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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Rome Mini Market: Suddenly Controversial

It's after midnight in your corner of Rome, and you need a bottle of wine, cookies, milk for your morning cereal, some cheese and fruit.  There is no 24-hour supermarket.  One small chain grocery closed at 10, another at 8.  Where do you go?  To the MINI MARKET, of course.

There are lots of mini markets in Rome, and the numbers are up.  In 2016 there were 1432 mini markets.  In 2017, 1622. 

The prices are higher than at the grocery stores--you can expect to pay E9./10 for your Ribolla Gialla (white wine), rather than E7.  But at 12:25 a.m., convenience is everything.  The mini market it is.

Mini Market, Salario
We're not sure why mini markets are flourishing.  We know that Rome has become a late-night (or later-night) city.  A decade ago, one could wander the Centro at 10 p.m. and not find a place to get a plate of pasta ("abbiamo buttato l'acqua per pasta" - "we've thrown out the pasta water," we heard at 10 p.m.).

No more.  The Movida--that late-night gathering of young drinkers/partiers, once concentrated in Campo de' Fiori, Ponte Milvio, and Trastevere, has spread to Ostiense, middle-class Piazza Bologna, and other locales.  Grocery store hours failed to meet the growing demand for late-night drinks and food.  Mini markets filled the void.  Similar growth has occurred in frutterie--small stores selling fruits and vegetables, and sometimes wine.

The rapid rise of the mini market has not been universally accepted. Indeed, the department of Rome's city government that regulates this sort of commerce recently passed a regulation freezing for 3 years the number of mini markets, frutterie, and other small shops, including self-service laundries, places that roast chickens, gold-buying centers, and massage parlors. 

Mini market app for Rome
What's going on?  One theory is that the authorities dislike the late-night drinking that these small businesses encourage, or abet.  That's certainly a factor. It's well known that young folks, especially, buy their late-night alcohol at mini markets. Best evidence for this interpretation: there's actually an app for Rome's late night mini markets, one apparently designed to help thirsty youth find the closest one.  Appropriately, the app takes its name from the Bangladeshi, the largest mini-market ownership group after native Italians. At right a screenshot of the app, "Bangladino" [just type "bangladino" in the App Store search blank].  It shows you the mini markets around your location, when they close, and the price of a beer (in this case E1.5) for comparison shopping.

But you can't get a beer while selling your gold, or at a massage parlor, at a laundry, or at some of the frutterie we've frequented.

The real story has to do with who owns the mini markets and other small shops. Of Rome's active mini markets in 2018, the majority are owned by Italians (1,473); Bangladeshi own 664; Egyptians own 48; and Romanians 40.  It makes sense that new immigrant groups would be active in mini markets and related businesses; these small stores require minimal capital, allow new owners to profit from extended hours (involving the whole family) that long-established, Italian-owned businesses are unwilling to sustain; and they would seem to be an obvious place to begin the process of achieving middle-class status.

in della Vittoria

Even so, it seems clear that the inroads made by new immigrant groups in these businesses are disturbing to Italians, some of whom see themselves as wrongly displaced, victims of globalization and immigration.

Anxieties about immigrants and the Italians they presumably displace: that's the reason for the 3-year moratorium on mini markets, et. al.


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