Domino’s Pizza is calling it quits in Italy and closing down their operations. Already last summer the company had been shutting some of their locations and limiting deliveries, but citing poor sales, by early spring, a decision was made to pull the plug on all 29 locations in the country.
The question is, what kind of market research did they do before expanding into Italy? Opening a pizza franchise in Italy is like the proverbial “bringing coal to Newcastle”, a pointless or redundant operation. Did the CEO’s really think that, given a choice of artisanal, freshly-made pizza in the country that invented it, the customer would choose the American commercially-made knock-off?
When news broke of Domino’s downfall in Italy, it quickly spread on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, with many commentators quipping and joking that the closure should surprise no one. Some were more than just surprised: “As someone who works at Domino’s, the fact that Domino’s thought they had any chance whatsoever in Italy is astounding.”
Underlining the issue of cultural authenticity, when interviewed on a Rome street, Bologna resident Samuele Lacucci says in a Youtube video: “It doesn’t make sense. It’s like me going to England to make fish and chips!” Another joked: “It’s always so heartwarming to see a corporation fail to destroy the uniqueness of something as preserved as Italian pizza. American pizza should just stay in America.”
Italy is proud of its culinary heritage and pizza is its national treasure, a veritable symbol of the Bel Paese. This is a nation that takes its food seriously. It’s not by chance that the Slow Food movement that went on to become a beacon for foodies all over the globe was founded by an Italian, Carlo Petrini. Nor is it by chance that Italians put a premium on using only the freshest ingredients—and that Campania, the region just south of Rome–is the epicenter of mozzarella production. The hybrid “abominations”, like pineapple pizza, concocted in the US or elsewhere, may appeal to young people who aspire to be cool and outward-looking, but it would take more than that to overcome centuries of tradition and to keep Domino’s in business in Italy.
Starbucks represents a similar conundrum. Can an international franchise that has adulterated the standards for a cappuccino or an espresso on a global level, adopting ridiculously inappropriate Italian words like grande and venti to create an Italian “atmosphere”, be successful in a country where there is a “bar” (café) on virtually every street where the “atmosphere” is genuine and the espresso and cappuccino authentic?
Italian coffee culture originated in Venice in the 16th century with the import of the product through the port and later in 1720, with the opening of the first coffee shop. Starbucks was founded in Seattle in 1971 as a coffee bean purveyor.
Just as there may be the homesick tourist who orders a Domino’s pizza looking for a taste of home, there may be some who duck into Starbucks for the exact same ”venti” they get on a daily basis, but any savvy and sophisticated traveler would know that the real thing is not found in a franchise that operates in every corner of the world–giving you exactly the same product–but where the pizza or the espresso were born and are venerated. Even more relevant is the idea that in fact, we travel to widen our horizons and embrace new experiences. Searching for what you already had at home is no more than armchair travel at a premium cost.
While for some “fusion”is the best thing to have happened to cuisine–an exciting way to put globalization on your plate, so to speak–for others it’s a scourge that has led to some serious cultural (mis)appropriation, like Domino’s marketing their globalized, commercialized pizza in a country that prizes authenticity above all else. For some it’s a way to embrace all the buzz words popular today–cultural inclusivity chief among these. For others, not so much.
Meridien Mach recalls how as a child she was ashamed to bring her bánh mì sandwich to school because frequently her classmates would express disgust at the unfamiliar sight and smell of the Vietnamese specialty. Recalling the incident in the present, she is now ashamed not of the sandwich, but to have been ashamed of her culture. Yet, “Now, I am seeing restaurants not owned by Vietnamese Americans selling ‘bánh mì’ and modifying it to have American cold cuts or pork belly rather than the traditional meats from Vietnamese cuisine and the French pâté. When restaurateurs take cultural foods and modify them, they disrespect the culture and those that were ostracized for it. When making another culture’s food inauthentically, we fail to respect the culture it originated from, reinforce stereotypes and thus, contribute to oppression known as food cultural appropriation.”
Here’s some good advice given by industry insiders to restaurateurs to help them avoid cultural appropriation: “remember that this food can be an important part of the identities of many people. You may not share their experiences. You do not share the exact kind of connection to this food.” I wonder if a franchise like Domino’s or Starbucks has ever heard of this advice.
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