Newsmakers 2011: Josh Davis
Davis, who grew up the small Kennebec County town of Belgrade, said The Gelato Fiasco will make its next big move in 2012 — to Maine’s biggest city.
The expansion to a store at 425 Fore St., in Portland’s Old Port, comes after fourand a-half years of building a business in Brunswick that Davis said is rooted as much in the place as in its product.
“We try to have a presence in the community that’s more than just a shop where you buy gelato,” Davis said. “People come here to meet friends, go on dates, go after the prom, after the big game, and we want to promote those kinds of uses of space.”
For the young business owners — Davis is 28, Tropeano is 27 — the Portland expansion will be a new chapter for the company, rather than a replication of the Brunswick store.
“This business hasn’t existed long enough for us to refer back to the good ol’ days,” Davis said. “We made the decision a long time ago that our focus can’t be how to keep things the same but how to get better tomorrow than we are today.”
It was just more than a year ago that Davis was delivering wholesale orders of gelato — an unplanned market in the company’s original business plan — in the back of his own pickup truck.
“Even when I was behind the (gelato) case every night and Bruno was making every batch of gelato — when every customer who came in would always see the two owners working in the shop — that was untenable,” Davis said. “We weren’t making money then and the business wasn’t sustainable at that point.”
With the Portland opening in early January, Davis said the company will bring on eight new staff members and a new manager.
Even with the new digs, Davis said Brunswick will remain home base for testing new recipes — the company surpassed 1,000 flavors this year — and packing gelato pints to distribute to grocery stores, restaurants and satellite “scoop shops” at places throughout Maine and beyond.
“Our heart is very much based (in Brunswick),” Davis said. “We like the feel of the town and don’t want to move, so this is where we’re going to be.”
In 2006, Davis said, gelato was still relatively unknown in the U.S.
“What was available was very, very limited here,” Davis said. “There weren’t three gelato places in New York City.”
Davis said he and Tropeano saw an opportunity to focus on gelato and get it right.
The two Bentley University business majors scratched their initial plans for a deli counter, then moved ahead on a year-round gelato shop and café. In the Brunswick store, the only direct light shines on the gelato case, Davis said, and that’s intentional.
“Our business plan was pretty simple: We’re going to make gelato the old-fashioned way, but we’re going to do fun flavors that appeal to the local customers here,” Davis said.
With that plan in hand, Davis said, the duo submitted 22 applications before landing a loan from Camden National Bank to get the idea off the ground.
Through those applications, Davis said he and Bruno were faced with a host of suggestions, including serving pasta dishes and hanging deli meats in the windows.
“But we just refused to do that because we wanted to be a gelato business and do it year-round,” Davis said.
Davis said he and Tropeano would buck advice again by buying a costly, professionalgrade gelato case of Italian manufacture.
“Everyone tried to talk us out of it,” Davis said, explaining that replacements for the heated, curved glass panels could cost up to $10,000.
Between New Jersey and New York City, the budding gelatieri found mentors, including expert Luciano Ferrari, who Davis said he and Tropeano leaned on for advice in the early days.
“If we were in a pinch, (Ferrari) was the guy who helped us figure out the problems,” Davis said.
After getting the equipment for the Brunswick kitchen, Davis said, the duo took a crash course in gelato chemistry.
“You don’t really follow a recipe when you make gelato, but it’s all based on proportions,” Davis said. “It’s knowing your ingredients and knowing how much sugar and water is in a strawberry — then, you build your recipes to maintain the right proportions.”
Add watermelon to a recipe — 50 percent water and 20 percent sugar, Davis said — and you’ll have to pull back on water and sugar elsewhere in the mix.
“We have formulas that we use all the time to calculate those relationships,” Davis said.
But that’s only after fourand a-half years of gelato craft.
“(Tropeano) has probably made more batches of gelato than anyone else in — well, for sure in Maine,” Davis said.
Business in Brunswick
Since opening in 2007, Davis said the biggest challenge for his Brunswick business has been contending with receding lines of credit.
“In 2008 and 2009, a lot of our credit lines got cut to nothing and it put us in a pinch,” Davis said. “It was difficult to see how we were going to get past that.”
But, as with the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station and talk of businessunfriendliness at the state level, Davis said he “made a conscious decision to focus on the things that I could really impact.”
The credit cutbacks, Davis said, “really just made us focus more on what we could control: how to get customers in the door and making sure that they come back and are getting a good value for their dollar.”
Still, Davis said he did notice one impact of the base closure — when a squadron that had previously been stationed in Sicily left Brunswick.
“A lot of them were our best customers when we first opened because they actually knew what gelato was,” Davis said.
Outside of Gelato Fiasco’s four walls, Davis said his attention is best spent locally, sharing ideas and collaborating with Brunswick business owners.
“If I spend my energy watching what’s going on in Augusta or Washington, (D.C.), then I’m doing a disservice to my real job,” Davis said. “You have to tell yourself to focus on what you can impact today and once I get that done, then I can maybe move onto something else, but I haven’t had a day where I’ve gotten all of those things done yet.”
Locally, Davis said he looks for collaboration among Brunswick businesses to increase the number of people traveling to Brunswick as a destination.
For downtown businesses, Davis said competition is a losing strategy.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about trying to get a higher percentage of the limited dollars — that never works,” Davis said. “I think we’re better off to try and grow the size of the market. If we got 100 more people to come to Brunswick and they all spent the same proportion of money, that’s good for everyone in town.”
After strong fall sales, which Davis attributed to an exhibit of Edward Hopper’s Maine paintings at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Davis hopes Brunswick will be able to leverage its resources — including the college and a vibrant array of downtown restaurants — for events like a restaurant week.
“We have incredible resources as a town and I think that we can leverage those more to create a cohesive experience for people that want to come to town and see what people have to offer,” Davis said.
A young company
The average age, among all of Gelato Fiasco’s employees, is around 26, Davis said, and the company has what he called a “very diffused leadership structure.”
“We empower employees to lead the show,” Davis said. “There’s not a board of advisers or secret source of money or a team of experts — at the staff meetings, those are the people that will do the job day in and day out.”
The staff on hand is also primarily responsible for advertising, Davis said, which comes mostly through the store’s website and social media accounts.
“We don’t do a ton of traditional marketing,” Davis said. “We’ve really focused on social media.”
Davis said sites like Facebook and Twitter allow the company to do more than just broadcast its own deals or updates.
“It’s a two-way conduit because customers tell us what they like and it’s a good way to gather information,” Davis said. “We are close to 6,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook and it’s nice — there’s an active community that tells us what they like.”
For the incoming Portland staff, Davis said he’s excited to take on the challenges faced at the Brunswick store anew.
THE ANNUAL NEWSMAKERS SERIES profiles local individuals whose circumstances reflect major stories of the year.
Josh Davis, 28, and a partner opened The Gelato Fiasco on Maine Street in Brunswick in 2007. Since then, the business has survived a global economic meltdown and the regional economic impact of Brunswick Naval Air Station’s closure.
With plans to open a new shop in Portland in 2012, Davis epitomizes a new type of business owner whose focus on community and local connections helps redefine the Midcoast marketplace as the region adapts to life after BNAS.