If you’ve been to an airport, or a train station, or a highway rest stop, and gotten a cup of coffee or a sandwich, salad, or fresh pasta, then it’s likely you know Autogrill. You may not be aware you know Autogrill, but you know Autogrill. You know it because Autogrill is everywhere. The Italian food and beverage conglomerate, which specializes in feeding travelers on the go, boasts nearly 1,000 locations across 31 countries on four continents. Last year, it served some 900 million travelers 67 million main courses, 83 million sandwiches, and 230 million cups of coffee, across a portfolio of 300-plus brands.

The surprise isn’t that you’ve been there. It’s how many times, and where. You’ve eaten with Autogrill if you’ve sipped a Puro Gusto coffee at the Athens airport, or if you’ve snacked on smoked reindeer at Pier Zero in Helsinki, or had barbecue at the Pork & Pickle in Kansas City International’s Terminal B. Maybe you stopped in at the Delaware Welcome Center Burger King for a Whopper, in which case, surprise — that’s courtesy of Autogrill, too.

But Autogrill, which generated $5.4 billion in revenue in 2017 through a mix of proprietary concepts and licensing agreements with a roster of familiar chains, doesn’t just dominate transit’s culinary landscape. It helped create it. In Italy, the brand is so ubiquitous that “autogrill” is a generic term for any roadside eatery; even now, Autogrill-branded autogrills account for 65 percent of rest stops nationwide.

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Those original Autogrills date back to Italy’s post-World War II boom, when Mario Pavesi, an industrial entrepreneur from Novara with a baked goods factory, opened a small outlet on the Milan-Turin motorway — the autostrada — to promote his biscotti, inspired by the roadside rest stops he’d seen in the United States. Even today, they are beloved, even — or especially — by Americans traveling in Italy, who revel in their overwhelming civility.

“When you walk into Autogrill, they are making espresso and cappuccino to order, from beautiful machines. Even the lighting is pleasant!” says Gabrielle Hamilton, avowed Autogrill super fan and chef-owner of Prune in New York. “There is fresh arugula, and cured meats, and good bread, and a station with several extra virgin olive oils, a pepper mill!” Hamilton says.

And, she adds, Autogrills have local specialties. If you’re in Bologna, you might find the area’s signature tortellini in brodo, and if you’re in Puglia, there might be orecchiette from hard durum wheat. “It’s just an incredible uplift to be able to make a nine- or 10-hour drive through Italy and know that all along the way, at any time, you can pull over for a very good coffee, a very good meal with real ingredients, a bottle of very good wine from the region you are traveling through,” the chef enthuses.

The Autogrill “becomes a piazza of its own,” writes Frank Bruni of The New York Times.

A Harbinger of Modernity

To understand Autogrill’s unlikely journey to America (or Finland, or Bali), you have to go back to the Italian motorways where Pavesi, demonstrating both incredible foresight and luck, set up shop in 1947, a time before most Italians even had their own cars. And he wasn’t the only one. Other confectioners, Motta and Alemagna, were also getting in on the nascent roadside catering game.

As Italians embraced car culture, the Autogrills — and Motta-Grills and Alemagna Autobars — became a symbol of a newly mobile age, complete with their own iconic architecture. Nearly a decade after its initial location, Autogrill debuted the first of the American-inspired bridge-style restaurant that would become synonymous with the brand.

Stretching out above the motorway, Autogrill Fiorenzuola d’Arda was a harbinger of modernity, a hybridization between Italian culture and what Pavesi saw as the American way of life: fast, convenient, non-hierarchical, and cutting-edge in its consistency. Autogrill was to be Italy’s answer to Howard Johnson’s, a place anyone from anywhere could enter, and know for certain exactly what they’d get and for how much.

Even the menu was America-inflected. Working with the Institute of Physiology of the University of Milan, Pavesi conceived an array of “nutritious, light dishes” for the motorist on the go. The “motorist’s lunch,” for example, consisted of a zippy consommé, roast beef or grilled chicken with chips, crackers, butter, cheese, Pavesi soda, and a dessert made with Pavesini biscuits, per company lore — an extremely Italian take on convenience food. Travelers could get local specialties anywhere. What they needed on the road was speed.

The company started a trend: A year after Autogrill unveiled their bridge-style restaurant, Motta built theirs.

“They represented the future-gazing optimism of Italy in its postwar, industrializing boom,” Autogrill CEO Gianmario Tondato Da Ruos told Monocle. It was a rest stop, where you could get anything from a soda to a full sit-down meal, but it wasn’t just a rest stop. It was a cultural institution, a mini-grocery, and a sign of the times. According to Tondato, the Autogrill was so deeply ingrained into the Italian psyche that “people would hold weddings in the bridge restaurants to see the cars going by underneath.”

