Paolo Dalla Zorza never envisioned himself selling gelato or owning a gelato supply warehouse. Or becoming a pilot, for that matter.
He went to college in Italy and earned a degree in veterinary medicine, but quickly grew dissatisfied with his career choice.
While visiting America, he discovered a lack of gelato shops, especially in the Southeast.
In 2000, ironically during an ice storm, he opened his first shop in Atlanta.
“It was a struggle the first couple of years,” Dalla Zorza said.
But he stuck with it. Three years later, he started a second shop on John Street in Charleston. He purposely opened in October and away from the traditional tourist crowds near the City Market to distinguish the store from others as having a unique offering with a goal to not just be seasonal.
“The first three years were very difficult,” he said.
There was very little else in the neighborhood to support foot traffic. Restaurant 39 Rue de Jean sat next door. Joe Pasta was across the street. Most of Upper King Street had not been really discovered yet as part of the area’s latest revival.
But business gradually picked up in the 400-square-foot shop, and other businesses began to move into the neighborhood.
Now, the shop stocks 62 flavors, all made daily without preservatives, and it grosses about $100,000 a year in sales. For comparison, the Atlanta shop grosses about $300,000 a year in sales.
“We are not here just for selling gelato,” he said. “We are here for selling an experience.”
But gelato as a treat is not the only business Dalla Zorza operates.
He discovered there was an underserved market for the plastic cups, tasting spoons and bins he either imports from Italy or buys from a North Carolina manufacturer.
The result was Gelato Supply Co. Today, he owns and operates a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in North Charleston, stacked with boxes of spoons, cups, take-out boxes and bins. It grosses about $2 million a year.
Among his clients are Disney World, which buys more than 800,000 tulip-lipped cups a year and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which purchases another half-million frosted cups. Sysco buys another half-million green-tinted cups.
“I never expected to be in manufacturing in my entire life,” Dalla Zorza said during a tour of the warehouse while pointing out a big assortment of spoons, cups and an area where he plans to add a new feature soon.
Cookies that are served with ice cream or gelato can be imprinted with names and business logos, including his own. Dalla Zorza said he plans to install machinery and most likely add another staff member at the warehouse to fill custom orders.
Gelato remains the centerpiece, though. In his test kitchen, he keeps a fire-proof cabinet filled with original flavorings.
“If the rest of the building burns, I’ll still have these,” he said. “We add a little kick with the flavorings from Italy.”
He uses cane sugar only, skim milk, no preservatives, vegetable fat and fresh fruit. It took two years to perfect the recipe, and some batches are sugar-free.
“There were a lot of mistakes, a lot of throwaways,” Dalla Zorza said.
“Consistency is the most challenging thing,” said Elizabeth Hall, his partner in business and life. “He is passionate about what he does. He is a perfectionist.”
Dalla Zorza also offers his services to others in the gelato business.
He doesn’t give away his trade secrets, but if someone is having a problem getting the consistency just right or having trouble with the taste, Dalla Zorza provides consultations for a fee. He also requires a signature to protect his products.
“It’s not patented,” he said, “but no one else can make it like I do. I know chemistry. They don’t.”
He also offers a catering business.
“We do a lot of weddings,” Hall said.
Since gelato is not a big-ticket item, Dalla Zorza has to target what little advertising he does. Audiences that tend to be a little more in tune with gelato include moviegoers at the Terrace Theatre on James Island, Spoleto Festival USA attendees and listeners of public radio in South Carolina and Georgia. That’s where most of the marketing dollars go.
And Dalla Zorza doesn’t have to go far to find someone to get the word out about his products. Hall handles his marketing through her Branding Garden advertising firm.
Dalla Zorza not only makes and sells gelato and supplies, he is also a freelance pilot, frequently flying back and forth between Charleston and Atlanta to his shop there and ferrying passengers to other destinations when his work schedule allows.
He has three airplanes — a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron 55, a single-engine Cherokee 180 and a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza — that he flies out of Charleston Executive Airport on Johns Island.
Dalla Zorza operates in the U.S. on an investor visa, which must be renewed every four years. It’s up for renewal in November 2016.
He also uses or sells about 2 million plastic pans a year in different sizes. The bins hold the gelato in the shop’s freezer showcase, but are imported from Italy. Dalla Zorza is talking with another company in western North Carolina about manufacturing them in the U.S., further curbing his import costs.
“I would like to have everything made in the U.S.,” he said.
Employees not only love the gelato, but they enjoy working for Dalla Zorza as well.
Switching back and forth from working in the Charleston gelato shop to the North Charleston warehouse office to line up catering jobs, employee Kimberly Gilbert said, “I love it. It’s an awesome job.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524.