Mercato Metropolitano is no run-of-the-mill food hall. It’s a global movement, founder Andrea Rasca says, tackling food poverty and climate change by starting at the heart of communities. The Italian entrepreneur is passionate about making sure everyone has access to nutritious food – and enough of it – and putting an end to wasteful practices which will cost us sorely in years to come. And, he says, it all started at the family dinner table.
“Community has always been part of my life, since I was a kid, without even really realising it,” he tells The Big Issue. “Eating together is part of our DNA. We’d gather round the table and my father would ask us questions about the day. But the food was sustainable and healthy. We respected food too much to waste any.”
Rasca’s career as a food industry disrupter began in Japan in 1995, when he won a competition to study there and work with local companies on helping Italians access the market. He realised that “communicating and engaging with people through food” was what he did best, and after setting up consultancy Eataly Japan he had an urge to create a bricks-and-mortar space that encompassed the values of his business.
This stuck with him right up until 2015, after a decade of setting up successful food courts around the world. Rasca launched the first Mercato Metropolitano pop-up in Milan, followed by another in Turin. He brought the idea to London’s Elephant and Castle a year later, which is where he really kickstarted his food revolution.
I learned that during the summer, kids don’t get breakfast and lunch because the schools are closed. I still can’t believe the contrast between rich and poor in cities like London
It’s a sprawling food market and incubator, filled with communal seating and occupied by around 50 vendors, all of which are small businesses. Diners can sample everything from noodles to Turkish kebabs to German beers. More than four million people have visited this year, despite Rasca’s principled stance against investing any money in advertising – it’s all word-of-mouth. There are bars, live music events, even a cinema – but it’s the sustainability and community work built into the heart of the business that 53-year-old Rasca is most proud of. If you arrive at the market with a single-use plastic bottle – or a can of Coca-Cola or another sugary industrialised drink – staff will confiscate it, stick a number on it and store it for you to collect on your way out. “It’s something every company should be doing,” he explains, “investing something for the people around us. We would love to fight hunger around the world but we can’t, not yet, so we start locally.”
Every vendor and their supplies are vetted by Rasca’s sustainability team. If they don’t comply with the Mercato values or demonstrate a commitment to cutting down waste and emissions, they’re told to change.
The entrepreneur speaks passionately about how society should be eating better food. He acknowledges that many people are living below the breadline and can’t afford to make organic choices, which is “a huge social problem that unfortunately a market can’t fix”.
But Rasca is trying. More than 1,000 local schoolchildren have attended classes put on by the Mercato team. “There are children who don’t know ketchup comes from a tomato,” Rasca says. “We ask them to come and play with flour, they make their own pasta.”
Holiday hunger was an unpleasant surprise for the founder when he moved to London. “I learned that during the summer, kids don’t get breakfast and lunch because the schools are closed. I still can’t believe the contrast between rich and poor in cities like London,” he says. Working with the local council, he created a ‘summer camp’, putting on activities like yoga and growing vegetables for children, who would be asked to stay and eat with the Mercato team. More than 350 children and their parents benefited last year; this year, 530 children took part.
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“When the kids arrived, they were a bit shy, a bit embarrassed,” Rasca says. “When they left, they were flying. High-fiving each other, smiling. These are the things we love to invest our profits in. Making people feel dignified.”
Last year Rasca launched Mercato Metropolitano’s Female Food Founders programme. He saw countless women who were incredible, business-savvy cooks, but who struggled to get the opportunities their male counterparts did. So more than 50 women were asked to come up with their own small food business ideas – winner Nancy Nosel got three months’ free training and a free space in the market for the same length of time to test her project. She did so well that she now rents the food shack and operates her German-style food business, Ze Spätzle Club, out of it. A similar programme is now running to help refugees into the industry.
Rasca has even overseen the launch of a think tank, The FarMM, that aims to re-engineer the food system, while opening a second location in Mayfair. With a seemingly endless list of projects designed to promote social and environmental justice, you’d be forgiven for forgetting Rasca is a food man first and foremost.
Illustration: Matthew Brazier