MERCATO METROPOLITANO: A FOOD MOVEMENT LIKE NO OTHER

Bread together

The meaning of a company is to break bread together.

I do not mean this metaphorically. The Latin origin of the word ‘company’ is from companis; literally translated, it means ‘bread together’.

The etymology of this word is so beautiful, so powerful. It tells us that a company should be about people — people being together and sharing their goods with one another.

Yet I look around and I find that so many companies are as far from this definition as it is possible to be. It is not about the collective but the individual. Individual shareholders and CEOs who care far more for the money they make than their people — their employees, their customers and their local communities.

It is why I chose to start a very different type of company in 2015. One where breaking bread together would not just be the inspiration for what we do, but the physical action of our customers. I wanted to start a food market unlike any other — in fact, a food movement, grounded in an ethos of bringing nutritious food to communities in a way that brings the best outcomes for people and our planet. Perhaps most importantly, doing this in a way that brought people together.

Five years on, we have fed millions of people, regenerated a community — with our eyes set on many more — and given opportunities to previously excluded members of society; to work, to learn new skills, to eat and to be a part of something much bigger than the individual.

We are Mercato Metropolitano and we are a company in the truest sense of the word.

The right to food

Everyone has the right to food. We all know this, it is an absolute human right. But it is a human right that has been exploited by businesses who are far more inclined to feed cheap, chemical-filled, processed food to the population to boost their profit margins, rather than give them natural and healthy ingredients.

But the price of this moral sacrifice is far higher than the economic cost of using the right ingredients in the first place. There is of course the environmental cost of battery farm animals and mass-produced processed food, but there is also the human cost; unhealthy citizens, obese and at risk of dying of heart disease, cancer or even COVID-19.

In fact, this coronavirus began in the cruel live food markets of China; the virus itself a product of a global society that will sell food in any form and at the expense of animal, human and world health.

It is precisely the opposite approach that Mercato Metropolitano takes. Our mission is not to make money, it is to open people’s eyes to what we eat and why we should expect better from the corporations who feed us on a daily basis. And by feeding people in the right way ourselves, we are showing that there is a better way.

The Mercato story

Mercato Metropolitano started with a pilot project in 2015 during the World Expo in Milan, regenerating a 150,000 square foot disused railway station. The development was carefully planned to retain the site’s original appearance, which nurtured the local community’s affection for a special part of their urban history.

Over a four-month period, we saw in excess of two million visitors. It captured the imagination of the city and showed to me that a permanent change in global food culture and a new approach to community regeneration could happen.

This brought us to London where we looked to establish our first permanent marketplace and embed our vision into a city on a long-term basis: to begin the food movement that we urgently needed.

We were offered many sites across the city in high-value areas. But none of them felt right for what we wanted to achieve. Urban regeneration was and remains a central goal for us — it had to be a home that provided more than just a place for people to eat. Mercato Metropolitano had to be a home for the community — full stop.

And it was on the site of a disused paper factory in Elephant & Castle, Southwark, that we found exactly what we were looking for. It was abandoned, in an area certainly not renowned for tourism or widespread gatherings. Many questioned our logic and asked how we could bring thousands of people to this forgotten spot every day and make the difference we hoped.

Since, we have proved so many people wrong. In 2019, four million people came through the doors of Mercato Metropolitano, and we opened our second site, in Mayfair, at the end of last year on the site of the disused St Mark’s church.

We are today, a staple of the London food landscape and most importantly, we have achieved this while remaining true to our ethos.

The secrets of our success

What we have also shown is that companies can be run for the benefit of consumers and local people, not for a pure purpose of making money. Our unique revenue sharing business model means that all of our traders pay a percentage of their takings as rent rather than a flat rate. It is an approach that has protected many of these independent businesses over the past few months when our activity was halted by the pandemic. We can only be as successful as our vendors are — and so we experience the difficult times together as well as the good.

