Sweet taste of success

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Local entrepreneur introduces gelato brand to nationwide audience

Before her first and only trip to Italy in 2002, Ramona Fantini’s Sicilian friend told her that trying gelato would be life-changing. She was not wrong.

Fourteen years later, Fantini is owner of Pino Gelato on the south end of the island, a business she started in 2004 that has grown to include several license agreements in airports and stores across the United States.

“I had never had gelato until I went to Italy. There was really none to be had (in the U.S.) unless you went to a mom-and-pop kind of place to buy it,” she says. “It’s hard to believe in the span of 10 years you can almost find it anywhere. But back then you really couldn’t.”

Her friend had told her she’d be amazed by the difference between American ice cream and the much richer Italian version. “The whole aura of it was built up, but she was right. You could taste the flavor. You weren’t tasting a flavored product; you were actually tasting the flavor.”

Fantini tried every gelato she came across, asking questions of all the shop owners about their methods for making it. “The difference is that with American ice cream, you whip the air in. In gelato, the blades go the opposite way and you whip the air out of the product, so it’s thicker, denser, almost like a custard,” she says. Then she returned home, and back to her job in the pharmaceutical industry in New Jersey. She searched for gelato everywhere, but rarely found any.

“My husband, John, is an entrepreneur. Finally he said, ‘You work for somebody for 60 or 70 hours a week now. Why don’t you work for yourself and start a gelato business?’” she says. “After about a year I said, ‘OK, I think I’m ready to do this.’”

The couple, who had bought a vacation home on Hilton Head two years before, moved to the Lowcountry and Fantini partnered with an Italian chef, Pino Avola, to develop her recipes and process. When Pino Gelato opened, it served 34 flavors, all freshly made in the back of the shop. 

“It was exciting because your life is completely changing, it’s all exciting. Who doesn’t want to live on Hilton Head Island? Who doesn’t want to scoop gelato on the beach? You’re riding on total adrenaline,” she says of the entrepreneurial opening buzz. “After the first couple of months you realize, ‘Oh yeah, this is a job. We have to get all our ducks in a row.’ It took a couple of months to focus on the fact that this is real.”

Within a couple years, Fantini started to notice she was getting more than compliments about her business. She was getting inquiries.

“People started asking how they could do this, saying that it looked like a lot of fun,” she says. “I didn’t think about it growing. It just never crossed my mind at the time. But then a lot of people started asking.”

So the entrepreneur began researching the process of becoming a franchise operation. Ultimately, though, she went a different way.

“After I got into it I realized I didn’t want to go the franchise route. I didn’t have enough experience, and I didn’t want that much control,” she says. “Licensing, that’s the route we took.  They use my name and they buy the gelato products from me. But they can use anything else they want in the shop. They can put their own personal touch on their businesses.”

Today, there are 10 Pino Gelato locations — five owned by Fantini, the rest licensed out — selling her 44 flavors of frozen goodness. “Chocolate and vanilla are still the biggest sellers by far,” she says.

There are also Pino Gelatos inside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Charlotte Douglas International, Long Beach, Chicago O’Hare International, and Washington Dulles International airports.

In 2012, Pino Gelato received the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Blue Ribbon Award, given to just 75 small businesses that demonstrate excellence in business strategy, employee development, community involvement and customer service. 

Ever the entrepreneur, Fantini says her next move will be far bigger than she ever imagined 14 years ago when she was dreaming of scooping gelato on the beach.

“I’ve recently partnered with another big gelato company that just does manufacturing, and we’re going to start our conversation now on how to grow this business nationally,” she says.  

Five Things About Ramona Fantini

  1. She’s a self-described “ski addict.” “I absolutely live to snow ski; I think about it every single day of my life.” Luckily, business is slow in January and February, which is when she and her husband head to Big Sky, Montana, her favorite place to ski.
  2. She’s an avid fitness buff. “It’s very important to me to work out every day,” she says, whether that means a game of tennis, some time on the elliptical machine or a bike ride around town.
  3. Pino Gelato gives back a portion of its profits each month to seven charities that benefit animals, including Hilton Head Humane Association, Palmetto Animal League and Noah’s Arks Rescue. “One of the most important things to me is the fact that we are a ‘give back’ company.”
  4. All Pino Gelato staff members are required every quarter to do a Quarterly Day of Caring. “I give them one paid day off to go do something — whatever they want — that benefits someone in the community. They could volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, buy somebody lunch, just do something good.”
  5. She and her husband, John, have no children, but they do have two Shih Tzus, Savannah, 12, and Sienna, 11. “They’re sisters from different litters but the same parents.”