Calgary-based ice cream company Fiasco Gelato has faced its share of adversity over the years. Having almost lost the business before it had a chance to prosper, the team at Fiasco Gelato had to dig deep to rise from the flames of near-ruin.
In 2012, the business relocated to what it now calls ‘The Little Gelato Shop That Could’, transforming the company into a wholesale purveyor of the some of the finest Italian ice cream in Canada, at the same time developing a commitment to changing the way business is done. CEO James Boettcher has been in charge throughout several periods of adversity, and has no doubt that it was pure desire that saw the business through the hard times.
“I started bagging groceries on my fourteenth birthday,” Mr Boettcher explains, “just trying to help out with the cost of being raised by a single parent, and along the way found a passion not only for natural foods but for brands.” This newfound passion helped Mr Boettcher begin his professional journey. After proving himself to be accountable and reliable he was invited by the Assistant Manager of the store to pick up work before and after high school, placing orders and working the night shift.
“It helped me build a pretty strong foundation in terms of what was required for a work ethic and all that good stuff. After that I found myself at sort of a crossroads, again being super excited about branding and design.” Soon after, he was given the opportunity to go to art school, but after being offered a chance to learn in the field by natural food distributor Planet Foods, he declined the university place and instead turned his focus to the world of commerce. “I was their first employee,” he says. “They were under a million bucks in sales and I had the opportunity to grow with them to nearly 12 million over five years. Through that time, I just kind of learned what to do and what not to do.”
During his time in the role, Mr Boettcher realized that all the hard work he was putting into another person’s business was not serving his long term professional goals, and he soon decided that he wanted to find his own way. “I’d always sort of done odd things on the side. I was doing small brand strategy and graphic design, and at that point one of my clients said that I was very passionate about his business, and I had the opportunity to discuss a bit of an acquisition.”
That client was Matt Wilson, the man who started Fiasco Gelato five years earlier, in 2003. By 2009, the company was running two stores in Calgary, and Mr Boettcher had been hired to help with the running of its website and some graphic design work. It soon became clear that there was the chance for a new direction to be taken. Mr Boettcher admits that people were excited about the brand at that time, but the business lacked the operational strength to be making a profit.
“With seasonal help and young employees, it’s really tough at that scale to hone in on some of the systems and processes required to run a solid business. That was where it was at, and at that point I just thought I would run a really well designed store and do a good job.”
Despite only having a small amount of capital at his disposal, Mr Boettcher made a handshake deal with Mr Wilson to acquire the company, a deal which would involve the repayment of a loan of $100k over the following three years. “We were in a position where it just kind of made sense. Matt was interested in other things, building some homes and starting a family, and I was fairly young at the time and really keen to just kind of keep building from it.” Mr Boettcher admits that at first he was unsure whether it would be possible to build a profitable business at the same time as working on paying off the sizeable debt he had accrued from the acquisition.
“I didn’t [know how I would do it] to be honest,” he says. “It was just a bit of a leap of faith. There wasn’t a real strategy, or a method to the madness. It was just sort of taking a leap and seeing what would come of it.” Mr Boettcher made the decision to reduce the business to just one storefront, the plan being to make things more manageable and begin relaunching the company. These plans were derailed when disaster struck, just as the new business was about to launch. “In the process of the switch over there was unfortunately a fire in the location. I probably should have turned my entrepreneurial badge in at that point I guess, but I decided that we’d forge ahead and rebuild the location.”
The early focus had been on making sure the new shop could be quickly opened. Work was scheduled for light construction with the small amount of money available, the plan being to breath fresh life into the business so that it could take the next step. “Getting to that point where you’re ready to open, and then being incapacitated by such a traumatic event, it’s a significant challenge. But again, I think at that time there was so much desire and will to see this materialize.”
This desire to create a successful business meant Mr Boettcher didn’t think twice about rebuilding the company after the fire. Once more bereft of a solid strategy about how to move forward, Fiasco Gelato took stock of its position and started again. “We changed the logo and sort of the feeling of the brand,” he explains. “We wanted to make sure it felt a little more fresh. It had got to a point where it was a bit stagnant, just based on some perceived notions of what Italian gelato looked like.”
A few months later, the company was informed by the building’s landlord that rent would be doubled, forcing another change. Mr Boettcher chose to leave the property and put all the equipment into storage, determined to radically rethink Fiasco Gelato’s business strategy. “Fiasco was a scoop shop at the time,” he says, “and so through all of this we realized, if we could get into people’s hearts and their homes then we would be in a position to really thrive and find our way through grocery and wholesale.”
Fiasco from the Flames
The challenges faced in bringing the business back from the brink of ruination were significant. Mr Boettcher admits that he is not exactly sure what the secret ingredient needed was to keep the company trading. “To be honest, I don’t know how [you deal with something like that],” he says. “You go through a lot of challenges in life and it teaches you some lessons about how resourceful you are, how much gumption you have and what you’re capable of.” The first major achievement in the company’s rejuvenation was in finding a number of restaurants in the local area to carry its product, the emphasis being on keeping the company name on menus and in people’s minds.
“Every penny we earned there, we turned into some new piece of equipment, or something that would make us more efficient. That was where the focus was. It wasn’t until 2013 when we hit grocery stores that we really saw the opportunity for how big things could be.” Despite the level of competition in wholesale products, Fiasco Gelato was fortunate at having partnered with Calgary Zoo to help raise money during the Alberta floods. The zoo returned the favour by helping establish new contacts. “They introduced us to Calgary Co-op, and Co-op was keen on us putting together a retail product that they could offer and we ended up hand-filling over 11,000 jars. The first order for a couple of hundred took a couple of weeks, just based on the scale.”
