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Sarah Raffetto, chief operating officer, Raffetto's Pasta
On tradition, loyalty, and growth at her family’s century-old pasta shop.
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If you’re a New Yorker who likes to cook or dine out, you likely know of Raffetto’s, the 117 year old pasta shop on West Houston Street in the West Village. The shop has been supplying New York’s restaurants and home cooks with fresh cut pasta, stuffed pasta shapes, and other Italian specialties since 1906. You can get fresh pasta cut on the guillotine while you wait in 5 different widths — from linguine to pappardelle — in classic and fancy flavors like squid ink or mushroom, or choose from a wide selection of stuffed pasta shapes like pumpkin, lobster, or wild mushroom ravioli. More recently, they added extruded shapes to their line up, satisfying long-standing customer suggestions to carry shapes like penne and bucatini.
The shop has been family-owned since it’s inception, and today is owned by founder Marcello Raffetto’s grandsons. I chatted with Sarah Raffetto, part of the 4th generation of Raffettos to run the shop, about tradition, loyalty, and growth at the century-old pasta shop. Plus, her dad, Andrew Raffetto, even jumped in for a question!
Brianna Plaza: Do you want to start by telling me about your background?
Sarah Raffetto: My name is Sara Raffetto, and I grew up in this neighborhood for about 20-ish out of my 33 years. I am a diehard city kid, though. I was born here, went to grade school here, then my dad remarried, and we went to New Jersey, and I was not pleased, but It wasn't the worst place. I just love this city. I came back for college, and I've stayed ever since. I actually lived with my grandmother above the shop.
My great-grandfather purchased the building in 1920, but over the years, a lot of us have lived here. My grandparents raised my dad and my uncle in the same apartment that I then shared with her. At one point, it was my grandparents, my aunt and uncle on the third floor, and then my dad and I on the fourth floor.
It's been a really special journey, being a part of the business throughout my entire life. With each passing year, I’ve learned to appreciate the uniqueness of our family and my identity. There are so many different options of what you can do with your life, and how you want to make money. But I get to wake up and like what I do, at least a little bit every day. Its become more obvious that this is what I want to do.
Brianna Plaza: Your role is chief operating officer, but what does that mean in a small business like this?
Sarah Raffetto: I deal with the operational matters specific to retail. My dad and I share all of the operational responsibilities. I mean, family businesses are crazy. You have all sorts of stuff. It's not just backend, it's front end, it's hospitality, it's developing recipes. Product and inventory. I mean so many things, but I am predominantly retail focused.
I work less with the wholesale department — my cousin and my uncle run that and they resemble the way that my dad and I are here. We're kind of like two parts of a brain and do the divide-and-conquer sort of thing.
In addition to the role that I have here, I also started a private events and pasta popup company called Petite Pasta Joint. Back in 2019 with my now best friend and business partner, Emily Fedner. She and I do family style BYOB events at the main counter. It's a lot of fun and it's been a cool creative outlet. It's very financially lucrative. It allows me to indulge in my restaurant and hospitality fantasy without signing a lease and giving up all of my free time.
Brianna Plaza: Since you focus mostly on retail, in addition to Petite Pasta Joint, how do you think about growth?
Sarah Raffetto: Once upon a time, my focus was on other locations, but I waiver between a wider distribution and having our own physical locations because we're dealing with struggles of staffing in this location.
Now it makes me ill to think about opening more locations. Then you're not physically present at all of them and can’t micromanage the way you want and uphold your values and make sure that the hospitality and the recipes are there.
But if I were to do it, I’d go to Austin because it's not too far. It's a super cool part of Texas and there's very little Italian food there. So many New Yorkers moved there during COVID too, so there could be a very significant demand if we were to do that.
Brianna Plaza: Building on that, how do you think about brand loyalty since you've been around for so long? Do you think about that as part of a business plan or do you do a lot of marketing?
Sarah Raffetto: We rely very heavily on loyalty because we invest virtually nothing in brand marketing, and for better or worse, that has done us well. I would like to do more, especially with socials. It is getting increasingly harder to reach a particular demographic, like young adults and kids in college. We’re in a neighborhood with so many colleges and people don't even know we're here.
So that is definitely an objective of mine. I'm just primarily focusing on stabilizing our staff. I would love to be inundated with more business, but at the same time, until we get staffing good to go, I just kind of post on Instagram.
Brianna Plaza: Since you've opened, you've done fresh pasta, dried pastas, and then also a lot of flavors. How do you think about bringing in new products?
Sarah Raffetto: In the 1900s when refrigeration was more of a luxury, we used to make these dried pasta nets and mail order them, but that hasn't happened for a long time. We outsource the dried pasta and heavily focus on the fresh noodles and filled pastas like ravioli, tortellini, and tortelloni. Until this year, we only had one extruded shape: cavatelli.
