One might envision something along the lines of Willy Wonka’s candy factory when a gelato factory comes to mind.
Creating a gelato empire, though, has not been all chocolate rivers and a magical, psychedelic confections world for Italian transplants Guido Tremolini and Simona Faroni, who launched GS Gelato in Fort Walton Beach in 1996.
It was more like rocky road.
The couple faced a series of obstacles as they grew their gelato company from a small, single-serve operation into a major wholesaler and retailer supplier, which produces more than 1.3 million gallons of gelato annually and distributes it to nearly every state in the country through restaurants like Olive Garden or under private labels in grocery store chains.
One of those challenges: the need for reliable energy to pursue their American dream.
“We come from a country where the power company is ‘The Power,’ and you can’t talk to them and they won’t talk to you, unless maybe you hand them money under the table,” Faroni said. “Gulf Power has worked to give us reliable power and fix issues. They care like there’s a competitor out there and they could lose our business. They are phenomenal.”
To be sure, reliable and affordable power is essential to everyone. For GS Gelato, it’s critical for creating their made-from-scratch gelato and sorbet from authentic, Italian artesian recipes.
The recipes — they have 1,000 of them — call for precise hot, cold and freezing temperatures along with perfect timing. A hiccup in power can mean missing an order deadline, lost revenues and even contaminating the product.
“When this product is cooking it has to get hot enough to eliminate any pathogens,” Faroni said. “It has to reach a certain temperature in a certain amount of time and have a certain amount of time to cool down. It goes into tanks and rests, and then it goes into freezing. The continuation from the hot chain or cold chain is absolutely critical to the safety of the product.”
Rick DelaHaya, Gulf Power spokesperson, said addressing GS Gelato’s power quality issues is all in a day’s work for the Gulf Power team who focuses on keeping the customer at the center of everything they do and supporting economic growth.
“Being proactive to potential issues and quickly responding to items of concern help us to build business relationships that can become professionally personal,” said DelaHaya.
This all takes a team effort — Power Delivery, Marketing, and Customer Service — all working together to make the customer is successful.
Making gelato on a rocky road
Gulf Power invited the couple to sit on a panel of experts at a past Economic Symposium and they recently spoke at a Central District Economic Development meeting to tell their story about building the company in Northwest Florida and plans for future expansion.
“They are a true American success story,” DelaHaya added.
Farino loves telling their story that started with Tremolini visiting an Italian friend in Fort Walton Beach in 1995.
He noticed a lack of gelato shops. In Italy, there’s one on every street corner. He returned to Italy to convince Faroni to give up her job as a distributor for Redkin products in the European market and move to Northwest Florida with him to open a gelato shop.
“He fell in love with Fort Walton Beach and Destin,” Faroni said. “When he went back to Italy he said, ‘It’s paradise. But there’s no gelato in America. We have to go there.’”
Faroni agreed to “go see paradise” at the end of October 1995, shortly after Hurricane Opal hit the area.
“What Guido described as this paradise, was in fact not what I saw,” she said of the lingering storm damage. “But he has a gift for showing you things through his eyes.”
The couple moved to Fort Walton Beach in 1996 to pursue their dream of revolutionizing the ice cream industry here and formed GS Gelato — “G” for Guido and “S” for Simona. Tremolini would create the flavors and products and Faroni would operate the business.
As soon as they stepped on the airplane in Atlanta to Fort Walton Beach, though, they faced the first of a series of obstacles.
“We didn’t speak English and we didn’t understand a word the flight attendant said,” Faroni said. “It was like a cold shower. Everything was different … the culture, the language.”
They enrolled in English as a second language class at night and built their business by day, ordering gelato-making machines from Italy only to find out that the Florida Department of Agriculture would not license the machines.
“We didn’t want to go back to Italy as losers,” Faroni said. “One of our philosophies is we never give up. So when we make a decision, we stick with it.”
Tremolini and Faroni assembled a group of engineers to help her work with the Department of Agriculture to get the gelato machines approved. Fourteen months later, the couple became the first business owners to get gelato equipment approved in the U.S.
They quickly put their machines to work in a 1,000-square-foot shop at the foot of the Brooks Bridge. But the ice cream-loving Americans were not quick to test this thing called gelato.
“No one knew what gelato was,” Faroni said. “One of our best days in Fort Walton Beach at the end of 1996 to 1997 was $13.15 in revenues. It was very difficult for us. We did not come from Italy loaded with money.”
Their first break came when the owner of Silver Sands Premium Outlet in Destin asked them to move their shop there. The move proved successful from day one.
“But gelato was still not making a big splash,” Faroni said. “So it was a mission of education.”
She began carting around gelato samples in an ice cream truck to restaurant owners in hopes of breaking into the wholesale business.
That led to a deal with US Foods to distribute GS Gelato to its clients in the food service industry. But the big game-changer happened in 2005 when Darden Foods wanted GS Gelato to supply gelato to its Olive Garden restaurants.
“Only the Lord knows how they trusted us because we were still operating out of a small facility,” she said. “Once we were given the opportunity to serve a company like Darden, it was a great step to developing our company.”
While Olive Garden helped GS Gelato gain credibility in the industry, it also forced the need for more space to produce the product.
In 2008, GS Gelato moved into a 26,000-square-foot building at the end of Fim Boulevard, which used to be a metal recycling plant, and the next year the couple ramped up the production of their gelato and sorbet product lines.
Signs of the plant have long disappeared and have been replaced with a beautiful office, a manufacturing floor, with rows of gelato machines and large shiny, stainless steel vats for cooking gelato, and freezers, product storage, supply rooms, and the testing kitchen where Tremolini and his team create and test new flavors.
The army of workers – some of whom have been recruited from a second chance job program — make sure the frozen confections make it from machine, to tub, through quality control to the flash freezer in about a minute.
The couple like growing their own experts as much as making gelato, like Ryan Hamilton, who started out in a menial job but when he showed promise they trained and promoted him to Lead Safe Food Quality practitioner.
“The program is huge and it touches on everything that has anything to do with the food,” Hamilton said of the SFQ program. “From seller to supplier, we make sure they have a good food safety program — it involves a lot check points.”
The goal is to make sure when the product reaches the customer’s mouth, it tastes like it was just made, he said.
The expansion of their facility also prepared the couple for a chance meeting in Las Vegas with the owner of the New Jersey-based Kings Food Market chain, who wanted their gelato. That move energized their sales, and after nearly a decade of flat to slowly climbing growth, their growth rate shot up and has ticked up ever since.
Reliable power to produce
As production increased and new freezers and equipment were installed at the new facility, the need for more energy increased, too. But the couple began having power fluctuations, being located at the end of a primary line.
Tremolini said everyone from Gulf Power including Stan Connally, president & CEO, who visited the plant, helped find a solution to the problem, adding, “Gulf Power jumped in and fixed it.”
“We didn’t even ask for that,” he said. “They just did it. They do what needs to be done.” It doesn’t get any better than that.”
While this kind of service is something Americans might expect, Tremolini said it’s not the norm from the government-run utility in Italy.
The couple said they feel confident Gulf Power will be at their side as they continue to expand their operations. They recently purchased three adjoining acres with a goal to build a storage facility so they can relocate their storage operation and employees in Dothan, Alabama to Fort Walton Beach.
“We’re so lucky to have the people at Gulf Power,” Tremolini said. “They all care about the community. And it comes from the top.”