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Running A B&B In The Italian Countryside
American Ashley Bartner can tell you all about it – and she’s going to, today on the Expat Focus Podcast.
10 years ago, she and her husband Jason left the hustle and bustle of New York for a big old farmhouse in the beautiful Marche region of Italy. They’ve turned it into a very successful organic farm, inn and cooking school – called La Tavola Marche. But that’s not all - Ashley and Jason are also helping other expats lay the groundwork to realise their own dreams of ‘living the sweet life’ in Italy, after experiencing first-hand, the consequences of being unprepared.
Carlie: What does it take to own and run a B&B in the Italian countryside? American Ashley Bartner can tell you all about it! And she’s going to in this episode of the Expat Focus podcast.
Ten years ago Ashley and her husband Jason left the hustle and bustle of New York for a big old farmhouse in the beautiful Marche region of Italy. They’ve turned it into a very successful organic farm, inn, and cooking school, called La Tavola Marche. But that’s not all. Ashley and Jason are now also helping other expats lay the groundwork to realise their own dreams of living the sweet life in Italy. And it’s after experiencing first-hand the consequences of being unprepared.
I have to say, one of the things that, it really struck me when I was on your website, and watching your video story of how you came to live in Italy, was just how young you were when you did decide to leave New York, for this new, amazing, exciting, adventurous life on the other side of the world, kind of. So, what was your motivation, and, in your mid-20s, to make such a drastic change?
Ashley: Well, it’s ridiculously romantic, and totally practical, at the same time! (laughs) Two ends of the spectrum. We, we were 25, we had just gotten married, and we came to Italy on our honeymoon. So, that’s cue the romantic music, and the really cheesy (laughs) that’s amore! We fell in love when we came here with the quality of life, and really it was that we were ready for a change.
Jason and I, my husband, we were both from the west coast, and we were living in New York for 8, going on 10 years, and we were ready for a change. And when we came to Italy we saw this opportunity for something totally different, this simplicity, this idea of getting our hands dirty, and kind of living sustainably, and not even realising all of this at the same time, and it was just at the right time in our lives, when we were ready for a change. We thought, we were getting ready to leave New York and move back to the west coast, we didn’t have kids, we didn’t have a mortgage, and we thought if we’re gonna do something crazy, let’s do it now! We kind of joke it was at the right age to (laughs), it’s just kind of crazy enough to not realise how crazy this was, (laughs) you know!
Carlie: I think it’s a little bit of a wise beyond your years kind of situation too, I mean, I remember, you know, when I was in my early and mid-20s, how career-focused I was, and wanting to get back to the big city after being you know in regional, you know, and hit those career goals. And yet you’re in the middle of that in New York, and you’ve already seen that there’s something better out there.
Ashley: Uh-huh, I think so, and it’s one of those things that we were lucky that we had started young, with kind of working towards our kind of just goals in life anyway, Jason had gone to culinary school in New York and wanted to be an executive chef, and he sure enough was by 25 in New York, and I’d been working in hospitality and, but yet feeling unfulfilled, and I think that New York is great to live and learn and grow, but it also helps you reevaluate, oh my gosh, you know, what do I want to do with my life? And, and maybe it was just the culmination of, kind of the wedding and all of that, but we just saw it as an opportunity to say let’s not do the norm. Can you hold on for one quick second?
Carlie: Yeah, no problem.
Ashley: [unclear 00:03:41] we’re recording. One second.
Carlie: No worries.
Ashley: Hey Jason! Jay! Please! I’m re-, she’s recording this, for a podcast, can you not do this right now?
Jason: Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realise!
Carlie: It’s great, it’s great ambience! (laughs)
Ashley: He’s loading the wood in the background for the fireplaces, like, oh my God, into the big bucket!
Carlie: Well that leads me to ask you, what is a typical day now like in your Italian life?
Ashley: Well, we’re speaking now in the winter, so it’s very different than the summer. The winter is a little slower, you know we don’t have the same urgency in the day that we have throughout the summer, and the kind of guest season, spring, summer, into fall, and we’re able to travel, be hibernating bears (laughs) and just kind of catch up on projects around the house.
