Is Peck Elitist?

Peck, a three-story food Mecca in Milan, Italy, is considered by many to be one of the top specialty food markets worldwide. Devotees make regular pilgrimages to the shop, located on a side street just beyond the shadow of the Duomo. Established in 1883 and subsequently written about in multiple food and travel magazines, Peck was an attractive choice to visit for numerous reasons. Since it’s been in business for over a century, it must have some sort of formula for success; it likely attracts tourists, therefore English speakers- a bonus for a beginner Italian speaker attempting to conduct interviews; I myself am one of those curious tourists who had not yet been to Peck. In anticipation of a number of people in the physical space, I planned to interview three types: an employee, a regular shopper (a local), and a tourist who is “just looking.”

The ground level boasts the most variety, and in early January, the windows were still decorated for Christmas. A combination dark, milk and white chocolate mountain landscape set the stage for Santa, his sleigh, reindeer and elves- each one edible, yet behind glass, untouchable and not for sale. I interpret this displaying of not-for-sale artwork as comparable to a museum. Its audience is intellectual and cultured. They come to view and to appreciate the art, but cannot obtain that object for themselves.

Another window displayed a bounty of festively wrapped panettone, a Christmas specialty of Milan, perhaps an attempt to elicit nostalgia among locals passing by.

Once inside the store, I noticed a shiny, polished antique slicer from 1930 on display, evidence of the store’s history. To my right were shelves lined with more panettone and other sweets wrapped up like gifts. The rest of my time spent at Peck would confirm my observation of a shop full of gift items packaged with the Peck brand-name and its iconic gold sun, all excellent choices for a wealthy Milanese, stopping by on the way to a friend’s home as not to arrive empty-handed. Regardless of the quality of what’s inside (and Peck does sell high-quality), a gift from Peck is immediately recognized as desirable. It signifies a desire of the gift-giver to impress, a way of showing off his wealth, and that his standards are high.

Continuing forward, to the left is the salumi and fresh meat department, with rows of cured hams (di Parma, San Danielle, etc.) hanging from the ceiling, each one decorated with a red or yellow bow-tied ribbon anklet. A display of ready-to-eat foods like lasagna, risotto, and roasted porcini mushrooms spans the entire back wall, while cheeses grace the far right wall and even a second case across the way. Fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread and pasta, pastries and gelato, adorn the remaining inner stations, and scattered throughout are Peck’s own private-label jarred and bottled salts, spices, sauces, oils and vinegars, each in a clean and simple white box with “Peck” and a gold sun. No need for elaborate images on the packages- the name and logo say it all. The labels all faced forward, lined up perfectly straight and orderly. When a market has achieved a high level of success and fame such as Peck, the name itself becomes a marketing tool, a brand that customers trust and prefer to buy, surpassing interest in other brands being sold.

The spaces between displays are so wide that I felt pampered and would categorize them as more than mere aisles, a nice change of pace from markets that make one feel like an animal being herded. I didn’t notice a single thumbprint on any of the glass cases or trash on the floors, nor did I ever see anyone cleaning them. Either the customers respect the space and refrain from littering and touching the glass, or the staff members clean quickly and inconspicuously. Both are plausible explanations. The uniformed employees work calmly, yet swiftly and with a sense of urgency. In the far right corner is the entrance to a bustling kitchen, which is not quite open in the way that many restaurant kitchens have become, but open enough that customers can see plenty of activity.

The top level of the store, the location of my first interview, is part tea room and bar, part retail space dedicated to coffee, tea, honey and chocolate. Crisp, white tablecloths cover round tables, each able to accommodate four guests. For larger groups, tables are pulled together. I was seated at a table under a large skylight on the side of the tea room closest to the retail space, allowing me to observe both areas. My server must have been the captain. He was dressed in a suit and tie, while the other employees wore uniforms of black pants, a long-sleeved white button-down shirt, and a black vest and bowtie. After an hour of sipping my five-Euro mint tea, I still had not heard any English being spoken at the neighboring tables or seen anyone who appeared to be a tourist. There went my plan to interview a tourist.

