Noah Brier | August 30, 2023

The Autogrill Edition

On Italy, travel, and merchandising

Noah here. I’m just back from a week in Italy—which included a decent amount of driving. While we mostly packed our own car food or stopped in small towns for lunch, on our last big car ride, we hit some traffic and were in need of a break and some food. Not wanting to lose too much more time, we stopped at an Autogrill, Italy’s main roadside food establishment. 

To say it’s unlike any American rest stop I’ve visited would be an understatement. In place of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ was an espresso counter and a hot food bar serving freshly prepared pasta. While the food may be nothing more than re-packaged “factory-made products,” as Eater claims, it still beats the hell out of the dingy food options I’ve experienced at various I95 rest stops over the years.

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Why is this interesting?

After the stop I spent a bit of time reading about the corporate history of the chain:

To understand how Autogrill became Italy’s ubiquitous rest stop brand, look to northern Italy’s historic sweets makers like Pavesi, Motta, and Alemagna. These and other bakeries began as small operations based in northern Italian cities. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, the companies grew and expanded, each embracing clever marketing and mass production in pursuit of market dominance. After decades spent applying mass production and distribution principles to cookies, panettone, and other goods, Pavesi, Motta, and Alemagna began to experiment with new formats like rest stop dining, which required little skill to prepare, reduced waste, and maximized profits — and they quickly spread as car culture grew in the post-war era.

By the 1970s, financial crisis decimated the Italian auto industry and, by extension, rest stops as well. The Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI), a now-defunct government agency that rescued failing companies from bankruptcy, acquired Pavesi, Motta, and Alemagna and consolidated the companies, forming the Autogrill brand. In the mid-1990s, the company was privatized and the Benetton family’s holding company was and continues to be the largest shareholder. Incidentally, the Benetton family also owns a major stake in the Italian highway system. (You can also thank Motto and Alemagna for the sub-standard cornetto that defines Italian cafe breakfasts.)

From there the company was eventually taken private, where the Benetton family took a controlling interest. Finally, earlier in 2023 Dufry, another company worth of a WITI, acquired Autogrill. Having tried to drag my two kids through without buying anything, I can see the Dufry connection: the merchandising in the establishment is first class and there’s only one way through, which makes leaving without a stuffed animal, chunk of Italian meat, or giant lollipop full of lollipops (ahem) nearly impossible. (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

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