'The lessons we've learned from 10 years running a business in rural Italy'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
'The lessons we've learned from 10 years running a business in rural Italy'
Ashley and Jason Bartner moved to Italy to set up their own agritourism business. Photo: Ashley Bartner

Organic farmer and innkeeper Ashley Bartner admits that her move to Italy "didn’t really make sense". She and her husband Jason decided to relocate to the rural Marche region from New York in their mid-20s, having only visited the country once on their honeymoon.


"We signed a six-year contract on the building and just thought ‘OK, we’ll see what happens next’," Bartner tells The Local.

The couple have now reached the ten-year milestone in Italy, and with their agriturismo business, La Tavola Marche, still going strong and Italian citizenship applications in process, they have launched bootcamps for would-be expats and innkeepers. The aim is to demystify the process of moving abroad and setting up a business, by highlighting what the reality of the 'dream life' in Italy is like.

While Bartner says she has never regretted the decision to move, she's open about the ups and downs, such as food festivals that turned out to be completely empty, recipes going wrong, and even a couple who had signed contracts to buy their business last year backing out at the last minute and leaving the country.

Perhaps even more importantly though, she acknowledges the in-between moments of simple mundane tasks that have to get done: in the course for aspiring inkeepers, participants shadow the couple of an average day of farming, menu-planning, food preparation and so on, which often get forgotten in the excitement of moving abroad.

"I absolutely don’t make fun of people who’ve been to Italy once and decide they want to move here, because that was us, we moved here on a bit of a whim! We were on a shoestring budget, but we had this unfaltering belief that we would make it work," says Bartner. 

But on its own, that belief isn't enough, and she warns that preparation, or at least an ability to roll with the punches, is essential for anyone planning a move to Italy.

Working on the farm. Photo: Ashley Bartner

One key aspect of the couple's workshops is that they’re held during central Italy’s off-peak season. "If you’re thinking of really living here, you have to know what it’s like all year round. It still gets cold!" she says. "It’s the dose of reality people need to see whether this is really right for them."

For those who do decide to pursue their Italian dream, it's important to think about the figures and work out just how much time and money it will require -- almost always more than you think, warns Bartner. She advises adding a buffer of 30 percent to any budget, to account for currency rate fluctuations as well as unexpected costs such as taxes, notary fees, and the other little things that start to add up.

She also recommends starting marketing the business as soon as you have the seed of the idea, even before arriving in Italy, to bring potential customers on your journey. In the ten years since the Bartners moved, the number of blogs and businesses based on food, travel, and Italy, as well as cooking schools and B&Bs has soared. This reflects a growing demand for agritourism, but also a need for new entrepreneurs to be more creative in finding a niche and standing out.

Dinner at the April workshop. Photo: Ashley Bartner

"Some people have this idea they can just turn up and live the life here -- we call that being dream drunk!" she says. "Even some of our own family and friends assume we just serve wine and watch the sunset. But you need a business plan from day one, and to actually get things up and going once you get here.

"Everyone loves a property hunt, so people might focus on that, or on the visa and immigration process. It’s the step after that when a lot of people get lost, when things get set up and you face a crossroad. If you assume it will just work out, then the fear sets in that you didn’t prepare properly."

The more informal approach to business in the Italian countryside also means that timeframes for getting things done might be drastically different to what you're used to, Bartner explains.

"You need to learn how to do business with Italians, especially if you’re coming from a big city or just somewhere a bit more efficient. People’s sense of urgency won’t necessarily be the same as yours, and that affects you whether you’re running a business or just as a retiree, doing grocery shopping and going about daily life. It’s still frustrating at times even ten years in, so you’ve got to be prepared for all the days off and the lengths of time it takes to get things done."

The first cohort at the workshop. Photo: Ashley Bartner

Bartner and her husband had experience of the hospitality industry from their careers in New York so were prepared for that side of their new lives, but they lacked practical knowledge about rural Italy. They were drawn to Le Marche by the relaxed pace of life, close community and of course the food, as they told The Local in a 2013 Q&A, but Bartner says that they would have found it much harder to settle in if they hadn't had a mentor. 

"We wanted to meet our neighbours so went to deliver apple pies -- totally stereotypically American, which we didn't realize at the time!" she says. "We met one of them, a retired doctor called Gaggi, who was working on a community garden with his friends.

"Later, we came home to find a note on our door. It wasn’t exactly an invitation but more a command to come to dinner at Dr Gaggi’s house," Bartner continues. "We had obviously seemed a bit lost, and they were curious about these two new Americans living at the end of this long dirt road. Another day, we came home and he was mowing our lawn, and as he packed up his lawnmower he gruffly said ‘it needed it’ and drove away. He would also bring over freshly killed capons or chickens to show us how to pluck and prepare them. We didn’t even know he’d be coming over, let alone with dead animals -- but it was great!"

The couple's friendship with the doctor has vastly improved their quality of life, Bartner says, particularly as Gaggi vouched for the pair in town, instructing local traders from the mechanic to the barber to treat the Americans as one of them. "That’s how a lot of things work here so it’s important to show you’re not just expats looking to come on holiday here, but want to live here and be part of the community," she says.

"You can't try to change the system in Italy, you just have to prepare for it and learn how to adapt and live within it."


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