The Italian Trade Agency: Bringing Italy to You, One Authentic Product at a Time
For 95 years, the Italian Trade Agency has worked to promote Italian food, wine and goods around the world. They are very good at their job, but in fairness, how hard could it be to convince people to eat Italian food and drink Italian wine? Among its other duties, the agency—part of the Italian government—also helps Italian companies branch out to foreign markets, and conversely, helps American companies find Italian business partners.
“Our origins date back to 1926,” says Marco Saladini, trade commissioner for Italian Trade Agency. “We actually started with checking agricultural farming products that were exported, trying to affirm their quality overseas—that was one of the main items on our trade balance sheet at that time. There was not a good enough reputation for our goods, of which we had plenty, and we wanted to sell them.”
The organization—then called the Istituto nazionale per le esportazioni—established a symbol of quality for those Italian products that met the highest standards. Foreign markets embraced the seal, and Italian companies took great pride in earning it. That remains the case today. “If you look at some wine corks coming from Italy, you can still see our old logo and name, which some older producers keep there as a way of affirming the quality of their products,” says Saladini. In the decades that followed, his agency’s efforts expanded to include other products: such things as fashion, furniture, industrial goods and industrial machinery—especially in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The basic idea of the Italian Trade Agency, as it exists today, is simple. There are 195 countries in the world (and that number is always changing), most of which have their own peculiarities about trade and foreign investment. Do you know how to sell tomato sauce in Tunisia? What happens when the United States elects a new president? Or when a country withdraws from the European Union? Or goes to war? Or sets up an embargo? Of course you don’t—but Italian Trade Agency does, and that means we needn’t worry ourselves with the finer points of international trade while planning the dinner menu.
A moment’s thought when you are walking down any given aisle at Rouses, and it should occur to you what a miraculous time it is to be alive. For all the ills of the world, one can idly amble down the pasta section and pick up a bag of linguini handmade by Italian artisans whose village has been doing it for more than 200 years. Your grandparents would have needed an ocean liner ticket, a steamer trunk, a translator, a map and a month to do the same thing.
That sort of progress—the sharing of Italy’s culture with our own, and the integration not only of Italian-style cuisine, but actual Italian cuisine itself, into the American diet—is only possible because of the Italian Trade Agency. Through formal education by way of its masters program called CorCE—the Corso di specializzazione in Commercio Estero, or “Specialization Course in Foreign Trade”—and through one-on-one consultations and international trade shows, the Italian Trade Agency enables local Italian businesses to navigate the uncertain waters of foreign commerce.
To do its job, the agency has offices in 70 countries around the world, including five offices in the United States. Each is responsible for a sector of Italian trade. The New York City office handles food and wine. In Chicago, they focus on supermarkets such as Rouses and private-label brands. “We have expanded our network to different countries, and we cover more sectors,” says Saladini. “Recently, we have begun trying to get into the services industry—architectural design, for instance, and software development and computer gaming—but that is early yet. Our strongholds are still manufactured goods and machinery.”
Still, the age in which we live demands consideration for the latest technologies. “We definitely care for our advanced tech and innovation, and we have been given the mandate to work on ‘investment attraction,’” Saladini explains. Pre-COVID, the agency participated in myriad in-person conferences and trade shows showcasing Italian startups and innovative projects. Circumstances have changed that, however. “We’re trying to we’re trying to stay current with global trends and tools by increasing our digital presence and improving our digital footprint. We have a fairly articulate website, both in Italian and English. Recently, we bought a platform for organizing digital trade shows online—this is part of our work to help companies cope with the COVID-19 crisis, and we provide extra support and free services to Italian companies, who we know have been burdened by the crisis.”
COVID-19 is a worldwide calamity, and though some countries are doing better than others, the nature of an office like the Italian Trade Agency means that until the pandemic stabilizes, in-person events are difficult (if not impossible) to hold. Virtualization efforts are thus essential. Because the notion of, say, a “virtual trade show” is so new, however, the whole endeavor is a heavy lift.