Right now our typical day is we’re painting the guest rooms, and, I know you could probably hire someone for not expensive, but we’re just that kind of like, roll up your sleeves and just do it, you know. So we’ve been painting the guest rooms, and doing some of these projects to prepare for the opening of the season.
But when it’s season on, game on, (laughs) and the inn is open and we have guests, it’s kind of up with the sun, and you want to, it’s the summer and spring and it’s just so sunny and nice that you wanna jump out of bed, and you get up and Jason and I will have our coffee, we’ll do kind of a quick morning breakdown of what’s to come through the day, what guests are arriving, what’s on deck for dinner, or cooking classes.
We’ll have a cappuccino and then jump to it, and Jason goes straight down to the garden to start watering, I’ll go feed the chickens and let them out, and start getting breakfast ready for the guests, and he will then jump in the car, go to the market for any of the meat and other things that we don’t have at our farm, and the milk, and come back, and normally then we might have a cooking class starting at 10 in the morning, for like a pasta and sauces or something, and we’ll start, as soon as he gets back the kitchen’s set ready to go, aprons are on the table…
Carlie: Gosh it’s still only 10 in the morning, and you’re so busy already!
Ashley: It’s only 10 in the morning! (laughs) And then we’ll do the cooking class, and it’s this great dance, and finish with lunch, clean up, Jason will kind of say his thank yous to the guests, and I’ll sit and have lunch with them. He’ll clean up the kitchen, take a quick nap, and then by like 4 o’clock we’re either back in the garden or back in the kitchen for an afternoon cooking class, and in the afternoon we’re doing like the full meal dinner party, which is a blast, and we’ll do four courses, all straight from the garden, then head into dinner, so it’s setting the table, I mean it’s just non-stop! (laughs)
Carlie: It sounds like you really need this winter time to just, you know, brake and recharge, and slow down.
Ashley: You do. I, I think you do. And I am totally a people person, I love it! Jason grew up in the kitchen, and is not so much a people person at times (laughs), he’s great when the classes, he’s great with the guests, but come November, at the end of April through to November, hard sort of, a few of those have been like hard busy hot months, and a lot of work in the garden, he’s just kind of exhausted and done.
And that’s the beauty of having a, a business like this where you work for yourself, and having a bed and breakfast or an inn, I love the idea of having it be seasonal, because also where we live, it gets cold and wet, and most people when they think of travelling to Italy, they think of sunflowers all year round, and where we live that’s not the case, so it’s good to close, to also manage the expectations of the guests we have, and keep it when the sun is shining in that sense! (laughs)
Carlie: So did you have this particular business model in mind, of a cooking school, inn, farm, when you did make your move from the US to Italy?
Ashley: Yes! This was not a, we might have been young and crazy, but we were not idiots. And we were very smart and had planned diligently how we were going to do this. And mainly because we had no money! So it was one of those things where this was going to be a leap of faith.
We knew we didn’t have a lot of money to get started, we were so young and just spent all of it on a wedding, we lived in New York, it’s hard to save money, yeah we were scraping it all together, but it was, we need to have a solid business plan, and that is so important to anyone listening out there, no matter what your endeavour or location may be, what do you wanna do next, start a business plan.
It, even if it’s just for yourself, it may be for the bank one day or even immigration, you might have to show it, but, for us it was really important to go through and ask yourself the nitty-gritty questions, especially when it comes to finances. And that was, it was a really good kind of exercise, if you will, to go through. We had both worked in hospitality, since like 16, 17 kind of thing, and, high-end hospitality at times, so we knew what, what we wanted to create, we knew that, it was really, Jason’s not here to say different, but it was really my idea! (laughs)
I thought, oh, it was the idea that, when you come to Italy and you’re travelling around as a foreigner, especially for the very first time, it is so exciting and it’s so curious, and you can’t speak the language most often, and you just think oh my gosh, if I only had a key to get through these doors, like we could hear people eating lunch, you know, behind... doors, and, and, up in apartments but you, and no restaurant around and you were starving and you’re thinking where are they eating, where are they?
