Founded: August 2007
Owners: Josh Davis and Bruno Tropeano
Product: Makes and sells gelato and sorbetto at its Brunswick store and for approximately 30 wholesale accounts in Maine and New Hampshire
Projected revenue, 2009: $500,000
The Gelato Fiasco isn't the only gelateria in town. Brunswick is also home to another gelato wholesaler, Bohemian Coffeehouse and Gelateria, which is only about half a mile from The Gelato Fiasco. Owner Peter Robbins began making gelato about four years ago and now has about nine wholesale accounts from York Beach to Southwest Harbor, he says. Besides using flavor paste imported from Italy, Robbins adds natural flavoring and even bacon to his gelato flavors, and sells them about 20% cheaper than his competitors, he says. "I want a family to be able to afford it."
Maine's largest gelato wholesaler is Maple's Gelateria, which Kristie Green opened in Portland in April 2006. Made from scratch in the old-fashioned style that includes using egg yolks, heating on a stove top and mixing it by hand, Maple's gelato can be found in four dozen locations from Maine to western Massachusetts. It's also the only organic-certified gelato available wholesale in the country, Green says. "Nationally, it's been awesome that we can blaze the trail with that and get people excited."
It's just past 8 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, and The Gelato Fiasco is hopping. A group of Bowdoin College students are crowded onto overstuffed chairs, talking over each other, while a few families hover around the display case, the parents hanging back while the kids push in close, surveying the exotic flavors — pomegranate lime, mascarpone caramel swirl, chocolate chipotle. An elderly couple walks in, picks their flavors and takes a seat, seemingly unperturbed by the din. A woman in a Navy uniform gets coffee and gelato to go, walking out with a paper bag in each hand.
It's one of the few places in downtown Brunswick still open this late, and residents have congregated here, drawn in by its oversized copper-colored sign and wraparound display case that gleams with rows of rainbow-hued gelato — that Italian-style ice cream slowly finding its way into Maine's coffeehouses, restaurants and freezer cases. For the uninitiated, there are unlimited samples and advice from employees behind the counter, including a warning that yes, the chocolate chipotle really is spicy.
On most days, you'll find Bruno Tropeano or Josh Davis behind the counter, wearing the standard black T-shirt, scooping gelato or serving coffee. Sometimes customers ask the twentysomethings when they're heading back to college. Other times, customers ask to pass on words of praise to the owner. And Davis and Tropeano reply: You just did.
Tropeano, 25, and Davis, 27, don't take offense. What matters more to these entrepreneurs than what customers think of their age is what customers think of their gelato. And so far, the response has been good. Despite this year's rainy summer, The Gelato Fiasco has seen its busiest months since it opened its doors on Maine Street a little more than two years ago. And despite the recession and the relative obscurity of gelato here in Maine, the duo say their operation is on the right track. This year, they expect to make $500,000 in sales, what they had originally hoped to make in the first year, but they're not complaining. "It took a little longer than we expected, but now we're coming into those projections," says Tropeano. "I've always been optimistic, but now I'm more than optimistic, because it's based in real financials. By all measure of things, it's going well."
The Gelato Fiasco is one of an estimated 1,500 gelaterias in the United States — shops whose main business is making and selling gelato — and one of three gelato wholesalers in Maine. With its homemade gelato, made from scratch every morning right at its store in Brunswick, the Fiasco has managed to corner a sizeable share of this niche market. The company's gelato is sold or served at about 30 restaurants, markets and cafes in Maine ranging from Kennebunkport to Belfast, and this summer expanded to its first out-of-state location at Roly's English Fudge in Portsmouth.
But Davis and his partner are quick to stress that expansion for the sake of growing is not their main objective. "We're focused on making sure the experience and quality is consistent at the locations we have," Davis says. "We're not going to rule out any opportunity that fits with what we do if we can do it successfully."
Marketing in the New World
Gelato made national news this summer after the Obama daughters learned to make the frozen treat at Rome's famous gelato parlor, Giolitti. But with only about 10,000 shops in the United States selling gelato, it still baffles many here. Made mostly from milk and sugar, gelato has less fat than standard ice cream and also contains less air, making the final product denser. Sorbetto, its non-dairy equivalent, is made with water. Gelato is also kept frozen a few degrees warmer than ice cream to preserve its creamy texture.
According to Tropeano, The Gelato Fiasco's master gelato-maker, this combination is what gives gelato its characteristic intense flavor. "The predominant taste in ice cream is the cream," he says. "The fat coats the tongue and blocks the taste. In gelato, the flavor comes through — what it tastes like is what it's made from."