“It’s a big challenge, definitely,” says Saladini. “When it comes to trade promotion, events, or meetings, anything that requires interaction is now virtual. We’ve been doing our fair share of webinars lately, and we have had to convert some of the programs that we had previously designed to make them work with this new modality.”
In order to connect U.S. and other foreign-based businesses with Italian companies, some of the Italian Trade Agency’s most aggressive efforts can be found at italianprivatelabel.com, which is a business-to-business website designed to help companies identify and connect with Italian manufacturers of so-called “private-label” products. Rouses olive oil and sparkling Italian water, for example, are sourced from the finest such producers in Italy. The Italian Trade Agency works with companies of all sizes who might be interested in pursuing something similar. Italian companies register, and foreign companies have at their disposal an index of reliable potential partners.
“It’s quite a useful repository of several hundred companies that are ready to export to the United States, ready to sell here, because they’ve already been doing their due diligence: getting their certificates and their qualifications, for example. They can make the products for which they are famous for U.S. companies according to the required specifications.” He adds of the Italian Trade Agency’s work to connect businesses: “It’s a small but lively effort.”
When travel is impossible, creativity is the order of the day. “We have over 50 companies in Italy that would like to come to to the United States, but it will take a while before that happens. We had to redesign that program, inserting virtual components.” Until COVID clears, those companies can take this time to familiarize their employees with their U.S.-based business incubators, and their executives with the U.S. way of doing things. “The pandemic is an occasion for us to contribute to the training of Italian companies to situate them in their new markets before they even get there. It’s an interesting problem.”
Such detail-oriented work is just what the Italian Trade Agency does. “It’s very important for us, and for the companies we work with, that we do the nitty-gritty, day-to-day business matchmaking. And we are really proud of our work because finding customers is not easy. The country is big and people are scattered everywhere, and every business and sector has its own peculiarities and particularities. Despite all this, we still get good business leads for our companies.”
One company working with the agency is Rouses Markets. Jason Martinolich, the vice president of natural and specialty foods for Rouses, describes the Italian Trade Agency as a vital, trusted partner when it comes to finding established Italian companies who can meet the needs of Rouses shoppers. “There are a lot of different manufacturers in Italy that focus on food,” he says. “Many of them are small mom and pop operations, and some of them are bigger, more established manufacturers. The Italian Trade Agency helps us weed through a lot of the companies that aren’t necessarily ready to export to us. It helps us find the people that are ready to do business in the United States with retailers like ourselves.”
Many of the companies in Italy that work with Rouses are family businesses, he says, passed down from generation to generation. “They oftentimes do things the way they’ve always done them, going back centuries. And in a lot of cases, that is the best way to do it—especially as it relates to product quality and keeping recipes consistent. That’s what Italian products are known for, and they just get better and better at what they do.”
Rouses Markets is itself a third-generation family business, and so it has a special, spiritual connection with the Italian way of doing things. “It’s our heritage,” says Martinolich. “The Rouse family came from Italy, and like any Italian company, they take a great sense of pride in what they do, day in and day out.” As such, working with family businesses in Italy can be a lot easier. There is a mutual understanding. “It’s personal for both of us. Whatever we do, we do it together. It’s a partnership, and we want to do what’s best for both of us.”
The Italian Trade Agency helps Rouses offer truly authentic Italian products to shoppers. “Authenticity is very important to us. When we sourced, for example, a private-label balsamic vinegar for our stores, it was the Italian Trade Agency that taught us the best regions for getting said product.” This was the Modena area of Northern Italy. Much in the way that Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, Modena is one of only two places that can make authentic balsamic vinegar. “It was important to us to have that label of authenticity on our private-label vinegar,” says Martinolich.
“When we buy the product from Italy, we typically pay a little bit more, but it’s worth it,” Martinolich explains. “With the help of the Italian Trade Agency, we know that we have sourced authentic Italian products, from Italy, made by happy workers. We want to give our customers confidence that when they buy a Rouses product, it’s an Italian product: 100% Italian.”
And as long as the Italian Trade Agency is there, those products always will be.