And you’d be wandering around these back streets, and I just thought OK, you need a key in Italy, and whether that’s for the language, or for the food, or for the culture, someone to help connect you in a way. And so I thought, well maybe we could do that. And Jason went, like I said went to culinary school and was a chef, and even though he was trained French (laughs), I told him, alright, well you could switch it, and he was like it’s not that easy, and I was like you’ll figure it out!
But we did, we had a really great business plan that was about creating kind of a basis of culinary tourism and sustainable tourism, of connecting people to the land, the culture, the food. Really it gave us a basis of something to follow when we got here, whether the numbers were right or wrong, they were all wrong really! But, it was a great exercise. So, just don’t jump head-first in that sense, without doing some good research, and I just highly recommend it! (laughs)
Carlie: And I know now you’re running Move to Italy workshops, which we’ll talk about a little bit later. But I’m curious, you mentioned needing to find that key. What was that key for you, or how did you find your key?
Ashley: Well, for us to connect to Italy it was a bit of a different key if you will. For us it was a... that was finding someone to help us navigate the bureaucratic waters of moving to Italy.
As an American, as someone starting a business, you know, our visas, our very different all over the world in these things, and different categories available, but we needed to find someone who would, who we could trust, and who would be just furbo, just cunning enough to know how to work the system, in the right way! (laughs) But, we needed someone here in Italy. So for us, that was our key.
And, I don’t necessarily at all recommend finding someone to, you know, help you with your immigration in the States and these kind of things, there’s some kind of real shifty, snake oil salesmen out there. This was a commercially... an Italian business, and kind of tax accountant if you will. And we met him through a third party and he offered to help us. And that meant he was able to help us create our business in Italy, at the Camera di Commercio, the Chamber of Commerce, and work with us at some of the documents we needed on the Italian side to help fulfil requirements for our visa. And so that was what was truly our key.
Carlie: And then how did the locals take to you? You bought this farm/inn, with the intention of turning it into this accommodation and, and cooking school, in, I believe your region is La Marche?
Ashley: Brava, yes! La Marche. Well, (laughs) this was something that Jason was very concerned about when we were moving. And I said, we’re not coming here to open a MacDonalds, you know! But we’re …
Carlie: Here’s a French chef, who’s going to cook Italian, you know!
Ashley: Exactly! And we’re American, so they think it’s all hamburger, hotdog, and (laughs). So, we had, it was, we thought oh no what are we doing, and we’re next door to Tuscany. However, La Marche is wonderful, and for us it is really the Marchegiani, the people of this area that has helped to make us feel at home here. What we did to kind of acclimate, or to integrate into the community, was well first of all you need to learn the language. If you’re planning to move to any country that’s, doesn’t speak your mother tongue, learn it! How else are you going to assimilate? And start a business, how else are you going to do business in these places?
But, for us, going to the local café, kind of putting out the vibe if you will, like oh, well it’s a teeny tiny town, we moved into a town of two thousand people, so it’s obvious we are foreign. We arrived in winter, in December, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend! Because we did not know how to heat a stone farmhouse in the winter at all, coming from a, city kids, we were burning wet wood!
But, the thing that we did was we went around to every neighbour and we introduced ourselves, so we said hello, anyone along our road, we’re your new neighbours, we baked an apple pie for each one, we had no idea how American and over-the-top this was for them! We were constantly invited to dinner ‘cause people were so curious, or just people would stop in, we called them the pop-ins. People would pop in all the time just to see who are these crazy Americans who moved down the road. And, they were convinced that we were orphans, because (laughs) we were 25, 26, my sister was with us who is two years younger than me, and the average age for Italians to live at home is 37! And here we are, 25, 26, you know, 23 year olds …
Carlie: Out of home, buying a business, other side of the world! What are you doing? (laughs)
Ashley: Yeah, and they’re like, oh my God, they kept saying where’s your mother? Where’s your parents? And we were like, oh my God, we did this without them, and we’re adults, and, so they took to us like we were their children. And it was fantastic!
