Philadelphia’s Gran Caffe L’Aquila is no stranger to tragedy. In fact, the landmark Italian concept in Center City was born out of it.
When the original cafe in L’Aquila, Italy, was destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, the local location was designed and built in the European country before being shipped to Philadelphia piece by piece. The authentic bar and restaurant at 1716 Chestnut St. then opened in 2014.
The company survived the earthquake by learning to adapt and change, said Founding Partner Riccardo Longo. So when Covid-19 steamrolled Philly’s hospitality industry in March, Gran Caffe L’Aquila knew it had to do it again.
From the architecture to the imported ingredients and wines, the concept’s mission is to share authentic Italian culture, Longo noted. The spot seeks to employ as many Italian-Americans as possible so customers hear Italian being spoken while they dine. A rotating weekly menu also highlights the unique cuisines of various Italian cities, and a cultural education class about the city is provided by the America-Italy Society of Philadelphia.
In the new world of Covid-19, the brand decided to translate that authentic experience online by launching an e-commerce Italian market. The digital shop offers more than 100 Gran Caffe L’Aquila-vetted authentic Italian products across about a dozen categories, including gelato, coffee, cheese and Italian bread snacks.
The Center City eatery, which reopened last week in tandem with the e-commerce launch after a temporary pandemic closure, also converted its first floor into a physical market until local indoor dining restrictions loosen on July 3. In addition to the market, the restaurant is offering takeout and delivery, a couple outdoor dining tables, and home grocery delivery through the online platform Mercato.
About 100 items are available via Mercato, and the cafe hopes to increase that day by day to between 300 and 500 products.
Across the revenue streams, Gran Caffe L’Aquila is doing about 60% of pre-pandemic revenues — with e-commerce sales accounting for more than half. As such, the company plans to keep the online shop in play even after coronavirus passes, which Longo calls “a silver lining.” The market items are available for pickup or delivery locally and across the country. Longo plans to flesh out the online market as another business that will work side by side with the cafe.
“It seems like there’s a big demand for it and we found that people trust us with this,” Longo said. “They’re very happy that we’re offering this.”
While the demand is evident, Gran Caffe L’Aquila has run into some supply chain issues with its Italian imports. The company is being careful about adding certain items into the market because many of the products typically flown in weekly, like specialty mozzarella cheese made with Italian water buffalo milk, are not in consistent flow amid the pandemic.
The new e-commerce revenue stream is helping the cafe hire back some of its 70 employees. More than half have come back since the reopening, and the company aims to have between 75% and 80% of the staff back for the July 3 indoor dining relaunch.
Longo anticipates that down the road business will be as strong as ever at Gran Caffe L’Aquila, but he expects a difficult period in the short term. A lot of the concept’s business stems from office workers, tourists and corporate conventions — traffic that has largely disappeared for the near future.
Business likely won’t return to normal this year, Longo said, noting a vaccine or medication that gives people confidence to go out again is what will make things return to normal.
“In the end, people love the social aspect of going to a restaurant or a bar, seeing their friends, having their favorite dish. It’s part of our culture in Philadelphia, it’s part of Italian culture, it’s part of who we are,” Longo said. “We were missing that for three months, so I think it’s going to come back stronger than ever because people miss it so much.”