store, we already had years of experience in understanding the best ways to organize the store. We used Oscar’s experience to design the flow of the New York store, not technology.

Are you currently experimenting with ways to integrate Google Glass into the overall Eataly experience? Perhaps an app that consumers can utilize to pay for their goods using an App or watch a video of Mario Batali cooking?

Google Glass is something that we would like to experiment with, but we have not yet. Google Glass appeals to us since it would allow us to enhance the consumers’ experience in the store.

How did Eataly’s collaboration with Sam Calagione’s Dogfish come together for La Birreria?

We knew Sam Calagione before we started Eataly New York. He is a phenomenal guy who created an incredible company with great beers. For the roof we wanted to do something different that would appeal to our customers, and we knew that Sam wanted to be involved with us. So, we created La Birreria.

A lot of individuals do wine bars, but very few people do beer bars that are not tied to a concept. At La Birreria, we brew some of the best beers you can find in Italy and America, plus we have great food.

Sam takes care of all of the beer, and he has been a tremendous help with the whole project.

What is the future of food retail industry?

I think a lot of individuals are going to continue to ask more and more about where their food is coming from. The industry will continue to innovate, but more than anything, the biggest thing is understanding where your food comes from and who is producing it.

With all the issues that we had over the past few years with the industrial food system, we still have a lot of work to do. Not only safe food, but good food. Consumers have to understand what they are buying and who is producing their food. There are so many places that do private labels with consumers not understanding who is producing their food.

This will be the next big change in the food industry, and this is something we are trying to do at Eataly. If a customer comes into Eataly, they will see who the producer is and where the food is from. Then consumers can look it up to learn more about where their food comes from.