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When you know yourself,
you learn to respect the nature,
eat healthily and live well.

In Conversation

GUIDO MARTINETTI

Entrepreneur and Organic Farmer, IT

January 1st, 2011

 

In a world accosted with mediocrity, friends and business partners, Guido Martinetti and Federico Grom, have engineered their reputation on an uncompromising commitment to excellence, and Grom, their gelato business, wears this signature. At the forefront of my conversation with Guido Martinetti, at his farm, Mura Mura, Costigliole d'Asti, Italy, stands quality—in nature, farming and relationships.

 

Guido, thank you for having me on your beautiful farmTell me, why gelatos? And where did it all begin?

Yes, it’s very, very easy. I love sweets, but I am also a little different; I like to run and swim, and they are philosophical kind of efforts because I love to stay alone, and it’s like yoga—

 

Meditative?

Exactly, exactly. I always say running and swimming is like yoga—you analyse yourself, and you analyse life. So when I run and swim, I don’t need a sweet dish. But if I don’t run or swim, I need sweets. When I was younger, my favourite sweet was ice cream.

While in school, I read an article in the Turin newspaper La Stampa that said except for a shop in Orvieto [Umbria] no one made gelato the natural way, without preservatives, without added colours, and without any aroma. So I went to Orvieto with my girlfriend, and we tasted the gelato, and I remember this gelato clearly. My girlfriend took the melon flavour, and I said, “No, how can you choose melon flavour?” I love chocolate and pistachio. Well, I took two flavours, and she took two. And I tasted her gelato; it was real melon! And I said, “The article is true!” So this hit me. But I didn’t think of it as work.

 

The gelato left a positive impact.

Exactly, exactly. And though Federico was a friend of mine since high school, we only got to know each other well when we served together in the Army.

 

It’s interesting how certain people weave in and out of our lives at the right time.

A lot. I talk about luck a lot. And I reflect on this a lot, exactly like you say. I was in the wine business and later, when Federico was working as a financial manager for a company; I took some wine for him, for his company. And we were talking about doing things like two regular guys, 26 and 27 years old. That’s when I told him about the article in La Stampa and that maybe we could make the best gelato with the best ingredients in the world; it was a quick dialogue. After ten days, Federico called me back and said: “Guido, we must meet.” By then, I had forgotten all about the gelato.

I said: “Federico, what’s happening?” Federico came with 60 pages of study about the world of gelato, and said: “This is what I studied in these ten days,” and he showed me a business plan to make gelato. Keep in mind that the gelato business was approachable to us because it was a very small shop, just 30 meters. And we needed little money to start; if the business required a big investment, it would have been impossible for us.

You can have an image of our personalities—Federico is constant and focused, and I am more about the ideas, the originality. If I hadn’t met Federico, my idea would have just remained an idea. I am conscious that Federico took that idea and made my idea a reality.

 

I admire your graciousness. I am sure Federico feels the same about you. It also pushes you to be your best at all times, right?

Exactly. And so now when I talk more and more about luck, it’s true. When you are 35 like Federico and me, and when you build a company yourself, with more than 500 employees, you feel a lot of responsibility for a lot of people, and this is the reason I wake up early in the morning, the reason I look for excellence. If I can look for excellence, I think there are a lot of people who enjoy it in different ways.

We must dream every day.

 

 

Is Grom gelato made with organic milk?

No, not at the moment [referring to organic milk]. In Italy, to find organic milk at the moment is very hard. One of the projects that Federico and I have is to have our cows, also for the manure. We need forty hectares, and at the same time, it’s a euro five million investment, and at the moment we cannot afford it; I hope to have the funds in four to five years. To have our cows will be a dream that becomes a reality.

 

And what about eggs?

Only organic.

 

Is organic farming appreciated in this part of the world [Piedmont, Italy], or has it changed with the times?

It’s incredible; the culture for food was much higher. Now I think 90 percent of the people in Europe don’t know that a cow must have a little cow before making milk. It’s surprising, yeah?

When you touch the land, the farm, with your hands,

as well as sell to the local markets, you have more food culture.

You weren’t obliged to harvest fruit and ripen it to sell from where you lived. When you trade in the local markets, you take it in the morning and sell it by the afternoon, so people are in the habit of eating fresher food full of flavour.

 

There was a time in India when one could buy fresh fruit from a vendor who went door to door with his basket or sold fresh produce from a cart. Increasingly, polished-symmetrical fruit, packaged in layers of plastic is preferred. Flavour doesn’t seem to be a priority.

Exactly. When you want to sell fresh fruit to the market, the first thing you look for is the aspect, the perfect shape and colour. For example, you find red peaches more attractive than peaches that are part yellow and part red. The people behind the farmers, who make variety selections, don’t look for flavour quality, aromatic quality, and tasting quality. They look for an appealing red colour. The market is also changing because I imagine that a nation grows by eight to ten percent [a year], but you must find your road after a while.