I mean for us, 8 years in New York, we did not know the neighbours that we had, the eight neighbours we had in our tiny apartment building, whereas within 8 weeks we knew all of Piobbico, and they all knew who we were. We figured they had a town hall meeting and announced us, and (laughs) put up our photos! We were just such a curiosity that I think that people wanted to make sure that we were OK, and taken care of, and would deliver a homemade cake for Easter, because that’s what you eat locally, this Easter bread, and you’re new here, how could you have Easter without this bread, my momma made this for you. So, it’s, it was very overwhelming, and we still feel 10 years later, now going on 11 in the same town, now we feel like we’ve become Piobbichese, the people of Piobbico, we feel very connected here.
Carlie: God that’s so great! And what an amazing experience to have. Do you think that it’s a similar experience for people moving now, you know, 10 years later?
Ashley: Oh I think that if you live in small towns, absolutely! I’ve no idea what it’s like to live in a bigger city, the people of a small town will come around, you learn the definition of a neighbour. I mean Jason has so much, I think he has more pride, in fact I know, he is so much more proud to know that some old guy from town, who’s probably going on 80, who, if he drives all the way out down our dirt road to come check out our garden, and turn around in our driveway and go back home, just to see how our tomatoes are, that means the world more to him than any press in a magazine, or a Trip Advisor review.
Carlie: It’s true endorsement! (laughs)
Ashley: You know, like for him to know that these old guys, like he’s like oh man, they’re checking out my tomatoes! You know, and he’s like …
Carlie: So legit!
Ashley: … just looking so excited! (laughs) And he could care less about any press or anything, but for him, that connection, for both of us, but that just is a good example of, it’s very, kind of at times overwhelming because you feel so much of a great connection in that sense, so I think that, I think that it just depends on where people go.
I know that places like southern Italy, the farther south you get, it, they’ll call it more the Wild West, and these things. You’ll have less other expats with you, but that’s what for us was more comforting. We decided we wanted to move to Italy to become Italian.
So, for us we wanted to be in a very non-touristy area, you know, the only other people that speak English are our Dutch neighbours that live 6km down the road. And, it’s just us and them (laughs) in that sense, for foreigners. But, it’s very nice!
Now, if you want that expat connection there’s a lot of cities you can go to, and that kind of interaction which can, which can be nice, but for our moving process I would say we probably had it a bit easier 10-11 years ago than today, in the sense of immigration, and some of this is just changing due to, you know, the changing times. So, things are a bit more, I wouldn’t say strict, it’s still Italy! (laughs) There’s still very blurred lines, but, (laughs), and, and I will also say it’s not that any information has been updated online. If you still look at many of these like immigration websites, it might quote information from 2004. So, you never know! (laughs). So in that sense it’s just like it was back then!
Carlie: But how did that go down? Because you’ve moved to Italy, you’re not Italian, you’re offering an experience in Italy based on Italian cooking, and your reviews on Trip Advisor and on Facebook and, you know, you’re an amazing business. Did you have to work hard to prove yourselves?
Ashley: Jason, that’s all Jason, in the sense of when it comes to delivering, and the food, and that experience, is all him. And he is excellent, obviously I’m his wife so I’m like a little bit biased, he feeds me every day (laughs) so you know if I want supper I’d better talk well, speak well, but (laughs) he works hard in the sense of, any time we were invited to dinner, to a new neighbour’s house or someone in town, or a new friend, he would say great, can I arrive, can we come early and could I help you?
And he would wanna watch, he would wanna learn, he would find out who was the best pasta maker in town and I doubt any Piobbichese are listening so I can say it’s Lana and Maria, Maria is the one for the cappelletti stuffing, and Lana for cut pasta. This is big bragging rights! But, it was that he was taught by these local ladies how to do it. And then he would invite them to dinner at our house, and the beauty of Italians is they love food so much, and cooking, and sharing the experience, they’re not, if they don’t like it they’ll tell you right away! This is good, but it’s not what it, you called it, ‘cause it’s definitely not what we call it! And so he learnt, so he had to not, Jason is, why he’s great is he doesn’t have an ego. So he was willing to learn, in the sense of the first few times he would do some Italian lunches, they were major fails, because he was doing it, an American version of Italian.
Carlie: American Italian, yeah.
