The word “resilience” has come into fashion. I’ve heard it used everywhere in recent years, not only in the psychological field, where it was born, but also in a wide variety of disparate sectors.
While I hate linguistic fashions, resilience is the only word that properly describes the ability of Naples’ long-standing family-run businesses to overcome traumatic events or periods of difficulty.
I started thinking about this because the coronavirus has come in like a wrecking ball, one that risks destroying many companies. But, I wondered, how many punches in the face have the entrepreneurs of my city taken in the past? And how did they recover from what might have seemed at the moment an irreversible crisis?
When centuries-old history, knowledge and flavors (saperi e sapori) are transmitted from generation to generation, sometimes four or five times, this is a guarantee of quality, at least in our eyes. We at Culinary Backstreets consider these entrepreneurs to be real heroes because they continue to produce the same things that their grandparents produced, in the same place as their grandparents, often defying commercial logic.
But today we appreciate the element of continuity in these businesses – perhaps resilience is also passed down. Parents, grandparents, while managing the same production activity, faced many problems, similar to the current one, and shared their knowledge for how to come out standing.
How exactly did they survive? The lessons of history, those of the past, can help us today. So we spoke with two entrepreneurs who are running these old family businesses.
Antonio Di Paolo: His family has been manufacturing freselle (twice-baked bread) for about 200 years at Antica Freselleria Di Paolo, meaning that there are 5 generations of producers behind him.
“My parents saw the 1973 cholera outbreak, the 1980 earthquake, but they also saw the recovery [from those events]. My grandparents saw the hunger of the Second World War and the simultaneous eruption of Vesuvius, but they also saw the post-war reconstruction,” the 48-year-old tells us.
Today they call it risk analysis, a subject to be studied at university. But this risk analysis was already taking place in the accumulation of experiences that the father transferred to the son.
The cholera outbreak of 1973 was a great problem for the company. “Only three years earlier we had stopped making bread and had started making only freselle,” Antonio explains. “All the restaurants on the Naples’ waterfront prepared mussel soup, which they served with our freselle – it was a very large market for us.”
It was shown that shellfish from the heavily polluted waters in the Bay of Naples caused many of the cholera cases during the 1973 outbreak. So Neapolitans were advised not to eat mussels and other shellfish. “Those were catastrophic years,” he adds, “and demand for freselle fell to zero.”
But, using the principles of prudence and self-defense that experience had taught them over the years, the family was able to forge on with their business.
The first line of defense, according to Antonio, is reinvesting profits within the company and setting aside reserve funds that can be used to weather difficult moments.
“Another central element is to create a very close relationship with your employees, almost like they’re family. We have been doing this for generations. During the 1980 earthquake, everyone, family and employees, found refuge in the concrete basement. My father always continued to pay our workers even when not producing anything for months,” continues Antonio. “And he also distributed bread and freselle free of charge to all the poor in the neighborhood [during hard times].”
“And then my grandfather always said, never be afraid of borrowing from banks,” he adds. “If it is needed to face a difficult moment, credit will support you through the crisis and when better times return, everything will settle down.”
Vincenzo Apicella: He is the fourth generation in his family to sell stockfish and baccalà at Antica Baccaleria Porta Capuana.
“My great-grandparents saw the total destruction of the Second World War. My sector was also shocked by the crisis that followed, the cholera outbreak of 1973. All these added experiences, passed down in the stories of my ancestors, have given me a method, a capacity to overcome moments of adversity,” he tells us. Now he approaches daily life with an eye toward a possible reversal of fortune.
“The cholera outbreak of 1973 was a blow to the fish sector. Cholera was transmitted by mussels, which were then banned for decades from Neapolitan tables,” says Vincenzo, whose parents were running the shop during this time. “We didn’t sell mussels, we did stockfish and cod processing as we do today.”
The shellfish vendors decided to stop selling mussels – for which there was no demand – and instead sell cod, which made for a lot of competition. “They did it quickly, to make a quick income, without respecting the work that we have respected here for 100 years,” he says.
But then it all passed: The new vendors disappeared, as they had no history, and the operators with solid roots remained in the market.
Speaking to these multi-generation entrepreneurs, I can’t help but think that, together with the recipes and the tricks of the trade, the secret to absorb the blows and then start again was also transferred to them. There’s a lot to be learned from these vendors, who carry so much accumulated knowledge their DNA, in this period of crisis – especially when the time comes to rebuild in its aftermath.
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