"It starts with an idea, a concept" is how celebrated chef and Emmy winner Lidia Bastianich describes what launched her into the food business some four decades ago.
That idea began with a single restaurant in Queens, N.Y., in 1971. Today, Bastianich oversees her own Italian food line, Lidia's, in partnership with daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali, and is a best-selling author and partner in many other restaurant ventures. Some of those include the popular Italian-centric food hall Eataly, which whom she collaborates with her son Joe Bastianich, chef Mario Batali and Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti.
On Thursday, June 29, Bastianich sat down with TheStreet at Eataly in New York's Flatiron District to discuss the business fueled by her love of Italian food.
What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Q: How do you spot a good business opportunity?
A: There is a sense to the energy that's happening. But usually, it is research, you start it because you have a plan. You ask yourself, does this opportunity fit your plan? Does it have all the requirements or all the important points that you deem important in developing that business? Then you mash the things together. There is always the understanding that you have to work at and development it. That, of course, is part of the plan.
Q: So what is the work, the process of building a business and a brand?
A: You begin with an idea, a concept. There has to be a need out there; there has to be a want from the customer for what you're offering. Having a long relationship and building a brand is about developing trust with the customer. It's about delivering what you promised and delivering a good deal to your customer. It's a give and take. Both sides should win, whether it's by the experience, the quality of the product or the price.
And, of course, it's about making sure your business thrives and grows.
Q: All businesses have missteps. How do you deal with such challenges?
A: You have to always have your antennas out to know what the customer is feeling about your business. Is it positive? Is it enthusiastic?
There is always a negative element that can enter into a business, such as a press element of a disgruntled customer. You have to really look for that. With social media, your reputation is more spread out. You should put your tentacles out there constantly to find out what that reputation is.
If there is a problem, you should analyze and address it immediately. One of the worst things to do is defend yourself and say, "I didn't do that." It's best to think about the problem or the complaint. Is it valid? Chances are, some of it is. To deal with, you need to use knowledgeable people around you. Or, you hire experts in finance or the press or whatever you need to get you to the right place.
Q: At this year's Fancy Foods Show, Italian food vendors had the largest presence by far—30,000 square feet. Why?
A: Italian food is the No. 1 ethnic food loved by Americans, so there's a real potential for growth. Italian producers don't miss that opportunity.
The Italian food industry is the second largest exporter from Italy; the first is machinery. All that depends on producing and selling the food.
There are 20 regions in Italy, which are governed by the central government. The government gives the regions money to promote their specialties and organize such trips to the Fancy Food Show, for example, to find importers and buyers. It makes good business sense to attend such a show, because New York is the epicenter of the American market.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Italian food is wonderful and delicious. The food not only brings good nourishment, but it also offers tradition with a history behind it and part of a story of a people. And those bring a genuine authenticity that rings true with consumers.
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