Upon entering Boston’s Italian market, Eataly, one can immediately feel the pervading sense of luxury. Starting with quality wines, cheeses, meats, and small bites, customers begin their mini Italian journey. After passing through sections of delicious selections of appetizer-like foods, customers move through the center of the marketplace where restaurants and food stands create a complete sensory experience analogous to the main meal in a gustatory journey. Throughout the entire experience, the Italian market presents itself in a very raw and natural form, turning away from luxury in the form of material wealth and focusing the customer on what people commonly associate with Italy to be a certain luxury of life. In fact, although one could easily see how expensive all of the products were in the market, the wealth required to lead this sort of “Italian” lifestyle is hidden behind the fact that it does not present many directly obvious or glaring forms of material luxury. However, the one place where it failed with this consistency in the representation of Italian luxury was, surprisingly, in the chocolate section.
The first important aspect to note about the section of the market that sold chocolate was that it came at the very end. A customer would have to travel through the rest of the store in order to reach this final area. This works for Eataly in the sense that it is logical to structure the market in the same way that a typical meal is structured. Chocolate and desserts come at the very end, clearly serving as an indulgence to finish off a gustatory experience in a perfect way. It is one last peek into paradise.
Throughout the journey up to this point, the experience and the luxurious ambiance has stayed fairly consistent. The customer is reminded of a simple, farmer’s market style of Italian life, and the luxury is communicated through quality of life rather than quality of material ownership. This is a crucial strategy that appeals widely to consumers given the new, developing concept of luxury, as Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello describe in Luxury: a rich history:
“… ‘luxury is today more a condition than an object’. In other words, luxury is not just about acquiring an object, but is rather a way of living, of thinking, and of aspiring. Luxury aims to recover its uniqueness … by providing an experience that is unique in the acquisition and enjoyment of such goods … that might not necessarily be exceptional per se,” (McNeil and Riello 235).
However, there is a sudden shift from that environment when approaching the chocolate section. In fact, the brands and types of chocolate displayed convey two different messages to the customer, both of which distinguish themselves from the marketplace as a whole.
The first of the two atmospheres is one of material luxury, appealing to the artisanal quality of a product. These chocolates exhibited common packaging themes of shiny gold and silver labels, dark backgrounds, and text like “premium chocolate”, “product of Italy”, or “classic”. Many included obscure and unreadable Italian words in an attempt to appeal to consumers through use of smooth, sophisticated sounding words. Additionally, on signs that describe the brands, the customer can read various quotes that generally embody this appeal to Italian artisanry:
“Since 1826, Caffarel has been making chocolate in the traditional Piemontese way.”
“Baratti & Milano is part of the history and tradition of Italian confectionery.”
“Novi’s passion for chocolate stems from the ancient confectionery traditions of Piemonte.”
These bars and products were almost entirely pure dark chocolate products and the most commonly added ingredients (if any) were “Italian” additions like whole hazelnuts, coffee, or lemon. Price points were incredibly high, with products costing, for example, $55/lb, $44/lb, $36/lb, or $77/lb, to name a few.
An important aspect to note is that these brands that appealed to the artisanal and “pure Italian” quality of chocolates often failed to connect their story to the rest of the chocolate supply chain. As elaborated upon by McNeil and Riello: “A great deal of the national appeal of brands is created by cultural associations cemented through the clever use of advertising at a global level. Globalization, however, creates at the same time a sense of brand displacement. The ‘country of production’ of a product is often different from the ‘country of origin’ of the brand …, ” (McNeil and Riello 283). These companies are clearly seeking to appeal to a national identity in advertising their products, but consequently end up obscuring the entire supply chain and ignoring the regions and people that play a crucial role in the farming of cacao.
Unsurprisingly, these brands thus did not often cite any sort of certification or effort to integrate their chocolate production story with the rest of the supply chain. The focus was restricted to chocolate’s journey in Italy. This seems to be a characteristic that plagues smaller and more specialized chocolate producers in general:
“In the small, specialty chocolate maker category, there is some transparent trade, but in general the information about amount of specialty cacao purchased and price paid for that cacao provided by individual companies is minimal, and the burden thus falls to producers, consumers, or researchers to seek it out for themselves, an often impossible task,” (Martin).
