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.