I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for … Gelato?
Jon Snyder, iI laboratorio gelato owner, shares his life-long entrepreneurial ice cream journey and describes the difference between ice cream and gelato.
In this season 2 episode of Back of the Napkin, Jon Snyder, Il Laboratorio Gelato owner, shares his life-long entrepreneurial ice cream journey and describes the difference between ice cream and gelato. Listen to the episode.
Jon Snyder got the inside scoop on running a small business from an early age. He grew up in a family business, surrounded by people who loved ice cream. His grandfather owned a Carvel Ice Cream Store in Westchester County, NY, which Jon's parents eventually took it over and where Jon worked summers starting at age nine. At 19, Jon started his own gelato business.
He credited his youthful naivete or “uninformed bravery,” along with financial support from generous family members and a trip to Italy, as the driving forces behind his opening his first business, Ciao Bella Gelato Company.
“If I had a little more smarts or experience, I might have called it quits after 6 or 12 months,” said Synder. “I never thought of it as a lifelong journey. I think when you're that young, you think of things more over the course of months or a year or two as being a long time.”
Despite his early start in the ice cream industry, a trip to Italy when he was 18 really triggered a passion for what ice cream could be.
“Our Carvel was like an old-fashioned stand where we only served vanilla and chocolate, so two flavors,” said Jon. “A country like Italy with the breadth and depth of ice cream flavors, the impact it had on me.”
Turning a Disadvantage to an Advantage.
Snyder started Ciao Bella in 1984 with funding from family and friends … but not enough to start a retail ice cream shop in New York City. Instead, Jon quickly pivoted to making great Italian style ice cream for restaurants. What started as a seeming disadvantage, Snyder’s limited resources became the real staying power of the company.
“Retail shops kind of come and go,” said Snyder, while restaurants serve ice cream all year. Snyder noted that when restaurants are busy, his business was busy. “It just made it a much less of a seasonal company,” said Snyder. “Ciao Bella really became a wholesale dynamo in New York City.”
Burned Out and Back Again.
After five years of long hours and burgeoning success, Snyder says that burnout contributed to selling the Ciao Bella in 1989. While he didn’t want to just abandon the work he had put in, he was ready for a change. “I really didn't think I wanted ice cream to define me,” said Snyder. “When I sold it, I signed a five-year non-compete and if he had asked for a lifetime, no problem. It just was not something I could imagine going back into, but things happen.”
Things do happen. After getting an MBA at Columbia Business School, Snyder got back into the gelato business in 2002 with Il Laboratorio Gelato. With his previous experience, he applied some lessons immediately to his new venture.
Telling a Great Story.
One of the things he brought to his new company was his own back story and the importance of utilizing media to tell it. They say all politics is local and, apparently, so is ice cream. “On the East Coast, Carvel has a lot of fans and it's a brand from the '40s and '50s and '60s,” said Snyder.
Snyder figured his personal story from working at his grandparent’s Carvel and starting Ciao Bella to starting this new gelato business would be an interesting story. He was right. He hired a PR firm to get the word out and in short order the New York Times did a full-page story on him. Over the next five years his story was re-told in the media – local, national or international – almost weekly.
Ice Cream vs. Gelato.
While his story was good, Snyder wanted to be sure his product was better. As his palette matured, he knew he could make even better gelato than he made before. He needed the best ingredients and the best manufacturing process. He made the choice to get quality ingredients and not cut corners. He also imported the Italian process of using slow-churning machinery at low temperatures. That reduces the air in the ice cream, creating a distinct texture.
“Gelato is just the Italian word for ice cream,” said Snyder. “Traditionally, Italians have used more milk and less cream in their ice creams. The butterfat in cream can really mask flavor whether it's chocolate or fruits or nuts.”
Less butter is better? What planet are we on?
Finding a Balance.
With the success of Il Laboratorio Gelato, Snyder was conscious of his previous bout with burnout and looked for ways to find balance in his life. A home and family were the perfect counterbalance, something that requires the same kind of commitment, but in a different direction. “Getting married and having two children, you can't go to work every day,” said Snyder. “You got to spend some time at home or come home early.”
Back to Normal and a Pivot.
With his business coming back from Covid-related down cycle, Snyder is looking forward to New York’s restaurant scene coming back stronger than ever and is excited to be a part of that rebirth. He is also making a pivot to something a little different – franchising.
“We signed an agreement with a couple in Shanghai, and they're committed to opening a shop there,” said Snyder. “I got an email from a gentleman who lives in Montclair, New Jersey. He was very excited about the idea of opening a franchise.”
As he just moved to Montclair, Snyder will be able to keep an eye on the new store. “We'll be delivering to him, but it's exciting to have a few of these kinds of ventures in the back pocket.”
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