When we think about adding new things, we listen to feedback. For years, people would ask why we didn’t make fresh rigatoni or penne or bucatini. Then the stars aligned when a company that we used to outsource fresh shapes from closed. We essentially acquired their machinery and their accounts. It worked out to be a relatively advantageous move for us. We got all these accounts that they no longer could supply. And now we get to make our own extruded pasta.
Other than that, we're working on gluten-free products and alternate flour and things like that, but only one product has reached its full potential. Even though the gluten-free demand is so high, you need to get separate machinery and really have a separate room. If we want to start making gluten-free ravioli, that's a $120,000 machine — we can’t just add to cart. It's a big endeavor to really commit to something like that.
Brianna Plaza: The cost of fresh pasta varies so widely in this city and your prices are very cheap compared to many, how do you stay competitive?
Sarah Raffetto: I have gone to Eataly just to scout different prices and Essex Market, and I like to just keep my eyes open. But primarily it’s because we own our real estate. That is a huge advantage that allows us to be very affordable and competitive. Without that, I can't say that we would be able to do that. We always try to remain fair, but have good margins.
Something that my dad loves to say is that he wants Rafetto’s to be the no-brainer choice. He doesn't want to ever be in a price bracket where you're suddenly like, should I go there?
And granted, everyone is always going to think if something goes up five cents you're the devil, but we also are a business that needs to make money. People forget that it's not an attack on anyone if we need to raise our prices a little bit. You have to do it sometimes.
But I am very cognizant of comparing and looking up pricing everywhere else to ensure that we're always a good choice and that we can remain affordable to everyone.
Brianna Plaza: What role have you seen this establishment play in New York's evolving food scene?
Sarah Raffetto: In my time, I think that I have seen a tremendous evolution of people's relationship with pasta and carbs and sustenance and indulgence because its gone through many phases.
When I was in grade school, I remember Atkins. I was too little to be aware of it, but my dad was like, people are going to be anti carbs. This is bad. Then there were other movements when fresh pasta started to become super hot and we got a writeup or we get one good restaurant that references us, and the next thing you know, it's a domino effect.
The relationship people have with pasta is so interesting because we go through these diet cultures. There’s low carb diets, and then there's body positivity movements and just being balanced. But I don’t think any food should be villainized. I think that's what perpetuates negative relationships with food in general.
I've enjoyed seeing all of the ways that has transformed over time.
Andrew Raffetto: For the first 60 years or so, our role was providing the staples of the “old country” cuisine for newly arrived Italian immigrants. It was comforting for those who may have been homesick. In the recent 40-50 years, the demographics of the village has changed, and with the increased popularity of fresh pasta, our customers have requested new flavors and fillings.
Our own business changed with the increase of restaurants wanting to offer more gourmet pastas, which increased our wholesale portion of the business. Admittedly, some flavors of pasta originated from chefs asking us to develop new flavors. Those restaurants may have closed long ago, but we continue to offer that flavor because it was so good and interesting.
We will always continue to produce our staples because they’re comfort food and that never goes out of style. But we will always listen to our customers both on the retail and wholesale sides to make new products. I sometimes ask myself “How many flavors do we need?” But we can’t stay stagnant, and it’s fun to create something new and have it welcomed by customers.
If it can be mixed with flour, water, and eggs, we’ll keep mixing for another hundred years!
Brianna Plaza: How have you seen consumer preferences change in the last few years?
Sarah Raffetto: I wouldn't say product consumption has changed that much, but we went through two evolutions with COVID. We lost a lot of our local people because they either moved away or passed away unfortunately — I've noticed that a lot of our little old ladies are not coming in as often. And then we got all these new people.
And then prices skyrocketed. We’re a store that serves a mix of people that are extremely budget conscious and people who are just blindly charging whatever the heck they want. So the neighborhood is definitely changing constantly. But I like to believe that there is an element of preservation that still exists where we see the same people that come in — not all of them — but there's still a good amount.
And we try to accommodate needs, whether it's gluten-free or different questions about product or getting something new in. With staffing right now, it's a little bit difficult, but we dabble with sandwiches and we're making them with our focaccia. Or I started an ice cream line a couple years ago and now I've been selling ice cream, which has been fun and different.
But things don't change that drastically here, to be honest. I know that's a boring answer, but it really is about consistency above all else for us. I think what a lot of our customers love about coming here is the way regularity feels because you know what you're getting. Once in a while we might have something new, but really people come because they know what they want, they know what they’re going to get, and it’s going to be consistent because we’ve basically never changed.
It's tough to maintain our traditions and also expand and evolve. While I'm only 33 of those 117 years, even in my time, the neighborhood has changed so vastly. It makes me very sad that so many businesses have not remained, but I'm so grateful that we're one of them that is able to stay, and to the best of my abilities will continue for as long as possible.