But if the 1950s and 60s had been the golden age of the Autogrills, the 70s brought trouble. “The oil crisis plunged Motta, Pavesi, and Alemagna into a crisis. Then, the state stepped in,” explains the company’s official history. (Less charitably: The state holding company, IRI, stepped in to rescue a bunch of disparate roadside pit stops from poor management.)

In 1977, more than 200 motorway restaurants were repackaged under a single brand: Autogrill SpA. And shortly thereafter, the company made a major play to move beyond motorways and into city centers. They didn’t necessarily stay urban — today, a whopping 97 percent of their business is in airports and motorways — but it was a pivotal move because, for the first time, Autogrill-the-company was developing new dining concepts that weren’t Autogrill-the-motorway-restaurant, expanding their brand. In 1982, it launched Ciao, an Italian self-service cafeteria-style concept; in 1989, in an attempt to get in on Europe’s fledgling fast-food market, it added a pizza concept called Spizzico. By the end of the century, Autogrill was operating 150 of them in Italy.

And yet, despite their off-road attempts, Autogrill was still mostly operating in the motorways of Italy, which didn’t bode well for lasting stability. To diversify, it started buying, making their first acquisitions abroad, moving into France with Les 4 Pentes restaurant group and Spain with a 50 percent stake in Procace, another motorway food and beverage provider.

When, two years later, Autogrill went private, with Editizione Holding — controlled by the Benetton family, of United Colors fame — as the majority shareholder, the brand’s expansion strategy became even more aggressive. “The Benettons were very astute,” says Giuseppe Pezzotti, a senior lecturer at Cornell University who helped advise Autogrill in the late 1990s. “They saw what was happening with the new generation. They were also Italian, like Columbus and Marco Polo. They always saw potential; it’s in their genes.”

“This was way in advance of what we consider the Euroland,” says Christopher Muller, a professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, and former colleague of Pezzotti’s on the Autogrill project. “There wasn’t even a Euro currency until 2000, so for them to think that way [was] really quite remarkable.” For the most part, companies were “very structured in their nationalities. The Italians spoke Italian, the Germans spoke German, the French spoke French. And there was very little crossover.”

“One of the things you’ve got to put in this is that Benetton was a genius at early brand management,” Muller says. This is the group that created fast fashion, switching out the colors in their stores “literally within days of things changing in the marketplace.” If such dynamism could work for fashion, why not for food?

“So much of innovation, in any industry, but especially in restaurants, comes from someone who is not raised in the business,” Muller says. Before Benetton came into the catering space, “there was no discussion of brand management as a reasonable thing,” Muller says. “And these guys came in with a consumer products branding strategy and just changed the industry.”

Beyond expertise, the Benettons also had cash. When, in 1997, the Autogrill SpA went public, it raised “enormous amounts of capital when no one in Europe was going public,” says Muller. Call it the second golden age of Autogrill: The newly flush company began acquiring even more businesses in foreign markets — Sogerba in France, Weinerwald D in Germany, AC Restaurant in Belgium and the Netherlands, and in 1999, HMSHost in the U.S. It was, Tondato has said, “a real turning point.” In fact, HMSHost was bigger than Autogrill, and brought with it the new market of North America and a new revenue stream. Formerly owned by Marriott, HMSHost had begun on the North American railways and, when that petered out, had moved into airports, starting with a contract at San Francisco International in 1954.

No one saw them coming. “They basically caught everybody by surprise, to be honest with you, because they were Italian,” Muller says. They were expanding very fast — too fast, some critics said — but, despite their pace, they had a kind of underdog advantage. “I know a lot of people from Germany and France and they just thought the Italians weren’t going to be very good at it — how could an Italian run a business!” People “didn’t take them seriously, and all of a sudden they turned around and there they were.”

A Sandwich With a Sense of Place

Autogrill got into airports as they became the highways of the skies, a new spin on what established the company in the first place. While motorway catering offered limited growth potential and most of North America isn’t big on trains, people were flying at record numbers — the timing was perfect.

In the very early aughts, when Autogrill, through HMSHost, entered the market, airports were changing in fundamental and highly profitable ways, becoming places to hang out rather than just move through. “Now, you can’t conceive of an airport that’s not a shopping mall and a food court,” says Muller. If you’re going to be at the airport for a few hours — and as airlines move to a hub-and-spoke system, with fewer direct flights and more transfers, it’s ever more likely that you will — then why shouldn’t that waiting time be a pleasant part of your trip?

