August 28, 2013

A Word With the Boss: Two guys looking for fun work make gelato, avoid fiasco

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

Josh Davis and Bruno Tropeano started Gelato Fiasco in 2007, two years after they co-founded a real estate development venture but decided to end it because, as Davis said, "we were in the middle of the (housing) boom but we realized that was not going to last forever."

click image to enlarge

Co-founder Josh Davis spends time at Gelato Fiasco’s flagship shop on Maine Street in Brunswick. The company’s premium gelato is sold in about 1,000 retail locations.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Since starting out with little idea how to make gelato, let alone profitably, they have won accolades from Food Network Magazine (top frozen dessert in Maine) and Down East magazine (best ice cream in the state) and a trip to the White House for an event honoring young entrepreneurs.

Gelato Fiasco now has a flagship store in Brunswick, a store in Portland, and a wholesale business supplying supermarkets and other outlets. It recently bought two buildings in Brunswick to boost production and expand distribution nationally.

Gelato Fiasco has 33 full-time, year-round employees and adds about 20 in the summer. Its annual revenues are about $2 million. Davis declined to disclose its net profits or what he and Tropeano are paid to lead the company. Its gelato is sold in about 1,000 retail locations.

Q. For the uninitiated, what is gelato?

A. Gelato is simply Italian-style ice cream. It's made with milk instead of cream, and it's more dense than American-style ice cream. The flavor is much more intense than ice cream. The first time people taste it, they're amazed. We're not the cheapest frozen dessert out there (a 7-ounce serving costs $4.25), but I'd say we're very comparable with premium ice cream.

Q. Why did you turn to gelato after real estate development?

A. We wanted to do something fun, and Bruno is first-generation Italian-American, so we knew what gelato was. We'd had it before and were familiar with it, but we never thought of it from a business perspective. But we were attuned to the idea of doing one thing and doing it really well. At the time that we opened, there were some other gelato shops that had started, but there were very few.

Q. How did you go from knowing a little about gelato to creating Gelato Fiasco?

A. We wrote a business plan. We had met at a business school and both of us grew up in entrepreneurial families that had been in small businesses, but still, we didn't know what we didn't know. But I was 25 and Bruno was 24 and we both had nothing to lose. We were sure of ourselves and sure it would be a success, even though it very quickly became harder than we thought it would be. We went from bank to bank to get funding and we got repeatedly turned down, until the last one we were presenting the plan to said they would fund the project, with a guarantee from the (Small Business Administration). It took a lot of hard work and convincing to make it reality.

Q. Did you find success quickly?

A. We had a store and a name and a great brand and equipment, and still no idea of how to make gelato. We found the fledging gelato industry at the time was very supportive and very interested in the fact that we were committed to making it the right way. A lot of places use paste and powder and just add milk and add water to make gelato, and we were making things from scratch, using really time-consuming and labor-intensive methods.

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