PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA. — In an impassioned final address as chairman of the board of directors of the National Pasta Association, Carl Zuanelli urged members to see opportunities in every difficulty, to move beyond the carb-phobic headwinds of the past, to embrace the pasta-loving millennial generation in the world’s largest pasta market and “to make a lot of happy lives: Find pasta. Make pasta.”
Mr. Zuanelli’s state of the industry address March 20 capped his four-year stint as chairman and highlighted a strong post-pandemic position for US pasta.
The challenges put before the pasta industry during the COVID-19 pandemic were considerable, but by no means the first, said Mr. Zuanelli, founder and former chief executive officer of Nuovo Pasta Productions Ltd., Stratford, Conn.
“With one word I’d like to describe the pasta industry, and that word is ‘resilient,’” he said. “We have continuously sustained unrelenting assaults on our industry starting almost 100 years ago in Italy itself.”
He recounted the December 1930 issue of La Cucina Italiano, in which the poet Filippo Marinetti published a “manifesto of futurist cooking” that branded pasta “an absurd gastronomic Italian religion,” and called for its banishment. In recent decades, the assault has taken the form of perceptions of pasta as a carbohydrate boogeyman, Mr. Zuanelli said.
In the past two years, however, negative health perceptions of pasta have taken a back seat to inflation and supply chain disruptions — “challenges not seen for a generation of Americans,” Mr. Zuanelli said.
“Winston Churchill said the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty, sees the ability to increase productivity because of cost pressures, both in ingredients and equipment,” he said. “Despite it all, the pasta industry continues to not only survive, but indeed thrives.”
Pasta sales in the United States, save for fresh pasta, was declining prior to COVID, but have experienced a rebound, Mr. Zuanelli said. US dollar sales of all pasta rose to $3.665 billion in the first year of the pandemic, fell to $3.285 billion in the year ended January 2022 and rebounded to $ 3.917 billion in the year ended in February. Unit sales were relatively flat during the period, even as dollar sales expanded due to price increases.
“Although we all were kicked right in the middle of the margins real hard, we are certainly recovering now,” Mr. Zuanelli said. “Our ability to supply the demand out there was challenged. Pasta equipment suppliers had difficulty getting product. Our facilities were unable to produce more product in many cases. Many of us have seen, and continue to see, products missing in the grocery’s pasta section. It’s not a demand issue, it’s a supply issue that is being fixed as supply chains come back into normalization.”
Millennials, the approximately 80 million strong consumer group born in the 1980 also have proven to be avid supporters of the pasta industry. The demographic comprises the highest percentage of purchases and are on track to surpass baby boomers in spending potential by 2033, Mr. Zuanelli said, noting the group spends $72 billion on consumer packaged goods every year, are foodies who love cooking, use food to express themselves and connect with peers, and are driven by buzzwords like organic, artisanal, local, grass-fed and handmade.
Millennials travel more, are open to a variety of cuisines, and are more conscious of authenticity than preceding generations, he said. Pre-pandemic, this was seen in the demographic’s love of dining out, but when the world shut down and the economy contracted, they were keen to recreate restaurant experiences at home.
“This is perfect for pasta and our industry, and this is not where we were four years ago,” Mr. Zuanelli said. “We’re not facing this hyper, carbo-phobic consumer any longer. I hope all of us get over that and move on to the consumer really embracing our industry.”