August 28, 2013

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

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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

Q. Did your customers appreciate that they were getting something different -- not just gelato versus ice cream, but gelato made from scratch versus the paste-and-powder versions?

A. We spent most of our time just talking about what good gelato was. A lot of people didn't know what they were getting into with gelato. They were asking, "Is it pudding? Is it Jello? Is it shoes?" In the very beginning, there were only a few gelato shops and we asked their advice. They knew that their competition wasn't other gelato shops, it was telling the average American customer what gelato was and to not buy average ice cream, but buy gelato. Even in a developed market like Italy, there's industrial gelato, superior gelato, outstanding gelato and everyday gelato. We've been recognized as one of the best gelato shops because we follow intense methods.

Q. How did you branch out from selling it in the store to selling it in supermarkets?

A. The wholesale part of the business really started because we had customers who asked for it in a retail package. In 2008, we launched selling in pints, and that's become a major vehicle for us. We were in wholesale before we even opened our second store, in Portland. (The stores and wholesale) work very much hand-in-hand.

Q. When you started out, the economy was good, but then it quickly went bad. What was the impact on a startup selling a premium, non-essential product?

A. Pretty much right away, we realized it wasn't going to be as easy as we thought it would be. It was pretty much day-to-day survival and making our own methods and getting efficient. ... We were undercapitalized and had no money to advertise or grow the business. But the good thing is that it forced us to be very frugal and forced us to get our message out on a shoestring budget. I don't think that we would have survived if we had opened a year earlier because we would have developed bad habits and would not have had the discipline. Even now, years later, the economy has improved, and our business has always grown, but those tactics remain our method.

Q. What kind of tactics?

A. We got really good at looking at every expense. We had to pool our resources and focus on what served the customer and cut back on everything that didn't. We also had an enthusiastic staff who were eager to work. If you talk to any of our customers, the one thing they consistently ask is, "How is your staff so nice and friendly?" We adopted the principle that we need to take care of those people so they take care of our customers. We made sure we were properly staffed, we had plenty of people and were very clear that we're in the business of giving people an experience and not just selling them a product. If people were only concerned about buying the actual physical product, they could buy it at Hannaford, and instead they came in every day because they were interested in getting the full experience.

Q. What kind of things go into making it an experience?

A. We did fun things, like in the first winter we took off one percent for every degree (the temperature was) below 32. People would say, "Last night we came by the store at 10:30 and we thought you were closed but there was a line out the door." The Bowdoin students would wait until the last possible moment to buy their gelato because it was nighttime and the temperature was going down.

Q. What's your favorite flavor?

A. My all-time favorite is molasses peppermint. I had it at some point as a kid at an ice cream stand in New Hampshire. That's one of the reasons we started the company -- to make that flavor. We don't make it a lot, but we try to make it around the holidays. We make small batches, so we can take risks for the flavors, and we like to tie it to events that are going on, like blue cheese, hot sauce and chocolate-covered potato chip flavors we did for the Super Bowl. Our biggest fail was a sweet vidalia onion sorbetto.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:


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