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In 2002, Ramona Fantini traveled to Italy and got her first taste of real gelato – Italy’s own smoother, more flavorful version of ice cream. Hooked, Ramona developed a three-a-day gelato habit during her trip. She also found a calling: Bringing the authentic gelato experience to the U.S. In 2004, she started Pino Gelato, a retail gelato store in Hilton Head that served its own made-from-scratch flavors.
Eight years later, Pino Gelato is thriving thanks to its unique business model that allows it to be both a community-focused small business in Hilton Head and a rapidly expanding brand throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
In its first few years, Pino Gelato was establishing itself as a vacation tradition for summer visitors to Hilton Head, a popular resort area. Around five years ago, Ramona considered expanding and running a Pino Gelato store in another part of South Carolina. Unsure of how she would market Pino Gelato to a new area, especially an area without a significant tourist season, Ramona reached out to her local SCORE chapter for marketing assistance. SCORE is an SBA resource partner that provides free and confidential small business counseling.
“SCORE is really tremendous,” Ramona says. “They’re great people.”
Ramona worked with SCORE Lowcountry counselor Gene Sherman for over a year. Using Aiken as the test market site, Gene helped Ramona conduct extensive market research. In Aiken, Ramona met with local businesses, restaurant owners and media. She asked what they thought of gelato. She asked about the benefits and drawbacks of downtown versus suburban locations. She asked about the value of advertising in the local media.
The experience taught her the value of reaching out to others. “I learned that throwing an ad in a newspaper or trade journal doesn’t necessarily make a difference to business,” Ramona says. Instead, “networking and connections really make a difference.”
Instead of opening and operating a Pino Gelato store in a new South Carolina market, Ramona decided to use what she’d learned to grow Pino Gelato’s presence in the Hilton Head community – not just among tourists, but among the people who, like Ramona, called the island home.
“You support the community, the community will support you,” Ramona says.
From offering local teacher discounts and frequent buyer cards to sponsoring a Little League team, Pino Gelato is now intrinsic to the Hilton Head area community. The business is also active in the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and is a committed participant in local holiday celebrations.
In 2010, the Chamber named Pino Gelato the 2010 Small Business of the Year. And in 2012, Pino Gelato was voted best ice cream on the island by readers of the Island Packet, the local daily newspaper.
“We’re finally the place people go for ice cream,” Ramona says.
Business and Brand Expansion
Yet not only is Pino Gelato part of its local community, it’s also part of communities stretching from Florida to Pennsylvania thanks to the licensing agreement Ramona created.
By Pino Gelato’s second summer in business, customers kept asking if it was a franchise. Ramona wondered if they might be on to something – a new way to expand her business’s brand and bring the gelato experience to a wider audience. But after some research, Ramona found the responsibilities of franchising overwhelming. Then, an attorney suggested a simpler alternative – a licensing agreement, which would allow licensees to sell Pino Gelato products and adopt the Pino Gelato name while retaining control over their own business operations.
The first licensed Pino Gelato location was opened in Ohio by two of Ramona’s customers – a husband and wife who vacationed in Hilton Head.
Today, you can find licensed Pino Gelato locations in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and – starting in 2013 – New Jersey. You can also find Pino Gelato products at select restaurants in Connecticut.
Pino Gelato is also now a presence in airports around the Southeast.
In November 2007, Ramona approached the nearby Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport to discuss becoming a vendor. The Savannah airport referred her to the much larger Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C. Officials at Charlotte’s airport were immediately taken with the idea of having a Pino Gelato location inside one of its terminals. That November, a licensed Pino Gelato location opened inside the Charlotte airport, with a second location opening in June 2008. In September 2011, the Savannah airport opened a Pino Gelato location of its own, giving Hilton Head tourists a chance for a final gelato fix before flying home. Most recently, in July 2012, a licensed Pino Gelato location opened in the Tampa International Airport, with plans for a second location in the near future.
And Pino Gelato’s airport presence is growing: Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will open its first Pino Gelato in late 2012.
Small Business Accolades
In 2012, Ramona’s small business success garnered statewide and national attention. First, the SBA named Ramona the runner-up South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year in recognition of her business’s staying power, job market impact and innovation. Then, Pino Gelato won the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Blue Ribbon Award – an annual award honoring 75 small businesses nationwide for excellence in business strategy, employee development, community involvement and customer service.
With a little help from SCORE, a great romantic partnership became a great business partnership.
Patrick Hickey was a trained chef. His wife, Erin Marqua was an experienced marketer. After they moved to Charleston in February 2010, Erin started working as a server at Gourmet Bay Catering in nearby Johns Island, with Patrick joining her there as a chef soon afterward.
By 2011, Gourmet Bay’s owner was looking for a buyer for the business in order to focus on another restaurant venture. Erin and Patrick were immediately interested. In fact, their dream was to someday run a small business together. Already, they had been exploring different start-up options in the food service industry. Now, they had an opportunity to skip the start-up stage and take over a business with a solid history in Charleston’s competitive restaurant and catering scene.