I believe this is the business model of the future. The current mainstream approach to renting is completely unsustainable. We are living through a time now when so many businesses are unsure whether they can keep their operations running in the short-term, which threatens their long-term survival as they will simply be unable to afford to pay their bills. Even before this, you could see rents rocketing to levels that few can ever afford.

And for what reason? It does not benefit the landlord, who must constantly find new tenants for their space as one business after another fails to earn enough to maintain their rent payments, and it leaves many small businesses and their people redundant.

Revenue sharing means that over time, a business can build up its customer base and gain trust with the community. It can become established and successful, which is then shared with the land owner. It is a model that gives independent vendors a better chance of survival — especially in times of crisis — and in the long-term, the landlord greater revenues.

Because of the sustainable nature of our trading partners — we have provided jobs opportunities to hundreds of people in the local area. Through our refugee cooking classes, initiatives to tackle holiday hunger, lunches for vulnerable, lonely and elderly people, and countless more community outreach programmes — we are living out our vision of regenerating a community in a way that is not soulless gentrification, but supportive development — protecting jobs, people and the heritage of an area.

And finally, what we have done is realise my own dream of bringing people together over food as a community — going right back to that word, companies: bread together.

Food is such an important aspect of our lives. It is not just something to feed us, but central to some of the greatest moments of our lives. Pause for a moment and think — what are the best meals you have ever eaten?

I can guarantee you that every single one was not eaten alone. It was cooked by your mother, or on an evening out with your partner, or on a holiday with friends. You were surrounded by people you love and possibly people you don’t know.

But key to it was the people. Without them, a meal can be delicious but not fully satisfying.

This is why I am so passionate about food, why I love it so much. When it is nutritious it is good for our physical health, but equally as important is its impact on our mental health, our emotions and our memories when it is shared by people.

When we re-opened for widespread trading at the start of July, following lockdown — (our grocery and delivery service had remained active for the community throughout the pandemic) — even with social distancing measures in place we brought in more customers than the equivalent weekend the year before. We were the very first place that many people had visited in almost four months!

Why? Because when it is available and affordable, people will choose food that is nutritious and sustainable. And after four months of social isolation, what better place to enjoy that first meal with others than a place that is designed for communities to come together over food?

Changing the food culture, together

Mercato Metropolitano is a place for the community to gather — to break bread, to laugh, and to learn that the approach to food that has become so normal over the past 70 years is not inevitable. All of our trading partners are small, independent producers. Using only the best local ingredients sourced from independent suppliers to create global cuisine from Italy, Germany, France, Turkey, Greece, Argentina, India, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Lebanon and more.

Our ambition stretches as far and into as diverse a selection of communities as we have different selections of food. We want Mercato Metropolitano to be a cultural point for cities around the world — to deliver a global change to food culture.

Today’s society is facing an increasingly urgent crisis. Climate change and an increasing loss of biodiversity are threatening our planet. Non-renewable energies are still our largest resource. Pollution has deteriorated our air, soils and oceans. At the same time, the global population continues to increase, expected to reach approximately nine billion in 2050.

This is the first in a series of articles on how we can tackle this crisis, through the creation of a better food culture. Over the next six months I will be looking at the critical issues facing our world today through the lens of nutritious, and sustainable food:

· The health of our people and our planet: from the right to good food that for 70 years has been undermined by supermarkets and fast food corporations, to the role of poorly-sourced and unhealthy food in the pandemic we are currently living through.

· The supportive development of communities: from how we combat food poverty in our society, to finding new ways of embracing all people and creating social inclusion and cohesion.

· The future of our cities: from how we connect our urban centres with nature and consumers with producers by re-establishing physical connections, to helping communities regenerate in a way that is sustainable and allows areas to keep their unique characteristics.

This is a journey I want to take with you. I look forward to sharing my views on these subjects, providing insights into how we can create a better food culture and opening up the discussion for solutions. Let’s break bread together.

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Andrea Rasca

Founder & Chief Executive Dreamer, Mercato Metropolitano. A global movement driving sustainable food development to tackle the world’s biggest societal issues