Ashley: And he’d ask them, why did you not eat the grilled eggplant, for example. I thought you love, I thought Italians loved grilled eggplant. And they said we do, but you cut it thick. We like it paper thin. And then he realised, oh, OK it’s these subtleties. And learning how, what in our area is considered home cooking, and the type of pasta and the homemade pasta, so now it’s a, it’s a really nice great feeling when these women who have taught him how to make pasta, or the dough and these things, will come and bring their family and have dinner here, and they’re just so proud of what he’s done. And, I think for him it’s really important to continue sharing that. So he always in like the pasta class or whatever it is will say, alright, I was taught this, now it’s your turn to go on and teach someone else, and keep, keep it going in that sense. So I think …
Carlie: That local endorsement must be such a good feeling, you know, because you know it’s earnt.
Ashley: It is! It is. And whether it’s from the garden or them seeing us, just the two of us working hard outside or with the guests, and these things, to have this street cred (laughs) feels pretty good! It does.
Carlie: So you’ve run this successful business for 10 years. At what point did you start running your Move to Italy workshops, and how did they become worked in to what you offer?
Ashley: Well, that is a great question (laughs). I’m trying to keep the story short. For years we’ve gotten emails from people curious about how we moved, and our visa process, and how did we start a business here in Italy, and, we would reply on their emails here and there, this and that, and didn’t think much of it.
And then, going on 2 years ago now, we had thought about selling the business, and we planned to sell the business, the cooking school and the brand, and the inn, and work on really doing more of these private consulting and, for boutique hotels, and I really enjoy film-making and doing some short films, and things like that.
When we went to sell the business, it was all going great, for almost a year, we had spoken with a couple who was buying the business, and, and worked on the negotiations. The husband came out, he was English and she was American. He came out to sign the last paperwork, for the house and for the business, and all of these things, and, because the wife being American needed these for her visa to get to Italy. He was gonna be here a week before her to finish signing all of these documents and everything and get it all in order for her arrival.
And everyone signed everything at the notary, which is, with the lawyers present, the notary makes everything legally binding, and, ‘cause this is such a small town area, this couple was being vouched for by us, because everyone knew who we were, and we said well we know who this couple is, and they want to take over our business, and we wanna help them, and since the wife needs these documents can we expedite these things for her? So all of these officers said yes. Normally I would need to pay these things the day the signature is signed, however because of these extenuating circumstances with his wife and the visa, we’ll give you guys [unclear – 00:23:55] a 10-15 day grace period.
Carlie: So you guys really put your reputations out there to help them.
Ashley: Yes. This husband, the gentleman was staying at our farmhouse with us every night, and, 4 days, I think 4-5 days into his first week of being here, 2 days before the wife was supposed to arrive, he went AWOL and left in the, essentially the middle of the night and went to Rome and took a flight back to America, never to be seen again. Never paid a penny, owed money everywhere! Did so much damage to not only properties but reputations, and relationships, and just left!
This is a grown man, 55 something years old, who then was too nervous with the reality of what was ahead, of the business ahead, he went back to the States. The wife was in shock, she had no idea he was gonna do this. She was planning to come out. It was this reality check and hard cold, you know, kind of ring your bell if you will. We were in shock for like a month, because we thought we were getting ready to move (laughs), we were like, we were boxed up and ready to go!
Carlie: Close up this chapter of your life!
Ashley: Yes! We were ready to start the next chapter, we were, our next business, we thought we would still work with them for that next year to help them in the transition, and we had made it clear, you know, we want nothing more than for you to survive and thrive! This is the business we created 10 years ago, we want you guys to do excellent!
He just, the couple didn’t do the proper planning necessary to make a move like this, and especially when it’s a move to start a business, and it really sunk in that maybe, not to toot our own horn, but maybe we knew more than we realised, or more than we gave ourselves credit for, on how we did it, how we got it done, and how we’ve been able to really maintain it, this successful business, and it made us realise, you know, my uncle also had, not a similar experience, but he bought a bar in Belize and didn’t quite know what he was getting himself into. He had never owned a bar or a restaurant, he liked Belize, but really he liked a bar in Belize. Did he wanna own it, or know how? I don’t think so! He just wanted to frequent a bar in Belize.
Carlie: No time for drinking any more, what?!
