GUIDO
MARTINETTI

Entrepreneur and Organic Farmer, IT

Published Date: 1st January 2011

Open Windows | 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—their gelato business GROM wears this signature. At the forefront of my conversation with Guido Martinetti, at his farm, Mura Mura, in Italy, stands quality—in nature, relationships, farming, and business. Guido’s goodness generates an infectious energy, which naturally flows into each detail of his life and business.

 

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

Yes, it is very, very easy. I love sweets. But I am also a little different. I like to run and swim. They are very philosophical kind of efforts because I love to stay alone, and it is like yoga, it is…

 

Meditative?

Exactly, exactly. I always say it is like yoga—you analyze yourself, and you analyze life. So when I run and I swim, I do not need a sweet dish. But if I do not run or swim, I need it. It is normal for me. And when I was younger, my favourite sweet was ice cream. While in school, I read an article in a newspaper from Turin called La Stampa, and it said that no one made gelato the natural way, without preservatives, without added colours, and without any aroma except for a shop in Orvieto [in Umbria]. So I went there 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 did not think of it as work.

 

It made such an impact that it registered in your memory.

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

It is 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 normal guys, 26 and 27 years old. That is when I told him about the article and that maybe we could make the best gelato with the best ingredients in the world. It was a very quick dialogue. After ten days he called me back and said: “Guido, we must meet.” By then I had forgotten all about the gelato.

I said: “Federico, what is happening?” And he said: “We must meet.” We met. He came with 60 pages worth of study about the world of gelato. And he 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 it required a big investment, it would have been impossible for us.

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

 

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 is 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. 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. This is the real thing. We dream. We must dream every day.

Tell me about your gelato, do you use organic milk from cows grazing on pastures?

No, not at the moment. 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 5 million investment, and at the moment we cannot afford it. I hope to have it in four to five years. It will be a dream that becomes a reality.

 

Good luck with the project. And what about the eggs?

Only organic.

 

Is organic farming appreciated far more in this part of the world or has it changed with the times?

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

When you touch the land with your hands, the farm, you have more farm culture, more food culture. Also, selling to the local markets. You weren’t obliged to harvest fruit and ripen it to sell from where you lived. When you sell in the local markets, you take it in the morning and sell it by the afternoon, so they are in the habit of eating fresher. That means 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, fruit that is polished, symmetrical, and packaged in layers of plastic is preferred. Flavour does not 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, they do not look for flavour quality, aromatic quality and tasting quality. They look for a red colour that is appealing. The market is also changing because I imagine that a nation grows by 8 to 10 percent [a year] but you must find your road after a while.

 

In countries such as India and China, it is going to be difficult for food production to sustain the 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. That is the significant problem, the approach to beef, the way cows are raised, and it’s very dangerous for the planet. I don’t know, and you, you eat meat?

 

No, I do not eat meat, but I understand what you are saying.

Compared to the larger percentage of gelatos and ice creams, where the taste is sweeter and synthetic, Grom gelatos have a delicate taste. Have we lost sensitivity to appreciate natural flavours, or would you attribute it to other factors?

What you are saying is perfectly true. It is aromas. You do not lose sensitivity; you lose the habit. It is different, but why? The first step is 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 the second thing is that people want to conserve it for a long time. That means very aggressive treatments before packaging. So, you lose aromas. You put the two things together, low quality and low aroma, conserve for a long time—low aromas. So, you do not have aromas in the produce, 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, generally speaking, if it is something that is 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 to produce flavourful fruit (for your gelato)?

It is 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 are not 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.

 

I am sure you have to deal with spells of bad weather after benefitting from years of good weather. How do you prepare to 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 this, and that is a lesson. Keep in mind, not all the fruit we use for our sorbet comes from Mura Mura, as the trees are not big enough at the moment to give us this quantity. We use only the strawberries and mangoes. For example, our strawberry sorbet, which we offer in April, May, and June has Mura Mura strawberries only in June, because in May we don’t have strawberries that are ripe enough. And lemons, for example, here the winter is too cold for lemons and mandarins, and as we use a lot, especially lemons, I must buy them from a supplier close to Naples.

 

So you are not dependent on one source. It helps you balance things when the weather does not go according to plan.

Yes. It is very important.

 

On my way to Mura Mura, I noticed the farms; they appear to be 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 here.

 

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 all 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. Always in agriculture, monoculture, single culture is bad.

 

Do you practice crop rotation?

Yes. Like the melon, in 2011, they 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.

 

What does this do to the soil?

We let the soil rest for a year. During this period we cultivate beans, we do not cultivate to sell. When they are ripe, they are full of organic matter, and we leave them in the soil.

It’s the natural way to enrich the soil…. Guido, I am distracted by these beautiful dragonflies.

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

 

The ladybug.

Ladybug, exactly. I have a lot because it is 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 here, there will be a new balance.

 

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

I cannot explain why it is so important, but I can easily analyze with you what happens when we do not respect this. Generally speaking, we are eating the planet by ourselves, not thinking about the next generation.

I do not know that insect’s name, but that is a jumping one.

 

It is a grasshopper.

Exactly. Heera, you know all these insects, it is 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 just 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 the future generations to live well and not be picking up cigarettes, we must not throw things mindlessly. That is it.

 

Sadly the current generation, including the educated and well-off, do the same today, toss things with total disregard. 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.” Here I have some very 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.

