At face value, the success story behind Gelato Messina seems like one of perfect timing and great branding. However the persistence to pursue a passion in the face of adversity is what has made Gelato Messina the successful brand it is today.
StartUp Creative talked to the business savvy entrepreneurs behind the brand we now know and deliciously love.
Who is behind Gelato Messina?
Nick Palumbo, Donato Toce, Danny Palumbo and Declan Lee.
How old were you when you started the business?
Nick Palumbo is the founder and started the business with different partners in 2002. It was a completely different business in many ways. Nick was about 30 years old at the time.
How did Gelato Messina come about?
Nick started the business in 2002 with financial backers and different working partners than those who are currently in the business. They opened multiple stores and established a centralised manufacturing arm that included a supermarket product (that still exists today).
The retail stores were subsequently sold off to an outside operator and Gelato Messina’s efforts turned to wholesale and supply. Unfortunately this didn’t turn out to be a wise move, the retail businesses collapsed and in the very complicated aftermath, the wholesale business was left with unsustainable debts.
Nick took back one store (Darlinghurst) in lieu of debt and essentially started again. 2005/06 marked the beginning of Messina’s current incarnation and the start of the brand that exists today. Nick’s brother Danny moved up from Adelaide and started to look after front of house and operations. Donato eventually came over to Messina as a partner and as head chef. Declan also came on board full time as the driving force behind the brand.
What were you previously working in before you created Gelato Messina?
Nick worked for Ferrero Rocher and had owned restaurants and cafes back in Adelaide. Danny was previously a café and restaurant owner, cabinetmaker and personal trainer. Donato was and still is a very accomplished chef. Declan was a DJ and Festival Promoter in the years prior to his role at Messina.
The beauty of Messina’s success is …
Without a doubt it’s the combination of our diverse skill sets as owners. We trust each other, understand that each person is good at what they do and we work well together. At the same time we deliver a brand experience at all touch points that represents that. Whether its customer service, our tone of voice, or the way we treat staff and customers, the brand is about honesty in everything we do.
Everything might not always be strictly ‘on brand’, but there is certainly no bullshit. If we make a mistake we admit it and we fix it. If we do good things people appreciate it and we say thanks. Pretty simple really.
Did you always want to work for yourself?
All of us are quite entrepreneurial and have worked for ourselves for a long time. When you work like that, you don’t often desire to work for yourself you just don’t know any other way.
What steps did you take in starting Gelato Messina?
In its first incarnation Nick set up a very small factory and testing kitchen. He was making test batches into small portions designed for kitchens to finish into fully plated desserts. Basically the plan was to supply a wholesale product that allowed chefs to finish for service.
The second incarnation began by producing solely from Darlinghurst and selling wholesale. It grew organically from there. We built a brand slowly based around the best product we could produce with constant innovation.
Did you find it hard co-founding with a team? How did you overcome any hurdles?
Initially it was very hard for Nick as the other owners were financial backers and all decisions were made on the back of a spreadsheet. They weren’t on the same page culturally. Nick had to forego his shares and left it behind to start again. Collectively we went on to build a different team that has an overarching culture of honesty, authenticity and giving a shit about making the best product we can.
What makes Gelato Messina stand out from the big chain companies who have been in the industry for years?
We make a world-class product from scratch. We don’t use pre-made products and pastes. You’ll find that everyone says that, but few people actually do it. We are also constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries of what we do. And because we make everything from scratch, we are very flexible so we can adapt to changes very quickly.
What has been the biggest learning curve since founding the business?
Patience, believing in your product and sticking to your guns. The easy route can often look the most appealing because often it’s faster and cheaper, but it’s not always the best or most sustainable way. We often make products and do collaborations that make no money at all, but we do it because it’s important for our learning or for the brand as a whole.
How did you overcome this?
Having the right team is imperative. Building a culture that teaches patience and belief in the long-term is everything.
What has been the most rewarding experience?
The feedback we get, hearing people say that the whole experience is great. For us, the gelato is only part of the experience. If people walk in and get great service, hear great music and walk away with the best ice cream in the world, our job is done.
You’ve formed some amazing collaborations since founding, how important are these to your business?
They have been extremely important. People definitely judge you by the company you keep, as they say. Collaborations are a way of projecting your brand’s personality as well as pushing the boundaries of innovation. Innovation is fun but it’s also incredibly important when trying to stay ahead of the curve. You also get a huge amount of inspiration from other companies and brands you work with.
Do you have a favourite collaboration?
The best thing we ever made was the True Blood heart for HBO and the Uber collaboration was probably the most exciting from a logistical and creative point of view.
The idea to collaborate with Uber was brilliant! How did this come about?
They approached us when they were very new here in Australia and we did about 1,000 tubs in the first year. We’ve been doing it for about 3-4 years now. It has since grown in size as Uber has become an international behemoth and they do ice cream on demand in about 50 countries on that day. This year we delivered close to 17,000 units around Australia.
The business has expanded at a rapid rate, how did you find accommodating to this growth?
To be honest we haven’t expanded that rapidly. It might appear so, but compared to a franchise type business it’s been quite slow. We are 100% company owned and we only grow if we have the money to do so. If we don’t have the money, we don’t open. Growth is reasonably easily managed when you don’t have banks and finance guys breathing down your back!
How did the idea come about to expand and include gelato classes?
We did it a couple of times for businesses and friends that wanted to bring staff in to learn a little about our business. We just did small ones as a favour initially, but we soon realised there was quite a lot of interest so we started doing proper classes. It became quite clear that these people became very strong brand advocates and were always so blown away by what we did so the idea solidified into a very important part of our business. It’s a big part of the story.
Who comes up with the creative gelato names? (My favourite so far is Candy Warhol)
We all do to be honest! It’s quite collaborative and depends on the inspiration. It’s true to say some comes from our customers as well. We get lots of inspiration from our crazy legion of fans.
What are some of the best reactions you’ve had from customers after they’ve tasted Gelato Messina?
Probably the funniest reaction we’ve had is when we did our gelato hot dogs at Sydney Festival a couple years ago. It’s a hot dog made with a chocolate gelato sausage in a hot brioche bun. It looks identical to a normal hotdog but has raspberry coulis as the sauce. We had a few customers come back to complain saying their hotdogs were still frozen!
What is your all-time favourite flavour?
What are your top three tips for young entrepreneurs?
1. Don’t cut corners
2. Be patient
3. Be honest in everything you do. People see through the bullshit