PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA. — In an impassioned final address as chairman of the board of directors of the National Pasta Association, Carl Zuanelli urged members to see opportunities in every difficulty, to move beyond the carb-phobic headwinds of the past, to embrace the pasta-loving millennial generation in the world’s largest pasta market and “to make a lot of happy lives: Find pasta. Make pasta.” 

Mr. Zuanelli’s state of the industry address March 20 capping his four-year stint as chairman detailed a strong post-pandemic position for US pasta, debuted a “dynamic duo” of fresh NPA leadership and offered hints about the organization’s plans for the future.

The past

The challenges put before the pasta industry during the recent coronavirus pandemic were considerable, but by no means the first, said Mr. Zuanelli, founder and former chief executive officer of Nuovo Pasta Productions Ltd.

“With one word I’d like to describe the pasta industry, and that word is ‘resilient,’” he said. “We have continuously sustained unrelenting assaults on our industry starting almost 100 years ago in Italy itself.”

He recounted the December 1930 issue of La Cucina Italiano, in which controversial poet Filippo Marinetti published a “manifesto of futurist cooking” that branded pasta “an absurd gastronomic Italian religion,” and called for its banishment. In recent decades, the assault has taken the form of perceptions of pasta as a carbohydrate boogeyman, Mr. Zuanelli said.

“My perspective was we were fighting the wrong battle, waving a banner that said pasta wasn’t bad for you,” he said. “I’ve always said that when I was a child eating at the table at home, mother would say ‘eat that, it’s good for you.’ She wasn’t pointing at the pasta; she was probably pointing at the broccoli. And it was a thing that most people didn’t want to eat. And that’s what we were doing.”

In the past two years, dietary accusations against the staple food have taken a back seat to the twin tests of inflationary pressure and supply chain issues — “challenges not seen for a generation of Americans,” Mr. Zuanelli said. “Winston Churchill said the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty, sees the ability to increase productivity because of cost pressures, both in ingredients and equipment. Despite it all, the pasta industry continues to not only survive, but indeed thrives. All of us were affected by the market contraction in our gross profits and we have come through that, back to margin normalization. We have survived and thrived once again. And now the industry and the National Pasta Association is in a positive position at a time for new transition.”

The present

Whereas US pasta consumption, save for fresh pasta, was declining prior to COVID, the pandemic inarguably expanded that measure, which came as a surprise to the industry, Mr. Zuanelli said, flashing a slide indicating US dollar sales of all pasta jumped to $3.665 billion in the first year of the pandemic, fell to $3.285 billion in the year ended January 2022 and rebounded to $ 3.917 billion in the year ended in February. The United States is the largest market in the world for pasta, home to the greatest consumption by pounds, although “not per capita yet, we’ll work on that,” Mr. Zuanelli said.

“We’re No. 2 in production around the world, probably soon to be No. 1, but that distinction goes to Italy and certainly per capita consumption goes to Italy,” he said. “We’re promoting pasta in a different way, and COVID showed us that the world pivoted, and embraced that beloved product, pasta.”

Meanwhile, unit sales were relatively flat during the period, even as dollar sales expanded, partly on price increases that had to be taken by equipment suppliers and pasta manufacturers, he said, a frequent topic among domestic and international pasta manufacturers.

“Although we all were kicked right in the middle of the margins real hard, we are certainly recovering now,” he said. “Our ability to supply the demand out there was challenged. Pasta equipment suppliers had difficulty in getting product. Our facilities were unable to produce more product in many cases. Many of us have seen, and continue to see, products missing in the grocery’s pasta section. It’s not a demand issue, it’s a supply issue that is being fixed as supply chains come back into normalization.”

There are other tails from the pandemic-era embrace of pasta, he said. Far less product being sold in promotions. It was an area where necessary budget cuts could be made, and consumer demand indicated they weren’t needed since COVID. Promotions likely aren’t gone for good, he said, since supermarket demand for them never really went away. Also, pasta products in foodservice channels have seen a similar resurgence to consumer-packaged goods, he said, and both owe a big debt of gratitude to a market segment that has been called the future of specialty foods: Millennials, consumers born in the 1980s and now blow out between 34 and 44 birthday candles annually.