Guido Martinetti-Grom

I have never seen cultivation done this way, with fine mesh covering strawberry plants and soil.

I am very proud of this type of cultivation. You will not see it anywhere. It is something very expensive because it is completely natural. This is used for two reasons—first of all, to protect the strawberry plant from bad grass that goes in, and second, as strawberry has a very short part of the plant that goes into the soil, it is not deep like a fruit tree, so this is for water [pointing to tiny irrigation tubes]. And it goes drop by drop for them, and it helps to keep humidity in check. I want to use natural covering. They use black plastic, but this one is Mater-bi.

 

So it is biodegradable?

Exactly. Mater-bi has very few microns. It is 18 microns, 1 micron is one one- thousandth of a millimeter, so it is 1 millimeter shared in 1,000 parts, and this is 18 microns. And this is an experimentation. We are doing it with a company that produces Mater-bi. It is the same material with which we make spoons.

 

I was going to ask you about the spoons. It is impressive how you have incorporated Mater-bi into other products. 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 rebuild our environment. What about your cups, are they made from Mater-bi as well?

Yes, our cups are paper with a Mater-bi lining to prevent the paper from becoming soft due to moisture. It is about 10 percent 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?

The luck. Federico and I are fortunate because we started with empty pockets when we were 27, and 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 the social sustainability or this kind of approach 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 is also true of India.

It’s the same?

 

Yes, it is corruption is prolific. Thousands of farmers are committing 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 father’s funeral pyre is fine. The focus is on the amassing money. I cannot comprehend how the human mind rationalizes their greed.

In Italy, it 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. It is very high.

The first thing we decided was to do things properly, with everything that we have. We decided to be honest in this approach. This is the first step. 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. 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 individuals who want to take this path, does it come at a later stage?

The concept of sustainability, green and everything, for many companies, it has a lot of marketing aspects. It depends on the approach you want to have. Like social responsibility, you have two options—you do it silently because you do it for yourself. Or you do it, and you tell it to the world because you do it for publicity, it is a different approach.

 

The awareness around 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 90’s in Europe, we reached the lowest point of the agriculture quality. At the moment, unfortunately, we think buying things makes us happy.

Buying cars, bags, shoes and everything. I hope in the many future generations, more and more people will understand that our happiness does not depend on what we buy.

For example, in what is described as low culture, people tend to spend a lot for cell phones, cars, and clothes but not for eating in the proper way. But this is a chain—it is global. 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 them every day that it is 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 is 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 to be reflective. I see the pond with a wide lens because we are sitting here, away from it. Had we been closer, my view would have been limited.

Exactly. It is the same about 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 is to allow them to discover things that you suggest to them. They should not perceive what you have suggested.

It’s a gift.

Exactly. It is very, very difficult but it is 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, for example, because to me it was not something forbidden. It was a question of the way I wanted to manage my life and my body, like you. It is a different approach to life. But when I was 13 or 14, I was not able to understand the depth in these kinds of things that my mother taught, but 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. That was quick and easy for him, and she was a happy daughter for sure. But this is 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. When this happens, it shows the lack of “emotional glue,” and the glue in such families is only external, not internal.

Exactly. I understand perfectly. And this will probably never make a child happy. And these children who take and take will think that to be happy they need different things, 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 do not know what will happen. You do not put a cherry tree here and see what happens after two days. No, no, you see what happens after four years. Four years of working and believing in something. It is also a lesson, no? In many other fields, you can manage more things, especially in the industrial approach. Whereas in agriculture, it is a meeting between agriculture and man, so it is a lesson. In agriculture, you cannot do whatever you want.

 

Food portions are large in the United States. Was it a challenge for Grom to offer European sizing to American consumers?

Yes, this is a typical American approach. When we opened the first shop in New York, we were debating the size of the gelato and were wondering if we should make it larger or stick to the Italian approach. You know, 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, also because it is expensive. And they say that it is expensive for the small quantity. But that is the American culture.

 

I am bothered by the high wastage of food in America. For a specialty coffee or a blended fruit drink, one makes a large quantity and pours the rest down the drain. Have you been able to inculcate mindfulness and an appreciation for resources with your staff?

We have not. The turnaround of the people who work for us is high. It is very complex. We try to transmit our philosophy, but it is always a question of investments. It is straightforward—to look for top quality managers, you must pay them right. The business must have the consistency to pay this high-quality person. This manager can transmit our philosophy and make a more thoughtful, complex organization. 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, it is 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 as you expand?

About growth, it is very simple. There are two factors—first of all, the goal we want to reach, which is to make the best gelato in the world. The second is that the company is not a publicly-held company.

 

So you are saying you can control expansion if you have direct ownership?

Absolutely. I do not 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 is 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 take decisions in a short-term period. Our decisions are for a very long-term.

How are you, in spite of your age, spiritual, introspective, and philosophical?

Maybe I would say it is a question of my character, which is to look for information and analyze it. I am very curious, not the gossip curious, not interested. For example, if I have to put the grass here, I say, which grass, how, why, what happens, what will happen in five years? I have a few friends, and someday I hope a to have a wife and family. So right now I have time to analyze. I know a lot of people are scared to be alone, but not I. I love to read, and I also love to have information. It can be a new language, or it can be to go to Colorado 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 me. 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 is 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.

 

 

To learn more about GROM visit their website.

 

 

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