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Building Tucson Businesses: Tucson shop takes gelato to the next level | Business News | tucson.com

“First be the best, then be first.” — Grant Tinker

Jeff Kaiserman and Stephen Ochoa first met in the second grade. They stayed friends through their college years at the University of Arizona, and are now, 15-plus years post graduation, still best of friends and business partners.

Both are entrepreneurs. Through the years they tried to make lots of entrepreneurial ideas take hold. As they described them, most of the ideas were “birdbrained.” The failures, though, fed their entrepreneurial spirits.

After graduation from the UA, they each took a trip to Italy, and returned with, believe it or not, the same new entrepreneurial idea — gelato in Tucson. From that “aha” moment, Kaiserman and Ochoa founded Frost Gelato.

While in Italy they each went crazy over the taste and texture of authentic Italian gelato. They wanted to bring that experience to Tucson, where there were no gelato shops.

They tried the various U.S. made gelato brands. None came even close to matching the experience they had in Italy. They imported a couple of cases of gelato from Italy. That also did not work; it seems gelato does not transport well over the Atlantic Ocean. Go figure.

Option No. 3 was to make it themselves. They went to a gelato university for two days and loved the experience of actually making the treat from scratch. They also met their future gelato master chef, Nazario Melchionda from Bologna, Italy.

So here were two young guys who loved a product and decided to make a business out of it. One thing they knew: They had limited experience starting up and sustaining a business. Being inexperienced and smart, they practiced one skill above everything else — listen and learn.

Kaiserman and Ochoa both came from successful business families. Kaiserman’s mother, a real estate expert, helped with location selection. Ochoa’s father shared with them Grant Tinker’s advice: “First be the best, then be first.”

Kaiserman and Ochoa listened to their family and advisers regarding store design and layout. The colors are “cool,” the lighting focused on the gelato, and the display cases are designed specifically to highlight the product. The cases are curved, not straight. The glass front goes almost to the floor so the product display is optimized. Plus, kids can easily see the product instead of having to stand on tiptoes.

They also learned to be specific about what it means to be the best. Kaiserman and Ochoa identified three areas of focus — passion, the gelato experience, and the product.

Passion for Frost Gelato starts at the top. Kaiserman and Ochoa love what they do. They love their product and the joy their customers get from their product. They look for that passion in their employee hires and their franchisee selections.

As an example, one customer who loved the product and the experience wanted to invest and become a franchisee. He committed to opening 50 stores across five states. When asked who would run the stores, the franchisee expected the Frost corporate organization to take care of that. He was bringing the money. He did not bring the passion. As a result, he didn’t fit Step 1 of the Frost profile: passion. He is not a franchisee.

Step 2 of the profile is translating passion into a customer experience that is second to none. Frost goes beyond just processes and procedures when training employees and franchisees. They focus on delivery of an experience, and that experience begins with understanding how a customer feels when they enter a store.

Employees greet customers with “ciao” or “buon giorno” or “buonasera.” There are trays of water circulated among the customers every 15 minutes. When an employee receives an unsolicited compliment from a customer, Kaiserman and Ochoa pay a $25 bonus straight from their own pocket.

Step 3 in the Frost profile is the product itself — the gelato. Master gelato chef Melchionda was a teacher at the two-day school Kaiserman and Ochoa attended. They invited Melchionda to visit their business in Tucson. What was supposed to be a four-day visit turned to five, then 14, then 90. From that day, Melchionda was on board.

The product is made fresh daily, the authentic Italian way. Think of it as having mom’s homemade lasagna instead of Stouffer’s frozen lasagna. The look of the product in the display case matters; the feel or texture of the product in your mouth matters; and the taste matters most of all. Seasonal and fresh ingredients, fresh every day, to deliver the best product.

Kaiserman and Ochoa knew what they didn’t know, and they listened. They followed their passion. They strive each day to be the best. In their customers’ eyes, Frost Gelato is the best. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

By the way, their business is rapidly growing with seven franchisees and 14 storefronts in both national and international markets. If they’re not the best gelato store and franchisor around, they are really, really close.

Ken Cook is the co-founder of How to Who, a program on how to build strong relationships and how to build business through those relationships. Learn more at howtowho.com.