Tropeano spends nearly every morning in The Gelato Fiasco's kitchen, along with one or two other employees, making the homemade gelato using as many local ingredients as he can — milk from Garelick Farms, coffee and espresso from Brunswick's Wicked Joe, strawberries from Fairwinds Farm in Topsham. They make about 300 gallons of gelato a week, 20% of which is destined for wholesale accounts.
College friends from Bentley University in Massachusetts, Davis and Tropeano began pondering opening a specialty food store in 2006 and soon settled on a gelateria. Tropeano, a first-generation Italian-American, knew gelato well, having spent summers in Italy. After touring nearly 30 gelaterias throughout the Northeast, he and Davis found most of the products subpar.
The duo felt confident they could do better. With a $225,000 SBA-backed loan covering half of the Fiasco's startup costs, they took a two-day gelato-making class at the Gelato and Pastry Institute of America in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., taught by well-known gelato master Luciano Ferrari. They opened their doors in August 2007 to an eager crowd, running out of gelato on that first day in only a few hours.
Business was strong that summer, but as colder weather and the recession began, they noticed a slowdown. They used the downtime to tweak their operations and shift their marketing strategy to attract an increasingly cash-strapped clientele looking to cut back on frivolous purchases. Davis and Tropeano adjusted their price points so a small size was under $4 and stressed gelato's relative healthiness compared to ice cream. "We positioned it more mainstream, as a luxury experience for all types of people to enjoy, more like it is in Italy," Davis says.
That tack seems to have worked. Davis estimates The Gelato Fiasco has served nearly 40,000 people, including visitors from Michigan and Ohio who wanted to start their own gelaterias and were looking for advice. The store now has nine employees, all twentysomethings, and at 27, Davis is the oldest. The store also serves Wicked Joe coffee and other specialty drinks, offers Wi-Fi and hosts occasional musical performances.
As finance majors and entrepreneurs (the pair also own a property management company they launched in college), Davis and Tropeano knew the ins and outs of writing a business plan. But their two years in the food business has proven a real life lesson. "I very naively thought we'd work hard to get it open, open our doors, everyone would know it was great and magically cash registers would start shooting out money at us," says Davis.
The toughest hurdle they've managed to jump has been learning to delegate. "When we first opened, we were working from 7:30 to midnight," says Davis. They've developed written procedures for every aspect of the business so it can stay open even when they're not there, giving them time to drum up new customers and balance the books. "We both want to expand in the future, and that makes it possible," Tropeano says. "If you don't have a process and forethought, you'll be crushed by micromanaging."
The gelato industry nationally has "over the last several years seen a huge amount of growth," says Andrew Seabury, president of GTI Designs, a food service consulting group that created the Gelato and Pastry Institute of America. Davis and Tropeano say they differentiate their product by making it from scratch, using high-quality natural ingredients and offering "a unique, funky and eclectic collection of flavors," as Davis puts it. They offer about 25 flavors a day, each of which takes at least 20 minutes to create, which they say makes them unique among homemade gelato-makers.
To make their gelato, they use what's known as a "hot process," heating the gelato base mixture to about 80 degrees Celsius, long the predominant way to make gelato in Italy but more expensive and time-consuming, says Seabury. Because of this, many gelato-makers use what's known as the cold process, which produces gelato that "doesn't last as long and doesn't taste as smooth," Seabury says.
Many gelaterias use the hot process but use a pre-made mix for the base instead of making it from scratch as The Gelato Fiasco does, Seabury says. "There aren't a lot of pure gelato artisans out there who create everything from scratch." Malcolm Stogo, head of an ice cream consulting firm in New York and president of the Ice Cream University in New Jersey, says only about 20% of gelaterias in the United States make their products entirely from scratch. "Anyone making it from scratch is making pretty good gelato," he says.
As more gelato businesses continue to crop up, the competition in this niche market will become stiffer. Davis and Tropeano plan to keep The Gelato Fiasco competitive by sticking to their number one priority: the customer. "We make everything easier on the customer," says Davis. They allow customers to pick as many flavors as they want per size, and changed their hours to 11 a.m.-11 p.m. every day, so customers wouldn't have to memorize a schedule. They're also working on new products to meet customer demand. They won $5,000 in the Intuit Small Business United Grant competition this year, which they plan to use to develop a line of single-serving wholesale products.
And after this summer's banner months, they're looking to keep the streak going. "We've always been in a recession, so we're waiting for the recession to end and for sales to triple," Tropeano says. "We're viable now, so the only direction to look is up."