Ashley: Exactly! So, and I love my uncle, and he’s a financial planner, but he didn’t plan his own finances, or his own business, or make the business plan necessary, and this couple didn’t do that either. They relied completely on what we had done, and they needed to do some of their own work. And, it made us realise there’s people who are dream-drunk. It can be great, it can be fun, and, to have these ideas, but if you want the reality of it, then that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.
And, so that’s really what created these, the idea of doing these consulting workshops was to create an environment where we could speak open, free, honest, humorous, and tell our story of the goods and the bads, of how we got here, for the visa process, and the immigration, that whole thing, to starting a business, legally. And then really, when it comes to the nitty gritty of the reality of it, and asking these questions and looking at the hard cold, kind of is something I want to do, and instead of just everything being under the Tuscan sun, and the sunflowers all year long, there’s a, you know, it’s not just serving wine to the guests, it is, the sun’s going down, there’s a lot, like we were saying, you, you know, you said oh my God this is all before 10am, there’s a lot to do in a day!
Carlie: There’s a lot you need to do to make that happen at sundown, on time, and (laughs) with the wine!
Ashley: Exactly! So, we like to say there’s a lot of hard work for the, the sweet life, in that sense. And, so, that’s really what kind of created this idea, to do these workshops, and we realised there’s more and more people out there who are looking for something different in their life, and looking to pivot, or have a new chapter, and we would love to share kind of our experiences and at this point expertise with them, and that in combination with other, you know, expat friends, and kind of experts in our, commercial [unclear – 00:28:20] and things like that, to give them a bit more concrete numbers, and taxes, and those kind of questions. But, we felt like it would be really beneficial, beneficial to people who, so you don’t, we don’t wanna see people fail, we didn’t want to see that couple fail, in that [unclear - 00:28:37] so you get …
Carlie: And you don’t want to see people like that couple, pulled out on other people after you’ve been through that, I’m sure!
Ashley: Correct! I mean, that left a really bad taste in our mouth, because, yes of course, you can do, you could sue them, or these things, but what is that really gonna do? Nothing. And, is that gonna make you happy in the end? No. Let’s just go forward, kill it, like, meaning, make the business better than ever, and think alright, I, they’re crazy for walking away from this, and, let’s take this experience and try to help others with it so they don’t go through the same thing. And, maybe save people money in the process of it. In the sense of, before you bite off more than you could chew, coming and asking some of these questions or getting this dose of reality, or crash course in moving to Italy, could save you a ton in the long run.
Carlie: So after being so close to selling your business 2 years ago, how have your future dreams changed? Are you back in, recommitted to running your business for the foreseeable future now?
Ashley: Well, absolutely! I mean that was the thing, whatever we were gonna do we had to full steam ahead, and it couldn’t be, for lack of a better term, half-assed. It had to be full throttle, go full force forward. And that’s why our consulting business is called No Half Measures. Because if you’re gonna do it, do it all the way.
So coming back into La Tavola Marche, the farm, inn and cooking school, it wasn’t gonna be like, well let’s just kind of go back to it, it was like no, if this is what we’re good at, we’re strong at it, we know how to do this, let’s regroup, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, do it again, and we’ll figure out when we pivot in the future. It’s one of those things too where I think everything happens for a reason, I don’t think that the (laughs), I don’t think we were done doing this, or living here. And we still both get a great joy out of it, in satisfaction, for different reasons. So we’re not quite sure what the future holds (laughs).
I’m never one to tell you what will happen in 5 years. But, we really, we love it! And I, I think that we just keep kind of tweaking the, the business plan, our, our model of La Tavola Marche to what works for us and works for our guests, and what we see kind of as the next, not trends, I would hate to say something like that, but where we’re headed next in that sense. So, whether it be that we keep doing them here at the farmhouse, or maybe we take them on the road in the future, the consulting workshops, or the cooking classes. Who knows? But we’ll keep the options open, and, I don’t know, I’m excited!
Carlie: Well that’s it for this episode. If you wanna ask Ashley any questions or share your own experiences, head to our forums and facebook groups. You can find the links at expatfocus.com. Remember to check out more of our podcast episodes, they’re at expatfocus.com/podcast, and you can also listen through your favourite podcasting app. I’ll catch you next time.