This week the tough demands of work found me sitting in the sun on a Tuesday afternoon, drinking a beer and eating just-out-the-oven pizza in the company of Andrea Rasca. He’s the founder of Mercato Metropolitano and, unlike the chief execs and board members of so many companies at the moment, he gets it. First, however, a small slice of explanation about what he does.
Mercato Metropolitano runs community food markets in London – and soon might be heading to a city near you, judging by the list of projects that it has on the go. There’s the original just south of the river in the Elephant and Castle neighbourhood, a smaller operation in the West End and two more capital outposts on the production line. Rasca sees the markets as a way of helping existing communities, doing good by the environment and making places that are simply great fun in which to eat. He also knows how to generate a good profit.
Let’s have a quick look around the Elephant and Castle site, a former paper factory. In the covered market and across the outdoor plots are 42 stands whose owners are grilling fish, scooping gelato, shaking cocktails, pouring coffee, pulling beer (German Kraft, which brews on site, served two-million litres last year) and making Uzbek specialities. But let’s notice another thing: it’s mid-afternoon and it’s already busy. Last year, this one site had turnover of £22m (€24m) and four million visitors. And now, in these turbulent times? Takings are about 5 per cent below last year’s and rapidly recovering those final percentage points.
Rasca has kept his numbers up and his staff and stallholders going because, he says, “What’s the alternative? It’s easy to stay at home if you are rich but how can you stay at home and not think about things like this?” And there’s a lot to think about because the market also helps to supply free meals every year to hundreds of families in the community who need a little help. And what about the Uzbek stallholder? Well, he’s just the latest occupant of a stand that’s always given to a refugee who’s restarting their life. If Rasca had shuttered the operation and fled to Italy for the summer he would have an even better tan but the social fabric that he has woven around the market would have unravelled.
To revive all of this, however, he needed customers – and his great fortune is to be plugged into a very mixed, very local place. Thankfully he did not build the market next to, say, a City bank or a big ad agency whose bosses have fled their offices and started bragging about their new “WFH” lives.
No, Rasca has Londoners as neighbours; people who queued for up to two hours to come in on the first day that he fully reopened back in July. And it’s these ordinary Londoners, rocking up for a beer and a pizza, who are in turn supporting jobs for fledgling entrepreneurs and quality food for local families. Mercato Metropolitano is a project that steps up to play its part in making a sometimes-challenged part of London feel like the best place to be on a Tuesday afternoon. I know that this is a theme that we dwelt on in last week’s column but, sorry, this is important. Whether it’s Theaster Gates reviving the South Side of Chicago or Rasca doing likewise in south London, we need people who push on when adversity gets in their way; who offer shelter from life’s storms and take other people with them.
So next time that your CEO gets all giddy with the idea that nobody will need to come back to the office until 2021, perhaps suggest that they show some humility. Better still, tell them to head to south London, have a beer, look around at their young staff who are still engaging with the city, and witness what real leadership looks like. And also let them know that every stall does a £5 lunch just in case he or she is worried about getting their expenses signed off.