Gelatiamo: in Seattle since 1996

Gelatiamo: in Seattle since 1996

Fourteen years ago, Maria Coassin opened a new Italian gelato shop in Seattle, on the northwest coast of the United States. We asked her to tell us about her experience, to help anyone intending to chase after the American dream.

Who is Maria Coassin?
I was born in Maniago (in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region) in 1963, into a family who have been bakers for centuries. Being born and raised in a family business made it very easy for me to think about a business of my own in the food sector.
In 1990 I moved to the coast of California in the United States, but I soon realised that that part of  California didn't suit me.After some intense market research, aware that I was starting a new career, I moved to Seattle.
Seattle has always been a very lively food city and definitely a trend setter in the restaurant business.  Those were the years when Starbucks stated to emerge as a leader in the coffee business and this created openings for new trends in the same sector.

What training did you have to help you open a gelato shop?

I went back to Italy, and at the suggestion of my father, my greatest inspiration and supporter, I contacted Bravo. It was Genesio Bravo who taught me about the world of hand-made gelato-making in depth. He was the one who put me in touch with Pino Scaringella, who then instilled a passion for gelato in me.

With him, I started on a training process that was fundamental for the success of my gelato shop. I attended courses while learning the techniques of balancing recipes, I worked for a summer at a gelato shop in Italy, learning not so much how to make gelato, but the whole range of the profession:  opening, closing, production, costs, managing work processes, everything that a gelato shop needs to do from A to Z.

After four years of full immersion in the English language and the American management system, through various jobs, including a very valuable experience at McDonald's (my unforgettable first job in the States), I reckoned I was ready to start up my business.  In October 1996, I started up Gelatiamo.

What was it like starting up a business in the US?

Opening Gelatiamo was not a piece of cake. In '96, gelato was still an unknown word in the States. Other entrepreneurs had tried to introduce hand-made gelato in the United States in the past, but without much success.  I understood why right away.  Working in this country means going beyond just the product. As they say over here, you have only one chance to make a good first impression:  in a country where multinational corporations rule, if you don't have a brand that makes an impact, I wouldn't say that your destiny is not to survive, but definitely not to be as successful as I intended.

From the administrative point of view, though, starting a business in the United States is definitely simpler than in Italy.  The bureaucracy is limited, while managing the business and employee relations are much easier.  Costs are very high, though.  And by costs I mean both building facilities and imported equipment and raw materials.  That is if you really want to create an atmosphere that has the look and feel of an Italian gelato shop.  I can only speak about my own experience, an experience in a large city, in a highly visible location.

Where is the shop?

I chose to open it downtown rather than in a neighborhood, which was not an easy choice because it forced me to become highly visible right away, and therefore, be compared with other important local businesses.  On the one hand,  the very long pedestrian street was a great advantage, but on the other hand I faced tremendous pressure to make people understand that this was not a corporate business or a franchise, that there weren’t millions of dollars invested, that everything was made on the premises.Gelatiamo is the dream come true of an Italian woman with a great will to work, who does it with infinite passion and wants noting more than to share one of the sweetest pleasures of Italy:  hand-made gelato.

Did the Americans appreciate hand-made gelato right away?

The decision to open Gelatiamo downtown, very close to the greatest tourist attraction in Seattle,  Pike Place Market (the oldest market in the United States, which is still in business) certainly helped spread the word about gelato. In fact, the more cosmopolitan customer base made it easier to communicate what gelato is. Many of my customers have traveled to Italy on business or for pleasure, and Italy has a very positive reputation among Americans – they like everything that's Italian.

There was definitely no shortage of confusion, especially in the beginning when every so often there would be people wondering whether gelato was made from gelatin, if by any chance it was a  cream cheese spread (soft cheese that comes in various flavors), since the late nineties featured many bagel stores, especially in Seattle. Many people were amazed and continue to be amazed even now that gelato is a product with far less fat than American ice cream, with more intense and richer flavors.

