Gelato Fiasco: How A Maine Treat Went Down Under

Apr 2, 2018

We all know the association between Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and its home state of Vermont. The brand is known in all 50 states and 40 different countries. Now one Maine-based company is looking to become the Ben & Jerry's of gelato.

This story is the latest installment in our series “It Can Get There From Here."

Gelato Fiasco recently turned a precocious 10 years old. During that time, co-founder Josh Davis has gone from making a mess in his kitchen and hand-delivering pints in the back of his pickup truck to supplying more than 5,000 stores.

"Today we're making blueberry crisp," Davis shouts, over the clamor of machinery, "which has a vanilla gelato base and it has a crisp that's mixed in — and it has a blueberry variegate."

Variegate, in case you're wondering, is a food industry term that basically means "blueberry ripples."

Wild Maine blueberries are used to give gelato a "blueberry variegate."
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

The process starts with a special mix of locally sourced milk and cream, plus a few other base ingredients, that will serve as a blank canvas for the ever-changing flavor combinations. Gelato differs from ice cream in its lower fat content, slower churn time and softer consistency.

The gelato base is piped through chilled lines to a mixing machine, where it picks up nuggets of crunchy oat streusel and ribbons of wild Maine blueberry. Then it's squirted into containers and sent down a high-tech line of robotic capping machines and laser lid-checkers, all part of a recent $1 million-plus upgrade.

So how did a tiny Maine scoop shop on Maine Street in Brunswick evolve into a 1,500-flavor, 12,000-pint-a-day company?

"I grew up in Maine and I think, like every Mainer, you grow up saying you can't wait to leave the state," Davis says.

That turned out to be a good idea, because while at college in Massachusetts, Davis met fellow student Bruno Tropeano, a first generation Italian-American who introduced Davis to gelato.

Both graduated with finance degrees, but it was a shared love of good food that drove them to open the Brunswick gelato shop in 2007. Davis still remembers the first batch — a flavor still made by the company today.

Empty gelato containers wend their way through the line.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

"It was actually tiramisu gelato," he says. "It tastes better now than the first version of it, but it was pretty good. I mean, to this day, nothing beats eating gelato straight out of a batch freezer. That's still pretty awesome."

And Gelato Fiasco was born. By 2012, they'd expanded to Portland. The next year, the small startup was offering freezer pints in stores.

Davis says part of the company's success lies in its carefree aesthetic, which is somewhat self-deprecating. Take its name for example.

"Got to have fun with your name so it's memorable," Davis laughs, "and I guess in the cases of some amount of our distribution challenges it has been a fiasco."

Like any small business that grows very quickly, Gelato Fiasco has not been without its fails. It's had wacky flavors — like chocolate sriracha peanut butter.

"I don't know if it was the worst selling flavor, but it had to be right up there," Davis says.

And the partners have been willing to test out other ideas, from pop-up shops to mystery pints. So it may be no surprise that they were also unafraid of doing a cannonball into the global pool, targeting South Korea and the Middle East as their early markets.

Filled containers of Gelato Fiasco.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

"We put a lot of time and effort into it and had some initial successes," Davis says. "We did do some sales there, but it never really took off."

Davis says in the case of the Middle East, the Maine brand may not have translated well to shoppers.

"We do trade on the fact that we're from Maine," he says. "It's a real product, made by real people, and it's sort of inspired by being here and being from here."

In the case of South Korea, Maine was a selling point, but paperwork and bureaucracy became obstacles to doing business. After pulling out of South Korea, Davis says they decided to put any dreams of world domination into the deep freeze and focus instead on carving out space in the domestic market.

But that wasn't the end of the company's global story.

"My kids, they love the maple syrup and pancake and bacon candy one," says Sky Gander, a travel agent in Queensland, Australia, who says she has been eating Gelato Fiasco for the last year. On Facebook, she posted a glowing review on one of the varieties.

It's just this kind of digital word of mouth that brought the product to the other side of the world in the first place. Two years ago, Davis says, an Australian ice cream company called Peters phoned him up out of the blue.

"First couple of times we talked to them we asked them, 'How did you even hear about this?'" Davis says. "They found us on Pinterest, actually. They liked the look of it, the craftsmanship."

And they thought Australians might just go for the "Maine" thing. But Davis had learned from his failures in other overseas markets. Instead of trying to rush notarized frozen samples all the way to Melbourne with a medical supply courier, as he'd done with South Korea, he flew himself to Australia and created recipes such as Big County Brownie, Dark Woods of Maine and Maine Munchies, which Peters then manufactures and distributes.

And Facebook fans like Gander buy them and write about them. The brand fits with what Gander thinks Maine might actually be like.

"Active but nature-oriented — just sort of quite real, and that sort of equated to the ingredients to me, that it all seemed to be natural, open, honest," she says.

That's exactly the vibe Josh Davis says he's going for.

"There's definitely a mystique about being from Maine. I think the reputation Maine has is that good things come from Maine," he says.

In its first year, Australians consumed more than 400,000 pints, and you can now buy Gelato Fiasco, Australia edition, in more than 600 stores across the country.