By the time I finished my tea, I had built up enough courage to ask my server “parla inglese?” He did and was able to answer my questions. An employee for eight years, he mentioned several times, particularly when I asked about why Peck is meaningful to the community, that it is a very famous store and is still family-owned. He also pointed out that they are especially busy during the Christmas and Easter holidays. Overall, the majority of their customers are Milanese, shopping mostly on Saturdays, while attention from the media has drawn tourists, mostly of Japanese visitors and businessmen. About half of the tourists spend money and the other half are there simply to browse. I asked about employee discounts (yes, they receive them) and whether he shops at Peck (he does). It was a busy Saturday morning and I could tell that he was needed elsewhere, so I thanked him for his time so he could excuse himself. My next question would have been about the identity of Peck, but his next actions answered it. With a big smile, he gave me a few square chocolates, saying “this is for you” and later returned with another gift of postcards showing early images of Peck’s facade. Peck’s identity is about hospitality, evident by the way the employees interact with customers: helping ladies with their coats, shaking hands and greeting them by name.

The lower level, its ceilings low and vaulted, houses the wine cellar and a small tasting bar. When customers step off the elevator or stairs onto the marble floors, they see the sparkling wine selection on the left. Straight ahead, the centerpiece of the room is an impenetrable glass case, guarding an artful display of an almost clichéd symbol of wealth, privilege and extravagant consumption: Dom Perignon Vintage Champagne.

A particular wine that I hoped to find was a northern Italian grape, written about in the most recent issue of the American food magazine Saveur. Inquiring about this wine would be an icebreaker, a reason to find an English speaking employee, gaining his trust, showing him that I am a paying customer. As he led me to the wine, we chatted and I eventually told him why I was so curious about Peck. While we talked and browsed the displays, he stood tall, arms behind his back, occasionally releasing them to turn a wine bottle, label facing forward, or to adjust the price tag. He was surprisingly young in appearance, but actually 28 years old; polite, patient, knowledgeable, not the least bit pretentious or condescending. It occurred to me that this is part of the experience (and expense) of shopping at Peck; the hospitality of the staff is a “value-added” service. When I returned a week later, this time with friends, he recognized me and welcomed me back.

At this point I still had not interacted with other customers, so I returned to the ground floor. I connected with a local Italian couple while all three of us admired a display of some sort of seafood and aspic concoction. The gentleman was amused by the display, so I turned to him with the usual introductory question of English language skills. Both the man and the woman, appearing to be in their early sixties, spoke English. We chatted for a little while, and I eventually asked about their shopping habits. The man was eating a cup of gelato (3 €) as they browsed but they were not planning to buy anything else. He told me he considers himself a gelato connoisseur, and that he had not tried Peck’s until today. “Good” he commented, but he prefers Grom (2 € in Parma and 2.50 € in Milan) and added that there is even better gelato in Milan at Cream Garden on via Quaranta. They tend to shop at Peck only on special occasions, not on a regular basis, deterred by the high prices. Well aware of the specific prices, the woman pointed out that bread at Peck costs over 10 Euro per kilo, and that elsewhere the same quality of bread averages five to six Euro per kilo.

Elitism has been defined as
the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite— a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight.

When I worked at Balducci’s market, New York City’s version of Peck, a customer once asked me if we accepted food stamps, a government aid for low-income people. We did not, and when I told him so he was upset and demanded to speak to a manager. With so much negative sentiment, such as that expressed by this man, directed towards the “fancy” food community and the stereotypes that wine drinkers are snobs, I wondered, is Peck elitist? Not necessarily. I was not judged at the door and either admitted or denied as at some elite velvet-rope nightclubs. I was treated kindly and with respect, despite my spending little money and middle-class wardrobe. It was not like the scene in the film “Pretty Woman” where the Julia Roberts’ cheaply-dressed character is pre-judged by the imperious sales clerk in the clothing boutique who refuses to wait on her.

It’s possible that Peck customers, who knowingly and willingly pay a premium, do so to elevate themselves, to make them feel a part of an elite group. They can afford to pay, therefore they do. A friend of mine who runs a business providing waiters and bartenders for private parties once told me why she charges high prices. She found that the ultra-wealthy tended to question moderately priced services, yet must reason that an expensive service (or product) must be worth the money, that it must be the very best. I found the same mentality when I worked as a private chef in New York. My employers held house accounts with the more famous, more expensive gourmet markets where I was asked to shop and resisted letting me shop at farmers’ markets, even though I pointed out that the quality would be comparable if not higher.

Ultimately I found that it is the Peck customer who is somewhat elitist and not Peck the institution. The physical space does give the appearance of elitism, but what takes place within the space transforms this perception. Decisions such as which products to carry and how much to charge have been made deliberately to influence who shops there. On the surface, Peck appears exclusionary, with its art displays, marble floors and expensive goods, but it’s the interaction between the employees and customers that dispels the appearance of elitism.