The Co-op contact proved vital in helping the company expand into other grocery opportunities, and Fiasco Gelato soon found that opportunities to capitalize on momentum were not hard to come by. “People are really attracted to the brand,” Mr Boettcher says. “We’ve been fortunate that the product’s performance has been strong enough that everyone kind of comes to us, and we don’t have to go hunting as much.” The company is now operating with 42 staff, some of whom are part time, but each of whom plays an important role in the business. As Mr Boettcher describes it, they are people “trying to change the world each day.”
The company’s gelato factory and coffee bar spans nearly 7,000 square feet on the main floor, the building comprising of another 15,000 square feet of office space on the floor above. The company also owns six vehicles with which product is delivered. “We’ve got two vespas, two delivery vehicles and then our two food trucks. As a bit of a family extension, I own Calgary Food Trucks, so we work with the food truck community to really make things happen.” The company’s product is available in around 1,000 retail spots across Canada, including supermarkets, with the big hitters such as Co-op, Safeway, Sobeys, and Overwaitea Foods all stocking Fiasco Gelato, as well as Alberta locals Sunterra Market.
With annual revenue of around $5-10m, the success the company has experienced is now being looked at as a stepping stone to try further ventures, perhaps even moving out of Canada and into other markets. “We’re approaching a U.S. conversation here in September/October. There’s not really the catches in some areas. We might have to build another facility and start looking at what is required there by law. Really we’re just focused on doing a great job in Canada right now.” In addition to the grocery business, the company has developed other marketing and wholesale strategies that reach even further into the community, taking advantage of key opportunities such as events and festivals.
“That’s what we call our field marketing,” Mr Boettcher says, “for us just authentically engaging with people that either haven’t tried the product or want to get immersed in the brand, that’s kind of the key to the success there.” The strategy in the field is a simple one: the more people taste the product, the more they will fall in love with it. It’s about employees getting out and exposing both the product and the brand to those who may be unacquainted with it.
We Versus Me
One of the main drivers for the brand’s popularity is the company’s commitment to helping out in the community, especially during times of crisis, a spirit which was seen on full display during the Calgary Floods. “Any time we get involved in community work, generally we’re known now as the igniters—we’re kind of the first to step up and say ‘let’s do something’, and what it does is it encourages other businesses to do the same.” Mr Boettcher admits that the company is not afraid to be a pioneer in terms of doing the right thing, as the spirit of community comes naturally to those running Fiasco Gelato. In times of crisis it is important for somebody to lead the way.
“Even though our gesture might be 10 or 15 thousand dollars, not a lot, it starts to encourage others to say ‘what can we do?’, and that really becomes a sort of snowball effect and it’s great to be part of an organization where everyone rallies together.” The team is aided by a finance department which is wholly supportive of Mr Boettcher’s vision of being involved in these kinds of project, giving the organization the opportunity to play an influential role in the community. As well as its community presence, the company is equally interested in being a paragon of business practices, leading by example to show how the commercial world should be behaving in the 21st century.
“We’re just about to launch a culture handbook, and it says: we are not a gelato company. Our purpose is so much more meaningful, the role that we play in how employment standards are met, or how we pay a living wage, or our sustainable practices.” The specific measures that Fiasco Gelato has included in its business plan are still considered contrary to what most other companies look upon as important. Mr Boettcher is adamant that in his company it could be no other way. “Business practice for us is very genuine. It’s the way that you would live you own life. When I look at what our legacy will be, the gelato’s great and everyone loves it, but it will come back to being a brand that carved a path for others to use business as a force of good.”
In practice, Fiasco Gelato boasts several USPs that separate the brand from its competitors, such as great packaging, an extremely high brand connection and product innovations above anyone else in the category. “Those to me are kind of the easy things, the brass tacks on building a great brand. If you can’t do those things well then why do them at all? I would say that the USP for me is that you’re becoming a part of the story of a great brand that chose to do business differently.” Throughout his career, Mr Boettcher has been naturally attracted to the notion that collaboration is the new competition, the idea that greater things can be achieved with passionate people working together rather than individuals working alone.
“The more that you involve people in your quest for whatever cause it is that’s important to you,” he explains, “the more you’re going to have enrolment and support in it. I think that’s always an awesome opportunity to enjoy the journey.” It is clearly extremely important for Mr Boettcher to be constantly challenging himself, to live his life by embracing a set of fundamental core values that make the process of important decision-making seem easy. “There’s always going to be these points where you’re going to reach these crossroads in business and decision-making, where they infringe on what you know is right, and I think for us at Fiasco our committable core values allow us a very black and white line in the sand.”
These core values are in place to ensure that decision-making is natural and intuitive, putting the company in the best possible position to make the right choices. Mr Boettcher insists businesses should always look to fail fast. “Part of the magic of great organizations is: try it out, and if it doesn’t work, ditch it and move along. Richard Branson once started a cola company and realized pretty quickly when he went up against Coca-Cola that he was in the wrong space, and didn’t succeed.”
Another important consideration is to offer the same level of service and treatment you would expect for yourself, not just for customers but also employees. Mr Boettcher considers this another vital part of good decision-making. “It makes it really easy to make decisions when you just ask yourself: what level of respect or dignity or treatment would I want if I was on the other side of this equation? I find that one creeps up a lot when you start talking about policies or returns.”
It is often the policy of businesses to pay less attention to the treatment of others when things go wrong, with the focus generally geared around making things work smoothly. Rarely are employees empowered to think like humans and resolve problems in this way. By identifying not as a gelato company, but as a business focused on installing great practices, Mr Boettcher and Fiasco Gelato have ensured that customers might well be coming for the gelato, but they are staying for the brand.
Find out more about Fiasco Gelato by visiting www.FiascoGelatoshop.com.