The entire journey of cacao before reaching the hands of Italian chocolate manufacturers is nonexistent. This phenomenon is most often characteristic of nations that have been able to establish an international chocolate reputation. As Kristy Leissle states in Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate:
“… somewhere along the way, the place of manufacturebecame more important to appreciating chocolate than the place of origin of the beans. ‘Belgian chocolate’ has more purchase than ‘Ghanaian cocoa,’ because chocolate eaters have become accustomed to the particular styles preferred by a handful of national palates…,” (Leissle 22).
So, clearly, while the rest of the market exudes a raw form of lifestyle luxury, these bars communicate a very different message. They create an association with material wealth – that of an elite and distinguishing sense.
However, this is not the only theme established in the chocolate market in Eataly. There exists another subset of chocolates that seem almost completely removed from the Italian artisanal quality of chocolate. These brands instead focus all of their energy in promoting an exotic image. The packaging is smaller, squarer, and rarely employs dark, luxurious colors. Packages are white or colorful, made with plastic or thin cardboard. They do not frequently employ gold text or luxurious images. Yet, almost all of the chocolate sold remained dark, with few products dipping below 60% dark chocolate.
These brands add various unique ingredients like Sichuan pepper, matcha, passionfruit, goji berries, ginseng, and more into their products. The choice of ingredient addition tends to go along with what is commonly associated with Western perception of health or medicine in foreign (particularly Eastern) countries. Western culture has adopted exactly these ingredients (tropical fruits, Asian spices, and more) as a part of a new, hipster health fad. The fact that these “healthy” ingredients were chosen to be added to chocolate makes it clear that these brands are trying to appeal to chocolate’s exotic, fantastical quality: that is has “magical” health benefits. Other brands on the shelves made an even more obvious appeal to this common conception of chocolate, associating specific bars with arbitrary qualities such as “health”, “beauty”, or “leisure”.
This is an interesting characteristic of these brands, since they seem to advertise more strongly the idea of “quality of life/condition” as described by McNeil and Riello: “[f]ood, but also wine, spirits, and confectionery, are appreciated not just because of their price or intrinsic taste but because of their lifestyle association,” (McNeil and Riello 240). This would seem to be consistent with the ambience of the rest of the market. However, the aggressive attempt to mash together the rest of the world under the single label of “exotic” in order to distinguish their chocolate makes it difficult to see how it connects to the apparent Italian authenticity of the rest of the store or even to the regions of world that it is trying to represent.
Maybe because of this appeal, these chocolates also have very high price points. Prices included $40/lb, $60/lb, $74/lb, and even reached $180/lb at times. Yet, we can see that none of these brands have truly succeeded in representing the world for what it is through chocolate; thus, they justify their price points through an incomplete image of the world and the consumer’s role in the supply chain. Evidently, the mixing of ingredients from various nations that are known to have an exotic appeal to western customers is a testament to the fact that these chocolate brands may be choosing to oversimplify the gastronomical complexity and value of other cultures and nations, choosing instead to group it under a single category meant to entertain western customers more than educate them.
As an example of this, the brand “Domori” focuses very seriously on the origin of the cacao bean used to produce each bar, making that the focus of the packaging on their chocolate products. However, taking a closer look at this “origin conscious packaging” reveals a slightly different story. For example, for chocolate from Venezuela, one can see that the center of the image on the packaging is that of a sloth on a tropical tree. However, sloths have absolutely nothing to do with cacao besides the fact that are both present in Venezuelan ecosystems.
On another packaging, the focus is on criollo cacao, with the central image being a cacao tree and a single pod broken open to reveal the inside. Yet, the cacao pod is represented poorly, with seeds looking more like dry nuts loosely packed in the pod than the real, dense, fruit covered seeds.