 

In countries such as India and China, it’s going to be difficult for food production to sustain population growth.

Yes, absolutely. And if the populations that you are talking about can pay, they come into the beef culture like Americans, which we cannot sustain. The approach to beef, the way cows are raised, is a significant problem, and dangerous for the planet. Do you eat meat?

 

No, I don’t eat meat, but I understand what you are saying.

 

Compared to most gelatos that taste sweeter and synthetic, Grom gelatos tastes delicate. Have we lost sensitivity to appreciate natural flavours, or would you attribute it to other factors?

What you are saying is perfectly true—natural flavours are about aromas. You don’t lose sensitivity; you lose the habit. First, the massive production—if you have a farm, and you produce one hundred, you gain from one hundred; if you produce four hundred, you gain from four hundred. And second, people want to conserve gelatos for a long time, which means aggressive treatments before packaging, and packaging means loss of aromas. You put the two things together, low quality and low aroma, plus conserve for a long time. You don’t have aromas in the product, and thus, you must add them artificially.

At the same time, every day, the chemical world becomes stronger for the researcher, and they can create aromas; exactly like you say, in the habit to eat something which has aromas. If you look for food in a supermarket, if it’s packaged, you find aroma. So, to make the gelatos, I look for natural aromas, acidity. If you have good acidity, you have a fresh sorbet in your mouth.

 

 

Did you start cultivating fruit to produce flavourful fruit for your gelatos?

It’s one of the reasons why we decided to grow fruit ourselves.

 

Nothing compares to naturally grown fruit that ripens over the right period.

Yes, at the same time, farming is very hard because the farmers aren’t able to meet the selling window. The farmers sell it to somebody who in turn sells it to another one, who sells to the market.

 

You benefit from good weather; you also have to endure spells of bad weather. How do you deal with nature?

For example, if today it decided to rain during my interview with Heera, what do we do? We would take an umbrella, and we would go on. Likewise, if this year agriculture decided that grapes are not very good, you must accept it, and this is a lesson. Keep in mind, not all the fruit we use for our sorbet comes from Mura Mura, as the trees aren’t big enough at the moment to give us this quantity; we use only strawberries and mangoes. For example, our strawberry sorbet that’s offered in April, May, and June have Mura Mura strawberries only during June, because in May we don’t have ripe enough strawberries. And lemons, for example, here [Mura Mura] the winter is too cold for lemons and mandarins, and as we use a lot, especially lemons, so I must buy them from a supplier close to Naples.

 

So you aren’t dependent on one source, which helps you balance production when the weather doesn’t go according to plan.

Yes. It’s very important.

 

The farms, which I noticed on my way to Mura Mura, appear rather small.

Exactly; the medium property in Piedmont is very small. The farms can be as small as half a hectare.

 

Was it an uphill task to acquire your farm?

We got lucky. When we were looking, we found this guy who was able to put together nine different farmers to sell us the land.

 

Your farm appears to be in layers and sections.

Exactly. We are buying more land every year to permit our shops to grow in number. To increase in number, we must produce the fruit we decide to use. We are planting thousands of trees, but we will leave the trees over there [a section of the farm], and the ground will be a flowering ground for the bees. I am very proud of what we have created. I have gained the respect of people around here because they have not seen this kind of an approach for generations now.

 

Is it beneficial to sow a variety of plants?

Absolutely, absolutely. In agriculture, monoculture, a single culture is bad.

Do you practice crop rotation?

Yes. Like the melon, in 2011, the melons will be here [pointing to sections of the farm], and in 2012, they will be there. In 2013, they will be here, and the strawberry will be there.

 

How does crop rotation benefit the soil?

We let the soil rest for a year. During this period, we cultivate beans; we don’t cultivate to sell. When beans are ripe, they are full of organic matter, so we leave them in the soil.

 

The organic matter naturally enriches the soil.

 

Guido, I am distracted by these beautiful dragonflies.

I want to have as many as possible [insects]. I also have a lot of Coccinella—the red insect with the black dots.

 

The ladybug.

Ladybug, exactly. I have a lot because it’s natural, and when I have flowers over there [pointing to different parts of the farm], the trees over there, I will have more and more—

 

Species together?

Exactly. And there will be a new balance at Mura Mura.

 

Explain this balance. Why is it essential for us to share the planet?

I cannot explain why it’s so important, but I can easily analyse with you what happens when we don’t respect the planet. Generally speaking, we are eating the planet by ourselves, not thinking about the next generation.

I don’t know that insect’s name, but that is a jumping one.