There was one major problem, however.
“We needed to have a lot of help because we’d never run a business or even purchased a house,” Erin says.
At Patrick’s parents’ suggestion, they visited the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber immediately referred them to the local SCORE chapter, which conveniently had its main office inside the Chamber. SCORE is an SBA resource partner that provides free and confidential small business counseling. Its all-volunteer staff consists mainly of retired business owners and executives who use their expertise to mentor both potential entrepreneurs and existing business owners. SCORE connected Erin and Patrick with counselor Greg Kopach, a former broker.
Greg helped Erin and Patrick understand the business’s current financials and learn the financial management skills necessary to running a small business. He worked with them over email, phone and in face-to-face sessions. At one point, Greg even worked with Erin and Patrick over dinner to help them with profit and loss statements.
“He helped us sift through all the paperwork and go over all the numbers,” Erin says.
In October 2011, Erin and Patrick closed on Gourmet Bay. Several months later, the new business owners met with Greg again for assistance with payroll taxes and accounting.
Once secure with the company’s financials, Erin and Patrick focused on growing Gourmet Bay’s business. Erin created a new Gourmet Bay website, taking the company from search engine limbo to the top of Google’s search results. She and Patrick also joined the Charleston Metro Chamber to make new connections and find new opportunities. In January, they hired their first employee, Nicole Garrand, an event planner with a sales background and previous experience in the wedding industry, a major Gourmet Bay market.
Less than a year after purchasing the business, Erin and Patrick have not only made Gourmet Bay uniquely their own, they’ve also taken the company to new heights. With employee Nicole on board, Gourmet Bay expanded its services to include event décor services. The company also recently purchased a portable kitchen, allowing it to cook anywhere, including at event venues lacking on-site kitchens.
Now, business is booming, and Gourmet Bay holds top reviews on sites like Wedding Wire and Urban Spoon. Still, Erin and Patrick know where to turn if they ever need assistance.
“If we have any questions, we’re going to go to SCORE first,” Erin says.
Meet Kenneth Canty, the 2011 Minority Small Business Person of the Year for the Southeast region.
As a small business owner, Kenneth is no stranger to adversity. What sets him apart, however, is how he turned adversity into opportunity.
Kenneth is president and CEO of Freeland Construction Company, a Charleston, S.C. firm that specializes in renovation, rehabilitation and restoration projects. Kenneth took over the company in June 2008. Two months later, Freeland Construction lost its major customer, the Naval Weapons Station, when the Charleston area military facilities were consolidated into a joint base.
"This caused us to have to hit the road and find customers outside of Charleston," Kenneth said.
Building on a previous small contract Freeland had performed for the General Services Administration (GSA) in Charleston, Kenneth started networking with the GSA office in nearby Savannah, Ga. His efforts paid off, and Freeland successfully bid on GSA contracts in both Savannah and Athens, Ga. Soon, Freeland counted several southeastern GSA offices in as clients.
Kenneth also applied for the SBA’s nine-year 8(a) Business Development Program, which helps small disadvantaged firms access government and private procurement markets. In September 2008, Freeland Construction was accepted into the Program. Through the 8(a) Program, area federal procurement officers became acquainted with Freeland Construction’s qualifications. Soon, Freeland had new customers, including Shaw Air Force Base and the Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Jackson.
The 8(a) Program also introduced Kenneth to the SBA’s Business Opportunity Specialists (BOS), who provide contracting and management guidance to 8(a) firms. The BOS team at the South Carolina District Office has worked closely with Kenneth for the past three years, often helping him locate high-level procurement officers connected to projects that fit Freeland’s capabilities. In fall 2010, for example, Kenneth wanted to pursue a GSA renovation contract for the childcare center in the Columbia, S.C., federal building. The BOS team zeroed in on two GSA contracting officers, one in Charlotte and the other in Atlanta. Kenneth met with each and impressed both of them with his tenacity and his company’s abilities. Less than a month later, his company was awarded the contract. Freeland Construction successfully completed the childcare center in December 2011.
The South Carolina BOS team has also pinpointed potential Freeland Construction clients throughout the public and private sectors. In 2011, they advised Kenneth to approach the City of Savannah since Freeland had performed previous contracts in the Savannah area. Now, the City of Savannah is one of Freeland’s newest clients. The BOS team also recently referred Kenneth to the SBA’s main government contracting office in D.C., which connected him to a potential Amtrak project in Philadelphia.
With its expanding client base, Freeland’s sales have continually increased since 2009, and the company has grown from five to nine full-time employees. In September 2011, Kenneth was selected as the Southeastern Regional Minority Small Business Person of the Year based on his company’s growth, performance on government contracts and, of course, response to adversity.