From all of this information, it appears that the brand appeal to the Italian craft of chocolate provides a more accurate and consistent story than the exotic brands. Although they may not present a complete representation of Italy through their chocolate products either, the other exotic brands fall more easily into traps of misrepresentation. As Leissle states, “Packaging aesthetics range from whimsical … to sober … but the primary lure is nearly always an exotic representation of chocolate’s origins,” (Leissle 25), and this is exactly what can be seen in the products presented at Eataly.
As another example, the brand donna Elvira’s chocolate packaging includes winding and twisting tree branches, with cacao pods growing not from the trunks of these trees, but from the ends of flimsy, almost twig-like branches, which is known to be inaccurate. Cacao grows on the trunks of the tree as well as on the lower, thicker, and sturdier branches. Additionally, climbing through these branches are figures that appear to be half monkey, half human, with facial features reminding one of blackface. As Robertson says,
“The use of black people in advertising has a long history. As Jan Pieterse demonstrates, products made available through the use of slave labour, such as coffee and cocoa, often used, and many still use, images of black people to enhance their luxury status,” (Robertson 36).
So it is not surprising, given this information, that we find a brand that egregiously and unacceptably exploits this same advertising scheme that has been used since the times of colonialism. Moreover,
“… images of Africa in U.S. media fall generally into one or two categories – Africa as ‘trouble,’ which includes poverty, conflict, debt, and HIV/AIDS, and Africa as ‘curiosity,’ which involved tribal people wearing colorful clothes and beads, hunting, gathering, and living close to nature,” (Leissle 26).
From this, it is evident that the brand donna Elvira has appealed strongly to the second stereotype, depicting black people as wild, silly monkeys in a natural environment gathering cacao pods. Not only does this packaging serve as a misrepresentation of cacao farming, but of an entire race and region of the world.
Additionally, these brands appealed to exoticism through modes of production, truly extending their attempts to distinguish themselves in every manner possible. Chocolate brands advertised modica chocolate, cold pressed chocolate, or handmade chocolate. In fact, as Leissle writes, “ … images are powerful, because they generate an escapist fantasy, inviting the shopper to experience a place more wonderful and tropical than wherever they are (probably) standing when buying the bar … Unusual, seductive words – Sambirano, Dos Rios, Esmeraldas – localize the chocolate in a mysterious place, always far distant,” (Leissle 25).
Therefore, when one looks close enough, it is quite obvious that these brands are looking for an exotic appeal, trusting that their customers will not pay too much attention to the details (or overlooking them themselves). This basic exotic appeal avoids a truly in-depth connection between the customer and the journey of the cacao bean to the chocolate bar. The goal is to create a fantastical world for the customer, not to represent the reality of the regions and cultures that it is taking advantage of.
On the other hand, those brands appealing to luxury and quality fell into another trap with these exotic brands of associating quality with perfection, sustainability, and success. “Even more, it is not uncommon to encounter the dangerous idea that quality of chocolate is directly linked with quality of life of cacao producer. That a cacao sample is of superior quality does not imply that those who produced it have better lives. Flavor is insufficient evidence,” (Martin). It seems like this is the mistake that many customers of Eataly could potentially be making, thinking that quality of chocolate is directly associated with a perfect brand engagement with all aspects of the supply chain.
It is clear that the chocolate section of Eataly presents an inconsistent image with regards to the rest of the marketplace, and the various messages that it attempts to communicate obscure many aspects of the cacao supply chain. It attracts people with claims of luxury and exoticism that end up creating a false sense of “chocolate consciousness”. This is not to say that the chocolates are of poor quality. In fact, they are very likely to be delicious. However, this is to say that whether or not these brands are aware of it, they appear to still fall victim to common stereotypes and marketing strategies, overlooking the complete impact of their products on the way they represent the chocolate supply chain and their actions to consumers.
Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” University of California Press, vol. 13, no. 3, 2013, pp. 22–31., http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2013.13.3.22.
Martin, Carla D. “Sizing the Craft Chocolate Market.” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, 31 Aug. 2017, chocolateinstitute.org/blog/sizing-the-craft-chocolate-market/.
McNeil, Peter, and Giorgio Riello. Luxury: a Rich History. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2009.