 

It’s a grasshopper.

Exactly. Heera, you know all these insects; it’s good. Also, frogs stay well in this pond.

I always make this example of my parent’s generation, of smoking more cigarettes. Most of them would toss the cigarettes on the ground. And then there will be a time when somebody will have to take the cigarettes out from the field.

If we want future generations to live well and not be picking up cigarettes,

we must not throw things mindlessly.

So we have to reflect on what we have inherited and be mindful of what we contribute to the next generation.

Yes. There is a beautiful project—Grom loves the world. And this project has some famous phrases from the past about nature and sustainability, and there is a beautiful phrase that says: “The land is not something we had by our parents, but it’s something we had by our sons,” which is a different approach.

 

 

I have never seen strawberry plants cultivated in this manner — with a fine mesh covering the plant and soil.

You will not see it [fine mesh] anywhere. I am very proud of Mater-bi cultivation; it’s completely natural, thus very expensive. We use this mesh for two reasons—first, to protect the strawberry plant from bad grass, and second, strawberry has a very short part of the plant that goes into the soil; it’s [roots] not deep like a fruit tree. [Pointing to tiny irrigation tubes] This is for water that goes drop by drop for the plant; it helps keep humidity in check.

 

It’s biodegradable?

Exactly. Mater-bi has very few microns; 18 microns, one micron is one one-thousandth of a millimetre, so it’s one millimetre shared in 1,000 parts, and this is 18 microns. We are using this covering as experimentation with a company that produces Mater-bi, the same material with which we make spoons.

 

It’s impressive how you have incorporated Mater-bi into other products, like spoons. Think of the thousands and millions of little spoons that contribute to the growing mountains of plastic, and then one can appreciate the smallest of changes that help our environment. Are your gelato cups made from Mater-bi as well?

Our cups are paper with a Mater-bi lining to prevent the paper from becoming soft due to moisture; it’s about 10 percent of the weight of the cup.

 

What led Federico and you to address the environment and invest in biodegradable products like Mater-bi and FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] recycled paper?

Luck. Federico and I are fortunate because we started with empty pockets when we were 27; we had a very simple idea to make gelato with top-quality ingredients. And we are very lucky because of our meeting—we have the same kind of education, but we have different talents. And to be honest, the concept of social sustainability comes later. The first thing we work on is the quality of life of the people who work for us. And you know in Italy, the culture of the black money is high.

 

This situation [of black money] is also true of India.

It’s the same?

 

Yes, corruption is prolific. Thousands of farmers commit suicide every year; their lives are not valued. On the one hand, we want to indulge ourselves with things, and on the other hand, we convince ourselves that young children lighting their fathers’ funeral pyres is acceptable. The focus is on the amassing money. I cannot comprehend how the human mind rationalises greed.

In Italy, corruption is a big, big problem. We think that one-third of the accounts of the country is black money, and that is a problem. I pay a lot of taxes for my employees. In 2009, we paid 60 percent. A company’s tax depends on IRES [tax on gain] and IRAP [tax on people’s work], and the percentage is different from company to company, especially for IRAP. Tax is very high.

The first thing Federico and I decided is to be honest with everything. After that, when you are young, you think you are lucky. There is a lot of will, a lot of determination, a lot of patience, a lot of other things. And we have this kind of education where we were taught the importance of giving back—to work well, at the same time give back some of our luck. So the green approach is the last step.

For many companies, the concept of sustainability has a lot of marketing aspects. With social responsibility, you have two options—you do it silently because you do it for yourself, or you tell the world because you do it for publicity.

 

Awareness of organic food is growing; do you foresee it becoming affordable?

To me, organic will be the only way to move forward. We must not ruin the planet by our disservice. In the period of 90s in Europe, we reached the lowest point of agriculture quality.

At the moment, unfortunately, we think buying things—cars, bags, shoes and everything—makes us happy. I hope in future generations, more and more people will understand that our happiness doesn’t depend on what we buy.

For example, in what is described as low culture, people tend to spend a lot on cell phones, cars, and clothes but not for eating properly. The long-term vision for me is to change the culture of the people, to have a different approach to money and happiness.

 

Thank you for mentioning culture. People spend significant amounts of money on tabloid-style magazines but not on healthy food, stripping themselves of emotional nourishment. And media and marketing inform people every day that it’s okay to spend on cosmetics, clothes, cell phones; spend on anything, even supplements, but not on well-being.

Exactly. Why do you think low-culture people buy gossip magazines? Because they are not curious about themselves, they want to see how others live. It’s a question of their culture. But I am very optimistic that the human race will be able to, in time, become wiser.

 

So we need to step back, be reflective. I see the pond with a wide lens because we are sitting here, away from the pond. Had we been closer, my view would have been narrow.

