Mumbrella360: ‘Let’s not f*ck it up, let’s stay on track’ – Gelato Messina bought the cow, but the milk wasn’t free

Gelato Messina started with one store, and a lot of coffee. Over those coffees, the idea to build a gelato empire was forged. Or rather, it slowly took shape, one scoop at a time.

As Declan Lee, the co-founder, brand custodian, and self described ‘facilitator of stuff’ at Gelato Messina explained at the Mumbrella360 conference last week, the moment where the master plan for culinary chain success was carved didn’t really happen. Ever.

“I don’t think that moment ever came, really,” he told the audience. “It’s just that we kept going. We’d all had failures in our businesses, and failures in life, and we’re all old enough to not get cocky. We just kept thinking, ‘when’s this going to end? Let’s not fuck it up, and let’s just keep on track’, and that’s what we’ve continued to do.”

Lee mentioned being ‘humble’ numerous times throughout, and it’s clear that a willingness to listen and learn was central to the company’s quick growth — over 30 stores in just over 20 years — however, he did admit this humble nature often backfires when it comes to underestimating the mass appeal of various experimental flavours they trial at their stores.

“It still surprises us today,” he admitted of these quick stock sell-outs. “We don’t make enough of them, and customers go, ‘Why are you making so few of those?'” Forced scarcity has nothing to do with the equation, as it turns out. “We didn’t think anyone would buy it.”

The message Lee wanted to impart is that Messina is so much more than just an in-store experience. This extends to the decision to take many of the elements of the supply chain in-house over the past two decade. As with much of Messina’s success, this came without much of a plan. Which is how the owners of a gelato business became diary farmers.

“Everyone talks about that, like we had this plan for vertical integration, but we didn’t,” he laughed.

“We just started talking jokingly about owning our own dairy farm,” he explained. One of the partners stumbled across an opportunity. “We went, ‘Okay, that’s cool, it’s a nice block of land’, but it made no sense.”

It made no ‘business’ sense, true. But in the bigger picture of how Gelato Messina wished to be seen – it made a lot of sense.

“I think the fact that we don’t have shareholders, it’s just us and our working partners, means that we are very nimble, where we can make decisions that maybe, you know, if you own a big company, you couldn’t make those decisions,” Lee explained of suddenly becoming a farmer.

“So, when we bought the dairy farm, it made no sense, and if you were under the guise of, you know, the powers of a big private equity firm, they never would have let you do it – because it made no sense,” he repeated.

It was terribly inefficient at first, with milk costing $2 a litre, but slowly, prices came down, and quality went up, to where it’s now around 6% fat.

As Lee says, it makes for a great story.

“I think we just like the idea of it, ” he admitted.

“That’s our main input, right? Milk. The cows are milked once a day, it’s basically organic farming, but we’re not certified, because we don’t really care about that, it doesn’t make a difference to us, but yeah, they just move around paddocks, there’s no pesticides, and so the volume is probably less than you would see on a dairy farm — because they need to make enough milk to sell, to make business — we just need to make enough for us.”

Gelato Messina now make all their own products — aside from two biscuits they tried and failed to get tasting decent enough to sell — and, by Lee’s reckoning, make “one of the best milk products in the world”. This easily traceable supply chain came together in bits and starts, but it timed nicely with people’s growing awareness of what they were eating – and where exactly it came from.

“There’s rarely a product where people won’t examine the ingredients list today, so there’s that conscious side of consumers, absolutely,” Lee said, adding that they can just point to the “massive warehouse at our factory” filled with raw products used in their creations.

It’s all part of elevating the customer service past what happens at the counter. Lee acknowledged the many look-alike competitors that have risen in Gelato Messina’s shadow – and how they cannot boast the same control and care over their products.

“That’s the thing that distinguishes us from other players in the market,” he said. “I mean, there’s a lot of people that have come out doing very, shall I say, similar stuff to what we do, the stores are set up the same way – but they can’t do what we do, because they’re not as nimble, they don’t do everything from scratch, so they can’t actually develop the same way that we can, and be as nimble as we can. I think that customer experience thing is far greater than what happens in store.”

A huge part of this, as silly as it may sound, is owning the cows that make the milk that goes into the gelato.

“For us, the experience is how you touch our brand on every level.” He listed a number of initiatives from a “six-course degustation gelato experience” to growing almonds, to other artistic endeavours, some of which “definitely don’t make any money.” It’s all part of the Gelato Messina experience – for the customer and employees alike.

“It’s interesting for us, and it’s interesting for our team, and it’s interesting for our staff — even the guys that work in the kitchen that don’t work on the restaurant — to see what we’re doing over here. It makes them realise that what we’re doing is far bigger than just making scoops.

“I think, in the end, the way that people touch our brand across the board, if they can see that we do these interesting things, and we’ve got a dairy farm, and we’ve got all those things, then that elevates our brand in their way of thinking, and they trust us, and brand trust is everything, right?

“We make money from selling scoops of gelato, and I think doing all the other stuff just elevates us into this position where people trust us, and when they think about having a dessert experience, they think of Messina.”

To watch this session recording and more from Mumbrella360, head to Mumbrella Pro.


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