The highly feted, $700 million USC Village has faced a good bit of controversy since its inception, and one of its newly added businesses arrives in South Los Angeles with some additional baggage. Barilla, the self-described “world’s most popular” pasta corporation, announced this month that it would be opening a new restaurant in the South L.A. development this fall. But the fact is, the company has not always been very popular.
Just four years ago — a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage — the president of Barilla went on an Italian radio program and stated that he wouldn’t include same-sex couples in his company's commercials because he preferred “traditional” family structures. Guido Barilla’s wording (in translation) was: “I would never do an ad with a homosexual family. … If the gays don’t like it they can go and eat another brand.”
Enraged by this anti-gay declaration, groups such as GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) responded with public condemnation of the company, while the LGBT community and supporters petitioned stores to remove the product from their shelves and took to Twitter to spread a #BoicottaBarilla campaign.
Some see what happened next as a redemption story.
“The comment by their president is a hurtful one and was on the wrong side of history,” Rev. Kelby Harrison, Ph.D., director of USC’s LGBT Resource Center, wrote in an email. “However, hearts and minds were changed at that company, after the backlash, through their work to be inclusive, demonstrated by the HRC Corporate Equality Index and their media efforts.”
The company — once mostly known for its blue boxes of spaghetti and fettuccine available in nearly every neighborhood grocery store — became recognized in 2014 (and the years that followed) for a corporate about-face that included two public apologies by the president and a “listening tour” that sought input from Barilla employees and LGBT leaders. The company went from “gay rights pariah to poster child,” according to the Washington Post, and became a “trailblazer for corporate equity,” Fortune reported in 2014. Barilla also donated money to gay rights causes and participated in HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates companies based on their “policies, benefits and practices for the LGBT workforce and their families,” and it earned a perfect score. In fact, in 2015, 2016 and 2017 Barilla has maintained that top mark.
“You have to up your game every year,” says Kristen Anderson, Barilla’s chief diversity officer. “You have to be continuously improving.”
For Barilla, this means giving Anderson direct access to the CEO, establishing a Diversity and Inclusion Board that includes employees as well as external advisers (such as gay civil rights activist David Mixner) and conducting diversity and inclusion training for the whole company. Barilla employees also marched in the 2017 Milan and Chicago gay pride parades.
But the world (and the internet) does not forget. While Anderson says they’re not aware of any USC student protests over the opening of the new Barilla restaurant, the president’s 2013 comments are often still referenced by people today.
A quick Twitter search of #BoicottaBarilla yields a deluge of results, with tweets from as recently as this month stating, “Only conservative Catholics can safely eat this religious #boicottabarilla pasta” and “I don’t like to eat anything that tastes like homophobia #boicottabarilla.”
Despite some of the public praise Barilla has received for its efforts, USC’s Rev. Harrison says she has heard students at the LGBT Resource Center express concerns over Barilla’s restaurant opening near campus. Harrison maintains, however, that the company’s evolution is actually a good example of a “shifting understanding of the importance of including and supporting the LGBT community.”
“This is a helpful and hopeful story that people can and do change to be more loving, inclusive and supportive of LGBTQ+ individuals and communities,” Harrison says.
Barilla’s 1,800-square-foot space at USC Village is one of two new ventures by the company opening in Southern California in the coming months. The next will be in Orange County. The menu is expected to feature pizzas, pastas, sandwiches and salads with gluten-free and vegan options.