Our interview with Paolo and Cristina, a couple of ex Googlers selling traditional Italian pastry and chocolate
Paolo Pregno and Cristina Beltramo today are a couple of young entrepreneurs from and living in Piedmont. They met and started being a couple in Milan, but moved together to Dublin, Ireland, to work together at Google. After some years, they made a life choice that may have shocked their colleagues, as they came back to Italy to start their own business, Assedium Ritual Pastry, selling traditional pastry and chocolate destined to the international market. As you’ll see, their story is self-explanatory of how their personal and career paths have always been intertwined.
While Paolo is from alluring Turin, Cristina was born in the homeland of Nutella, Cuneo, and comes from a family of pastry chefs. Her town is where Assedium Ritual Pastry was founded and is based. Its name wants to symbolize the fact that, this beautiful, small center on the Western Alps, has been under siege by Spanish, French, Suisse and Austrian armies for more than 7 times in its history due to its strategic position, always resisting the enemies. Surely, the choice of this name reflects their determination and ambition, but also their willingness to bring the treasures of their region to the world, as they themselves explain in our interview.
Paolo, Cristina, ritual question: you’re a couple in your private life but also at work, as you first became colleagues and then very young business partners. You are both from Piedmont, and got married a few months ago. How did you meet?
PAOLO: Actually, there are two different answers to this question. It all started through friends. At that time, I had just started a course of study at the university, and we met at a party organized by some mutual friends, without major developments. Then, our paths crossed again when I moved to Milan to work at Google.
CRISTINA: Work has always been our trait d’union, the file rouge of our story. Paolo first went to Milan and then to Dublin for Google, while I had a contract with another company in Milan and then I also moved to Dublin to work at Google. So we don’t really know whether we moved to the same city for work, or for each other. In any case, we like to say that our personal lives have always been intertwined with our careers, to the point that we started a business together.
Assedium Ritual Pastry combines the centuries-old tradition of Piedmontese chocolate and pastry, with the contemporary concepts of a sensorial experience provided by an international online boutique: when and how was the idea of Assedium born?
PAOLO: Assedium was born from the desire to bring the artisan excellence of Cuneo’s petit patisserie to Italy and to the rest of the world. We chose to dedicate ourselves to this mission emphasizing two concepts: the first, directly linked to the word “Assedium”, namely that of a strong, local and Italian identity. Cuneo is historically famous for its resistance to the numerous sieges suffered during the centuries, due to its role of coveted stronghold and strategic geographic location. The second one, instead, is more related to our contemporary and international vocation, which can be found in the concept of “ritual pastry,” a pleasant experience evoked by small delights to be consumed peacefully and in relaxation. In short, we conceived a ritual that derives from tasting, but in which consumers themselves are the true protagonists of this unique, Italian moment.
How are these first months of activity going?
CRISTINA: We voluntarily approached the market a bit late, in the sense that we launched Assedium in November — a month that, for the chocolate market, is near the peak. It is also true though, that this situation has given us additional motivation to move our first steps more aggressively, since Christmas was just one month away and it was starting to get cold. This allowed us to break the ice immediately and present ourselves on the market in the best possible time of year, and therefore to learn by trying. Of course, in these first months not everything has been prefect, but it was the perfect condition to understand what works, what is not working and what can be changed. So, 2019 was definitely great, and this allowed us to start 2020 even better.
What makes Piedmont, a territory that offers so many gastronomic and non-gastronomic excellences, special?
CRISTINA: Piedmont is a bit like us. Made in Italy is an already consolidated brand across the whole world, as Italians have already made everyone understand what we are capable of doing. There are certain regions that got there much earlier, like Lazio or Emilia-Romagna, one of the first to bring Italian treasures like Lambrusco and tortellini beyond the borders. Piedmont, instead, had always remained on the sidelines, as if it didn’t want to become known to the general public, perhaps also for its territorial characteristics, being an extremely mountainous region with few connections between the various cities. In the last decade, instead, I think that the region has finally woken up, as excellences such as the Langhe products can now be found everywhere. Turin itself had its new dawn, thanks to the 2006 Winter Olympics. This emphasizes the feeling that we are living in an extremely lively and sparkling context, as we want to take what we deserve and present ourselves to the rest of the world. Living in Piedmont in this historic moment is truly amazing. Maybe, if we hit the market twenty years ago, it would have not been as immediate or easy as it is now, precisely because Piedmont is experiencing a new cultural, economic and commercial reinassance.