Meanwhile, the very meaning of airports has begun to shift. They’re not placeless, timeless vacuums anymore, but mini-cities in themselves. This, argues John D. Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, is the dawning of the “aerotropolis” — the age of the airport city, transforming passenger terminals into the airport equivalent of “urban town squares.”

It’s a concept Autogrill has enthusiastically embraced. “Schiphol Airport: from non-place to aerotropolis,” reads a headline on its website, heralding Schiphol’s “enormous airport park,” “real Dutch Market,” and in-airport library: all the amenities of a city that “welcomes life.” You “chill out” and “fulfil [your] desires” at the airport, but you can also have a business meeting. Or just catch a flight.

It’s a far cry from the airport experience of the late 1980s and early 90s. This, says Michael Oshins, associate professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, was the age of “Gapification” — it didn’t matter where in the world you were, you could get the same baby-blue button down. And despite protests to the contrary, people still want that to some degree. Through its network of licensing agreements with familiar brands, Autogrill continues to ensure it has this consistency. Local may be booming, but there are limits, and in the right context, even adventurers choose comfort. Starbucks doesn’t traffic in surprises — that’s the point.

But now, travelers also want a sandwich with a sense of place. There is a move toward authenticity, or at least, a cleaned-up, well-managed version of it. If you’re at Helsinki-Vantaa, the feeling is, your options should be different, in a Helsinki-specific way, than if you’re catching a train at Utrecht Centraal, or newly arrived and starving at Chicago O’Hare. “All the things that people want in restaurants, they’re doing in airports,” Oshins says. “They want fresh food, they want locally sourced, they want to have a better dining experience. Now it’s like, where can I get something that’s not the same as everywhere else?”

“Airports and passengers are looking for more local themes,” says Darren Perry, a managing director and Partner at LEK Consulting who focuses on the aviation industry. If the experience you’re getting in, say, Boston, is specifically Bostonian, “people might have a greater willingness to try it, because when are [they] going to be in Boston again?” As pressure to invest in local businesses grows, airports have become increasingly interested in “small- to mid-sized operators” who, by virtue of their ties to local brands, might bring in “a bit more of a distinctive offering.”

But if Autogrill is a giant, it’s a nimble one, and the company is feeding that hunger for local flavor with their Bistrot concept, the current darling of the brand. Conceived in collaboration with the Italian University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo — a source of culinary credibility — the inaugural Bistrot debuted at Milan’s central train station, Milano Centrale, in 2013. Autogrill’s interpretation of the “modern city market,” it’s made up of various “counters” including a bakery with a “huge variety of breads made with sourdough,” a café counter featuring “genuine Neapolitan coffee,” a smoothie-and-salad station, a section with assorted “street foods” from the “local Lombardia tradition,” as well as a delicatessen and bar. The press release announcing its opening reads like a Milanese Portlandia sketch.

The Bistrot is a hyperlocal concept that can be adapted to anywhere. It is quintessentially Milanese, until you move it cross-border and add currywurst, and then it’s authentically German. This is Autogrill’s brilliance: It is simultaneously specific and placeless, local and global. You can have Starbucks, or genuine Neapolitan coffee. You can have a classic Italian market experience courtesy of Autogrill, or a prototypical Dutch one.

What Autogrill has done so well since Pavesi opened his first motorway café is to read a consumer climate and adapt to it, whether through partnerships or strategic original concepts or aggressive acquisition. Its modularity makes it adaptable: There is something in the portfolio for everyone everywhere, and if there isn’t, it’ll create it.

So when the Bistrot worked, the company did what it does: replicated it. A year later, Autogrill opened the first airport Bistrot in Dusseldorf. There are now Bistrots all over Italy, including at the famed Autogrill Fiorenzuola D’Arda, the most iconic of Autogrills, as well as seven other countries. There is a Bistrot at Urecht Centraal in The Netherlands and Trudeau International Airport in Montreal and even the McArthurGlen Provence outlet mall in France, each with its own rhapsodic list of place-specific offerings.

“If the Helsinki traveler can enjoy smoked salmon and sliced reindeer meat,” Autogrill promises, “the Utrecht traveler can take away a typical krentenbollen.’’ And the untrained eye will barely notice the little futuristic swish of Autogrill’s trademark white A that marks its territory, wherever you are in the world.

Rachel Sugar is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo Credit: The Autogrill Villoresi Est in Italy. Wikimedia