Are you satisfied with your results?

I can say for sure that Gelatiamo has been one of the pioneers of hand-made gelato in the United States.  Gelatiamo is a constantly growing business and since 1996 we have certainly contributed to awareness of gelato in the United States. It's been a difficult path for several reasons.  Financial ones, atmosphere, and culture.

What sets us apart from most other gelato shops, in terms of the customer's perception, is the fact that we offer table service, using cups and glasses like in Italy.  That's definitely unusual in a country where ice cream is considered to belong to the same sector as fast food and coffee, which are dominated by take-aways.  This still amazes all our customers, even after 14 years.

How important is marketing for promoting a gelato shop?

The U.S. have a lot to teach us when it comes to marketing.  Our marketing takes place most of all at the point of sale.  The shop exceeds the expectations of most of our clients and the fact that we offer an extremely varied range of products - in fact we are also a pastry shop and a café - provides a real taste of Italian life.  As I already said, it wasn't easy.  To get people to understand that gelato is a product with low levels of calories and fat, that the recipes are studied and developed by me, that production takes place every day and on the premises, that we use raw materials that are highly sought after, isn't always understood.  This is no doubt also due to the fact that few people really know how to make ice cream in the United States, and therefore the average customer doesn't know exactly what to expect beyond the fact that it's the Italian equivalent.

Another marketing strategy, besides the presence of the point of sale, is certainly all the social media available.  We set up and personally run our website, we're on Facebook and Twitter, we participate in fundraising events, and we're very active in the community.  I don't believe in advertising in newspapers or in other media because the audience is too widespread.  Our strength is our customers, and what we have to show every day along with our product is the atmosphere they can enjoy.

What flavors do you offer to your customers?

Gelatiamo began with the intention of being a genuine gelato shop.  In the States, tradition is sought after and respected, and therefore my philosophy was always to bring out the best aspects of Italian tradition.  We offer classic flavors, although over the years we've been the first ones to develop some "American" flavors like pumpkin pie, peanut butter, and malt & whoppers.

Our customers often ask us to amaze them with special flavors, and so we developed  Brachetto grape sorbet, chocolate with Cabernet, lavender tea, and for a social media event sponsored by  Twitter, even tweetellini:  a very fresh Bellini liquor sorbet (peach, prosecco dry white wine and a dash of raspberry) that we gave the cute name of tweetellini in honor of the event.  We work often with local chefs, and from these partnerships, we developed flavors such as  "chocolate XXXXX Stout"  in cooperation with  Pike Brewery and our cappuccino-flavored gelato, using the splendid espresso of another important local business, Caffè Umbria.

Where do you buy your raw materials?

We believe firmly in the  concept of "farm to table", or as they call it in Italy, zero kilometers, and therefore our raw materials like milk and cream are all locally produced.  We buy from small local dairies that offer superior products.  The fruit, especially berries, strawberries, and raspberries, is also local, one of the specialties of the state of Washington, as are the coffee, lavender, honey, and wine.  That is, as local as possible.  Then, of course our hazelnuts are exclusively from Piedmont just like our pistachios are from Bronte, our chocolate is Belgian and so on.

Some advice for anyone thinking about taking up this profession...

Three words: passion, knowledge, and capital.

Passion is fundamental.  It's the engine that makes the world go round.  You have to succeed in letting other people know that what you're doing is what you believe in, and to be able to do that , you need to believe in it yourself first.

Knowledge: without proper training you can never be successful.  You need to be capable of knowing gelato as a product.

Capital:  sure, it may seem obvious, but there's an incredibly high number of people that start on this adventure and then find themselves short of money and end up making sacrifices when choosing machinery, shop windows, and products, because they started out without enough capital.

We thank Maria Coassin for her time and remind you that Gelatiamo can be found in Seattle, at 1400 Third Avenue.

Gelatiamo: in Seattle since 1996
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