PAOLO: In the Italian iconography, Piedmont has always been classified as “Bogia nen,” as we say in our dialect. With Bogia nen, we mean jealous and shy, private about the things we could enjoy more, such as wine and chocolate. Piedmont is now a Bogia nen 2.0, since new generations are more aware of our characteristics and potential, so we have become more clever and no longer limit ourselves to opening up only to our closest neighbors. This has been the main change of the territory in the past 10-15 years.
Speaking about first assessments: what have been more important so far, your Piedmontese roots, or your experiences abroad?
CRISTINA: These two kinds of experience must always go parallel. We would not have done what we are doing now, if we hadn’t pursued an experience abroad, due either to the courage it needs, or to the skills and mentality acquired during those years. This was especially crucial for us because, now that we live in Cuneo, we do understand the value and the strength that being craftsmen needs — a truly unique value and feeling that I would recommend to all young people. At the same time, however, I would also advise them to make an experience abroad of any kind, even in different sectors, otherwise it is difficult to bring innovation into tradition, and thus make it sustainable over time. For those who have lived an experience abroad and return to their origins, in particular in the province, this isn’t a foregone message, so it’s better to reiterate.
After years of living abroad, and in particular three as Googlers in Dublin, you came back to Piedmont. Was it easy or difficult to quit an important job in a giant company to go home and start a business from scratch?
PAOLO: The transition was certainly not a stroll. Especially on a psychological level, in the sense that from a situation like Google — where they offer you everything you need (except for the house), and where there was always someone ready to answer any of your questions — you find yourself in a situation in which there are only the two of us asking each other questions. It is impactful. There is no handbook when you become an entrepreneur. So you have to risk and put yourself back in the game, because it’s all about having a bit of that courage to get started. What’s certain is that the transition was not so simple, especially the decision to leave behind us a world like that of Google, and throw ourselves into our project.
CRISTINA: I would also add a much more pragmatic comment: leaving a reality in which paychecks come at the end of the month, to another in which you end up paying suppliers and invoices even before you start to save up something, is certainly difficult. I want to emphasize this, because I think it’s not disputed. I don’t want to chop off the legs of anyone’s dreams, but you must prepare for the best by expecting the worst, because there are difficult moments when you have to be more responsible, and therefore plan your moves. If you manage to prepare yourself psychologically and even a little financially — which means talking to people in the sector — everything is certainly easier. Therefore, what I would recommend to those who want to start their own business, is to surround themselves with extremely motivating people, but also to think out how to cope with the different problems.
Many say that doing business in Italy is very difficult. Yet, you decided to come back. What do you think about Italy a few months after the launch of Assedium? Have you found a country that changed a lot since you left?
PAOLO: Today, doing business in Italy is certainly difficult. You can hear it every day in any TV talk show or in the cafes. What is not often said, however, is that it is not only because of the byzantine red tape and the questionable tax rules. It is also daunting due to the lack of cohesion within the entrepreneurial world. Let me clarify: as Italian entrepreneurs we are not trying hard enough to overcome parochialism, envy, and legal disputes over negligible issues. We do not create networks and we have not understood how much being stronger together would make the country grow: 10% of one million is always better than 100% of one hundred. In this context, a start-up really struggles to create its own market. We should learn from other countries and, among other things, it could be a lot easier than it seems, as it starts with each of us. Today much more than yesterday, it is essential for Italy to present itself as a land of excellences, with greater synergy and cohesion between the various industries and associations.
Your products have been conceived for “cosmopolitan chocolate lovers.” How much potential does the new Made in Italy have worldwide?
CRISTINA: It has infinite potential. Made in Italy is a very strong brand, but eventually it means everything and nothing. There are millions of businesses and industries under such a large umbrella. In my opinion, among these realities, there are some that have a lot of room to grow, and brands that can go ahead in leaps and bounds. The most important thing is to do things well and have a story to tell with authenticity, because otherwise we are going to reduce the overall value of Made in Italy with the years. If we start to exploit the Made in Italy brand without providing any added value, then we are doing it wrong, and that’s something that as Assedium we have paid particular attention to. Indeed, although that of confectionery is a mature sector, we tried to add an authentic nuance, both personal and Italian. That’s why we are working with that little bit extra that is needed when you want to cross the border. In our small way, that’s the added value we are trying to give to Made in Italy.
What are the plans for the future of Assedium?
PAOLO: In the next future we will focus on the introduction of new product lines, always linked to the world of pastry and chocolate, and especially to the local, Piedmontese tradition. In 2020 we will release these new products. In the longer future, we will surely maintain our traditional lines, but always trying to understand what our customers ask us.
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