Exactly. It’s the same with agriculture and farming; we are arrogant to forget the experiences of our grandmothers and grandfathers. We should also remember that we will be fathers and mothers, as well as grandmothers and grandfathers, we must be able to educate our sons and daughters.

The deep teaching is not to say, do this, do that or I did this, I did that, no. It’s to allow people to discover things that you suggest to them; they should not perceive what you have suggested.

 

 

It’s a gift.

Exactly. It’s very, very difficult, but it’s the way of really wise people. My mother said, do what you want, but I am not going to give you money, and always tell me the truth. I was never attracted to drugs because to me, it was not something forbidden. Instead, it was a question of the way I wanted to manage my life and my body, like you; it’s a different approach to life. But when I was 13 or 14, I wasn’t able to understand the depth of things that my mother taught; now I do.

I read an article in the newspaper about a boxer who was separated from his wife. After being released from jail—he was in jail over a fight—he went to his wife’s house to give his daughter 200 euros for losing her tooth. Giving money was quick and easy for this boxer—and she was a happy daughter for sure—but it’s a way to make a child unhappy.

 

Emotional involvement requires thinking and investment. When adults are not thoughtful in giving, they teach children to equate self-worth and confidence with material things. The glue in such families lacking emotional connection is only external.

Exactly. I understand perfectly. Material things will probably never make a child happy. And these children who keep taking will think they need different things to be happy, which is not deep happiness, it’s five minutes of happiness. I am not happy if I buy a new watch or a different car or everything. I am much happier and more emotional if this year I harvested my first peach.

If people were happy with objects, every rich person would be happy, but it’s not that way. Why?

And with the approach to agriculture, you have to believe a lot in the project; you don’t know what will happen. You don’t put a cherry tree here and see what happens after two days. No, no, you know what happens after four years of working and believing in something. It’s also a lesson, no? In many other fields, you can manage more things, especially in the industrial approach. Whereas in agriculture, it’s a meeting between agriculture and man, so it’s a lesson.

 

Food portions are large in the United States. Was it challenging to offer Grom gelato in European sizing to American consumers?

Yes, the large size is a typically American approach. When we opened the first Grom shop in New York, we were debating on the gelato size, wondering if we should make it larger or stick to the Italian approach (The Japanese approach is smaller.). But we said, we are Italian, and we want to offer our culture from this point of view as well. The American people may not appreciate the concept of a medium to small size, and they say that it’s expensive for the small quantity.

 

The high wastage of food in America is concerning. For a speciality coffee or a blended fruit drink, one makes a large quantity and pours the rest down the drain. Have you been able to teach Grom staff mindfulness and an appreciation for resources?

We have not as it’s a complex issue. The turnaround of the people who work for us is high. We try to transmit our philosophy, but it’s always a question of investments. It’s straightforward—to look for top-quality managers, you must pay them right, and the business must have the consistency to pay this high-quality person. This high-quality manager can teach our philosophy and make a more thoughtful, complex organisation. At the moment, keep in mind that you are talking about a very young company.

 

Do you have any plans to sell Grom?

I am not sure. If I do sell Grom, it’s because in the future I want to be a father. Today I work 14 hours a day. Maybe in the future, I want to be a father 14 hours a day.

 

How do you maintain the core values of Grom with expansion?

About growth, it’s straightforward. There are two factors—first, the goal we want to reach, which is to make the best gelato in the world; second, the company is not a publicly-held company.

 

And you can control expansion with direct ownership?

Absolutely. I don’t need to answer to anybody. If my company is on the market, or if I have other partners, I have to answer them. If my partners see things in my way, it’s easy. Right now, we are two, and we are few. If you are in the market, they expect you to gain more and more and more. So you must make decisions in a short-term period; our decisions are long-term.

 

 

What makes you spiritual, reflective, and philosophical?

It’s a question of my character, which is to look for information and analyse things. I am very curious—not the gossip curious, not interested. For example, if I have to put the grass here, I ask, which grass, and how, why, and what will happen in five years? I have a few friends, and someday I hope to have a wife and family. So right now, I have time to analyse. I know a lot of people are scared to be alone, but I am not. I love to read, and I also love to have information—it can be a new language, or it can be to visit Colorado or to see a beautiful valley or somewhere else. I want to travel the world.

One day I will be 80, and when I look behind, I want to be satisfied. I want to be proud of myself. I want to say: “I lived a good life.” If not, I will not die happy, and that is a problem. Socrates says one simple but important thing: “Know yourself.” When you know yourself, it’s easier—you go around in the world, and you are one piece of a chain, and you learn to respect the nature, to eat healthily, and to live well instead of buying things and gossip papers.

 

Learn more about Guido Martinetti and his farm Mura Mura.

 

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