BRUNSWICK, Maine — After watching so many failed attempts at bringing gelato to a nation of ice cream lovers, Joshua Davis and Bruno Tropeano landed on a name for their new venture: The Gelato Fiasco.
“They named their store … as a hedge against trend-pursuers, treasure hunters and impostors, for only a true food lover, guided by his or her own sense of adventure, would dare enter a store with that name,” reads a passage on the Gelato Fiasco’s website.
But this is one business that has turned into anything but a fiasco, as a national organization called Empact100 has taken notice. Davis and Tropeano are among 100 up-and-coming entrepreneurs who will be honored later this month at the White House.
The Gelato Fiasco, which has locations in Brunswick and Portland and sells its Italian-style artisanal desserts in numerous stores in New England and beyond, has been named to the 2012 Empact100 Showcase. Empact100 is the largest organization in the country that recognizes the top entrepreneurs age 30 or younger. Co-founders Davis, 30, and Tropeano, 29, will be honored Sept. 28 during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C.
Empact, formerly known as Extreme Entrepreneurship Education, promotes young entrepreneurs around the world. The 2012 Empact Showcase applicants were judged by their revenues, which must be at least $100,000 per year, number of employees, social impact, year-over-year growth and innovation.
Davis said he and Tropeano began discussing the idea as juniors at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., where they were studying accounting and finance, respectively.
“It started with us talking about what would be unique and fun,” said Davis. “We knew we wanted to be in business together.”
They founded the business in 2007 on Maine Street in Brunswick, which remains the company’s flagship store, headquarters and primary creamery. Like most businesses, the first years weren’t without their challenges but Davis said Gelato Fiasco has been turning a profit in each of the past two years.
“It definitely wasn’t an easy business to get started,” said Davis. “A lot of the banks we talked to had no idea what gelato was. There were definitely a lot of people concerned that we were going to be spending a lot of money and losing it.”
A few months after the company launched in August 2007, the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008, but as it turned out the secret to the company’s success was the taste of the gelato. Gelato differs from ice cream in that it is made from whole milk — all from Maine farmers, in the case of the Gelato Fiasco — and is much denser than ice cream.
“We believe in giving people a taste of it and then they buy it,” said Davis. “Right from the beginning we had customers interested in buying it for their grocery stores or restaurants.”
Among the first businesses to show interest in the product was the A1 Diner in Gardiner, which runs an associated retail establishment called A1 to Go. Davis said he and Tropeano were caught a little off-guard.
“We took our first order without any idea how to package it and label it,” he said. “We had restaurants buying it by the pan.”
From there, orders began piling up behind the strength of simple word-of-mouth. Today Gelato Fiasco sells to more than 200 retailers in every New England state and New York, and employs 41 people year-round, plus another 10 or so in the summer months. During a recent celebration for the company’s five-year anniversary, Davis estimated that the company has produced more than 1,200 flavors and used approximately 100,000 gallons of Maine milk.
Davis attributed the company’s growth to a couple of factors. In the early years, the Brunswick-area college crowd went back to their home states and began asking their local retailers to stock the gelato. He said another factor is that the company gives samples to “pretty much anyone who wants it.” Those efforts have been focused in the charity realm, with an emphasis on organizations that promote literacy and childhood education.
Davis said though he envisions opening more retail locations in the future, those plans are not imminent while the company continues to invest in infrastructure to keep up with still-increasing orders.
Sarah Green, co-founder of Empact100, said her organization’s main goal is demonstrating that entrepreneurship is a viable career option for young people around the world. She estimated that companies in the 2012 Empact Showcase have contributed more than 8,000 jobs to the economy and generated $1 billion in revenue.
“The annual Empact100 and Empact Showcase are both a testament to the impact that entrepreneurs are making on our economy, and an inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs,” she said in a press release.
Davis said Gelato Fiasco was nominated for the Empact100 list and followed up by providing a range of information about the company. He said the day his employees learned about the award was one of the high points of the young company’s development. Gelato Fiasco is the only Maine company represented in this year’s Empact100 awards.
“It was a pretty exciting moment for everyone,” he said. “We’re not running the business to win awards, but this is probably one of the top ones. We’re really proud to represent Maine.”