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Gelatissimo: From small family business to international success story

Brothers and joint Gelatissimo CEOs Domenico and Marco Lopresti have managed to take their small family business and turn it into an international success, one flavour at a time.

It’s not hard to imagine the best job in the world. Being paid to sit by a pool in the Bahamas all day, or perhaps eating ice cream. Fortunately for Marco and Domenico Lopresti, they’ve lucked out with the latter.

“We love what we do. I’m pretty sure that I speak for Marco as well. It’s not like we get up in the morning and we’ve got one of those jobs where you go damn, I’ve got to go to work, this is just an absolute passion,” Domenico confirms.

Passion for gelato

The passion for making quality gelato has been ingrained in the guys since they worked for their father’s gelato bar in Crows Nest in the early nineties. “The family learnt how to make gelato from cousins of ours from the south of Italy. Southern Italy is very well known for sweets and desserts, especially Calabria and Sicily. They’re very quality conscious of ingredients and making sure the finished product tastes incredibly good,” Domenico explains. “When dad started this gelato bar it was all about making sure people get quality product.”

After their father sold the bar, the new owners decided that they’d like to continue ordering their gelato, and a wholesale gelato business was born as new customers came on board. “I was working part-time as a waiter in a restaurant at Leichhardt and they knew that I made gelato during the day so they said ‘let’s try some’”, Domenico recalls. “I used to pack ice into the back of the car, make gelato and take it to the restaurant. I started to get to know a lot of people in Norton Street and I started to supply to people.

“Dad had another property that was empty at the time. We moved all the machines in and we set up a little freezer and bought a tiny little gelato truck and that’s how we started the wholesale business. It started to grow mostly because I did street fairs. We were the first ones to bring gelato into display cabinets on the streets and offering people tasters. I guess that’s where the beginning of some sort of retail idea started,” Domenico says.

Marco, who was still completing school and university during this time, was gradually learning the family trade. “I made the decision to work full time in 2000. It was certainly along the lines of what I had been studying,” Marco says. “But business know-how you don’t pick up from studies, that’s for sure. When you study business, you learn a lot of theoretical things that can perhaps apply to larger businesses, but are completely unrealistic in regards to small business. It perhaps teaches you discipline, and a certain skill set of general accounting principles, but nothing prepares you for actually owning and running a small business and trying to grow it into a larger business.”

Study Hall

Opening their first Gelatissimo store in 2002 was a huge step for the brothers, who had been working for their father since they were young. However there were still many lessons to learn.

“One of the first lessons we learnt was about site selection,” explains Marco. “It took us a couple of years to figure out that a good site is not just about traffic flow. It’s certainly nothing to do with how many cars drive past, and in a lot of instances, it doesn’t have anything to do with how many people are walking past. It’s got to do with the mood of the people that are walking past. We’ve made those mistakes in the past so we won’t make them again.”

Catering to the tastes of the market was also important. “We started with some very Italian flavours and ultimately we realised that’s not what the customer necessarily wanted,” Marco says. “One that comes to mind is zuppa inglese, which translates roughly as English trifle. It’s a beautiful flavour, but when we first started, customers didn’t like it. Having said that it’s been almost 10 years since we first opened our doors and there’s been quite a shift since then over what people are prepared to experiment with when it comes to food.”

Now that the company is exporting their product to Asia, as well as Italy and Kuwait, they’ve adapted their product mix to include flavours that are applicable to each market. “The fact that we make it fresh in store allows us to very quickly adapt to new flavours,” Domenico says.

La Famiglia

Now Gelatissimo is a successful chain, with 24 stores across Australia and more than 15 stores overseas. In order to cope with this expansion, the joint CEOs decided to franchise the concept.

“Handing over control to a franchisee to run an outlet as opposed to controlling it directly was a foreign experience for us, but subsequently, every franchise that we’ve granted we’ve gotten better at doing that. It’s now been almost eight years since we franchised and we’re still learning things, and learning ways to do things better and more effectively,” Marco says.

Inviting others to come into a family-run business means letting them become part of the family too. “At the end of the day, they have to make money, that’s why they’re coming,” says Domenico. “But at the same time I think they want to feel part of a family so we really work hard at getting prospective franchisees to feel that. Each one is like a child. If your child has a cold or a sickness they’re the ones we focus on. If one’s going great we tend to leave them alone so they continue to do great.”

Family is at the heart of the business, from the original recipe for their famous gelato to the way the brothers like to manage their staff. But does working with family always work? “A family business has got its advantages but it has its disadvantages,” Marco admits. “It’s a little bit easier now because Dom has his own family and I’m married so we’re both out of home living away from each other and our parents. The difficulty in a family business is when you’re with each other 10 or 12 hours a day at work and then you go home and you’re around the same people.

“There’s the flipside to that, which is a family business dynamic is like no other: you’ve got the ability to be open and speak your mind with family members whereas you do need to a certain degree bite your tongue with non-family. With family you could be sitting around the dinner table and come up with a brilliant idea while helping yourself to the pasta. The business has been a success so ultimately I think it’s been a good thing,” says Marco.

With a bit of Italian passion and a determination to make their product stand out against their competitors, Gelatissimo has managed fantastic growth both here and overseas since its inception in 2002. And when your business is selling gelato, who can ever complain? “There are very few retail businesses where people come in and make a purchase and they walk away with a big smile on their face,” says Domenico. “It’s an amazing experience. Not a lot of businesses can say they do that. It’s a fantastic job. It’s the best job in the world.”

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Rhiannon Sawyer

Rhiannon Sawyer

[NB: Rhiannon Sawyer no longer works for Dynamic Business]. Rhiannon Sawyer is the editor for Dynamic Business online. She also looks after online content for Dynamic Export. She loves writing business profiles and is fascinated by the growing world of homegrown online businesses and how so many people can make money in their pyjamas.

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