Photo by the author
On Valentine’s Day of 2015, Michele Ferrero died at his residence in Monte Carlo, surrounded by (and this is just an educated guess) lots of marble statues and silk.Ferrero—who was at the time the richest Italian citizen, with a net worth of about $26.5 billion—lived his life in noted secrecy, but the presumption of opulence is probably safe not only because of his wealth, but also because of that wealth’s source: Nutella.
Michele’s father Pietro first substituted hazelnuts for hard-to-find cocoa in his pastry store in Alba, in Northern Italy, during World War II. In 1949, Michele took over, tweaked the recipe of his father’s hazelnut-chocolate spread, and named it Nutella. Pretty much everyone and their tongue knows the rest of the story.Nutella is a universally adored, incomparably luscious substance. It glistens, titillates all senses, whispers sweet nothings into the ears of our tastebuds. Nutella’s taste, texture, scent, and appearance are so incredibly rich that we feel naughty at the mere suggestion of its incorporation into a meal. (Nutella? Oh, I shouldn’t… but I will.) I’m not alone in associating Nutella with sensuality, or even straight-up sex; I did a quick Google search to see if I’m crazy, and found a multitude of articles about how to incorporate Nutella into your bedroom practices. It’s a fitting legacy for a guy who died in Monte Carlo on Valentine’s Day.
Like many beloved food brands, Nutella has opened a couple of branded cafés to promote products, sell merchandise, and display its vision of spreadable utopia. The first Nutella Cafe in the US opened in Chicago in 2017, followed by a location in Union Square, Manhattan—right near the famed Max Brenner chocolate emporium and Mr. Brenner’s new cacao shop, Blue Stripes, in what is fast becoming the chocolate district—this past November.
Before launching into a review, it might be useful to elaborate on the purpose of a branded space. Besides selling products, these sorts of places are opportunities for brands to bring their emotional assets and principles to life in a way that is immersive, tangible, and memorable to those who walk inside, like a three-dimensional advertisement. The Nike store in Soho has a basketball court; Lululemon has yoga classes.Being a fan of Nutella (I am a human), I wanted to see how Nutella brought its brand to life, and that’s why I recently paid a visit to the new Manhattan location of the Nutella Cafe.
My first impression upon entering was, unsurprisingly, that the place is Nutella-themed. That might seem like a platitude, but this establishment is Nutella-themed in the way that Cheerios are an ‘o’-themed breakfast cereal, or “Work” by Rihanna is ostensibly a song about working: unremittingly so, through rote repetition. As molding, countless identical jars of Nutella line the liminal space between wall and ceiling. Behind the cashiers and cooks, a wall features horizontal shelving displaying alternating small jars of Nutella, medium jars of Nutella, and large jars of Nutella. Art displayed transiently on digital screens around the store is mostly just different arrangements of the word “Nutella.” Embellishing the back wall is a luminescent installation featuring glowing embossed letters spelling out the word “Nutella” three times.
But rather than Nutella itself, most of the display real estate of the Nutella Cafe is monopolized by merchandise: red t-shirts boldly emblazoned with the word “Nutella,” Nutella Cafe-branded commuter mugs, Nutella Cafe-branded Moleskine notebooks, Nutella travel pillows, and Nutella-branded flash drives.
The menu is Nutella-heavy. For myself and a friend, I ordered a Nutella chia hemp pudding, a frozen Nutella pop, a Nutella gelato, and an affogato with Nutella gelato. It was all delicious; after all, it’s Nutella. The frozen Nutella pop tasted like cold Nutella, the affogato like hot Nutella, and the pudding like soft Nutella. After an effort at engorgement, I mixed everything left together—hot, cold, and in between. Lo and behold, it tasted like room-temperature Nutella.And yet, it’s all wrong. Nutella is luscious, indulgent, and opulent, and the café should follow suit. Rather than a manifestation of Nutella’s sensory or emotional qualities, it feels like an office supply store. Sure, there’s plenty of Nutella, but that’s beside the point. It’s a completely missed opportunity to bring the brand to life, and I couldn’t help but think about all the things that the Nutella Cafe should have been, instead of what it was.
Visually, the design is sterile—all white and red, with harsh fluorescent lighting—more reminiscent of a middle-school classroom than Michele Ferrero’s Monte Carlo hideaway. Where’s the velvet? The paintings of white horses?
The merchandise is especially off-brand. Notebooks, commuter mugs, and flash drives are not sensual or opulent, and certainly not sexy. What they should have instead is Nutella-branded fur coats, Nutella-scented perfume, and probably some Nutella-branded sex toys.
But the biggest missed opportunity is experiential. I can eat Nutella at home, and though I can’t necessarily eat Nutella in all the forms available at the store, that’s a quantitative rather than a qualitative shift.This place should allow me to immerse myself in Nutella’s most alluring qualities—its decadence, smoothness, lusciousness. There should be tubs full of Nutella in which I can submerge my arm and squish it around. There should be sexy Italian people spoonfeeding me Nutella while whispering into my ear: “Vorresti più della Nutella?”
At the very least, it should feel like a place that Michele Ferrero would be comfortable. More silk, fewer flash drives. Pazienza! I guess if I want to dive into a kiddie pool full of Nutella, until the Nutella Cafe gets its act together, I’ll just have to do it at home.