That demographic of 80 million people — compared with 76 million baby boomers — comprises the highest percentage of purchases,  and are on track to surpass the baby boomers in spending potential by 2033, Mr. Zuanelli said, noting the group spends $72 billion on consumer packaged goods every year, are foodies who love cooking, use food to express themselves and connect with peers, and are driven in food purchasing by buzzwords such organic, artisanal, local, grass-fed and handmade.

Millennials travel more, are open to a wide variety of cuisines, and are more conscious of authenticity than preceding generations, he said. Pre-pandemic, this was seen in the group’s love of dining out, but when the world shut down and the economy contracted, they were keen to recreate restaurant experiences at home.

“This is perfect for pasta and our industry, and this is not where we were four years ago,” Mr. Zuanelli said. “We’re not facing this hyper, carbo-phobic consumer any longer. I hope all of us get over that and move on to the consumer really embracing our industry.”

In a recount of the successful NPA initiatives of the past year, Mr. Zuanelli cited the recent durum roundtable that united domestic and international researchers; a standards of identity project undertaken by the government affairs committee that engaged the Food and Drug Administration in pasta standards for the first time since 1940; and a reconfigured communications plan shifting away from broad special media promotion of the product. He praised Kellen Co. for a “tremendous” job with public relations and promotion of the industry through periodicals, television and “the great work of our chef spokesman, Rosario Del Nero, one of the most passionate individuals that I’ve ever met.”

The future

NPA membership increased in 2023, from 54 manufacturing, milling and associate members to 58, he said, “and in the coming years we’re going to try to get to triple digits.” Mr. Zuanelli said the NPA was able to achieve nearly all past objectives and was moving forward with a new strategic plan set forth by its board of directors. The association seeks to:

  • Retain 90% of members while attract two targeted members annually;
  • Ensure stakeholders are aware, engaged and educated on the activity and benefits of the NPA via advocacy, networking, industry intelligence and other services;
  • Develop a philanthropic strategy and program to highlight the charitable efforts with a focus on food security;
  • And engage a Member Education Committee to study the structure, activities and location of the annual meeting to ensure continued sustained relevance of the membership.

The NPA this year also will hash out the possibility of combining the NPA annual meeting and the celebration of World Pasta Day in 2024 he said, in order to learn from the international community what’s impacting pasta abroad.

Finally, the outgoing chairman thanked the members and praised the incoming board of directors leadership: chairwoman Nora Stabert, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Macaroni Co., Philadelphia, and vice chairman Jeffrey Schryver, vice president of pasta operations with 8th Avenue Food and Provisions, Fenton, Mo.

“I am completely and unbelievably grateful for the four years that I have spent as chairman,” he said. “It’s been my personal and professional greatest honor of my life and I want to thank you and I want to thank you and the board for electing me to that position, and I am equally honored to be passing that baton to a fantastic leadership team that is a big deal for the industry and represents a brilliant future for the industry. Our own Nora Stabert is sure to be a fantastic chairperson, one for whom I have deep respect and admiration for her talents. She is a home run hitter.

“I believe in the deep tradition of the NPA. It has a deep-rooted tradition, family members, and I think you should never lose sight of that, that you should have one hand reaching back, one hand reaching forward, that we should never be tethered by that tradition, but we should always be respectful of it. And true to that tradition, we have Jeffrey Schryver as the vice chairman of the board, who represents 35 years in the industry working with some of those family members and a fountain of information and knowledge. He knows so much about this industry and all its nooks and crannies and corners.

“If you have an opportunity to engage with both these individuals, you’re going to see a dynamic duo. The more engaged a membership, the greater future we will have. Today, NPA is more than manufacturers, which remain the root of the organization, but today we are durum farmers, equipment suppliers, those that represent packaging machines and scales, and everything needed to produce our product.

“The state of the union is bright; the horizon is magnificent.”