Culture

The Italian ice cream innovators taking on the world

BY Beatrice Faleri | BeatriceFaleri   /  9 September 2016

Walk around the streets of Rome and you will always be able to spot two things at any given point: a church, and a gelateria. Gelato, the Italian creamier and strictly artisanal version of ice-cream, is a serious business in the city, and competition is fierce. Some gelaterie have been around for decades, gaining a quasi-legendary reputation and a loyal core of customers. Life is hard for new entries, and success stories are not at all common.

So how did two former theatre actors, Maria Agnese and Francesco, manage to turn their quirky Gelateria Fatamorgana in an award-winning and internationally-renowned business? I try to find out by having a chat with Francesco in the new Fatamorgana headquarters, in an elegant period building not far from their first-ever shop.

Their story begins in the early 2000s, when Francesco and Maria Agnese moved to Rome from the south of Italy to perform with their theatre company – of which they might still be part today, if Maria Agnese hadn’t realised she suffered from a serious form of coeliac disease. At the time, going gluten-free was far from easy, and it quickly became impossible for Maria Agnese to follow the company in their travels because of her dietary restrictions.

Unable to pursue her acting career, Maria Agnese turned to her childhood passion: gelato. In a spur of the moment decision, Maria Agnese and Francesco decided to enter a contest to award public funds to women-led enterprises. They won, and opened their first shop in the classy Quartiere Trieste, not far from the centre of Rome. What set Fatamorgana apart from similar businesses, and has determined its success ever since, is Maria Agnese’s relentless commitment to her mission: to produce a gelato with natural, local and seasonal ingredients only, without additives, pre-produced ingredients, or food colouring, a gelato that anyone could eat (daily flavours always include some milk-free, nut-free, gluten-free and even sugar-free options), in other words, as Francesco puts it, a ‘real food’ with nutritional value.

This might not sound too impressive today, when ‘clean eating’ is almost  a cult and every other restaurant claims its food is ‘organic’, ‘natural’ and ‘locally sourced’. But Fatamorgana has been a trend-setter since the beginning. Francesco giggles that even Haagen-Dazs, the ice-cream giant, tried to follow the ‘healthy’ trend a few years ago by producing (and heavily advertising) ‘just-five’ flavours, i.e. flavours with only five ingredients. Fatamorgana’s gelato, in comparison, never includes more than four.

But arguably the ‘purity’ of its gelato is not the most unique thing about Fatamorgana. That would be its flavours.

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If you have ever wondered what basil gelato tastes like, you can find out at Fatamorgana, where it is paired with nuts and honey. The scores of flavours available every day include a dozen different types of chocolate – including tobacco ‘Kentucky’ dark chocolate, smoked tea ‘Lapsang Souchong’ chocolate, and wasabi chocolate– at least the same number of creams (lavender and chamomile, anyone? Or caramelised popcorns?) and everything in between. Pear with port and elderflower, baklava, pumpkin with caramelised seeds and carrot cake are just a few standouts worth mentioning.

The variety, creativity and deliciousness of Maria Agnese’s gelato are the cause of her early international success: so far Fatamorgana has been mentioned in the National Geographic, the New York Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph among others. Soon Maria Agnese and Francesco were swamped with requests to start a franchise, both in Italy and abroad. Nonetheless their priority was and has always been to maintain the quality of Fatamorgana’s gelato, through local sourcing and production. For quite a while Fatamorgana’s expansion was limited to Rome only, where seven shops now operating, all of which are are owned or co-owned by the two entrepreneurs and run by friends and former colleagues.

While at the beginning all the gelato was made and sold in the lab of Fatamorgana’s first shop, the ever-increasing demand resulted in the purchase of a larger central laboratory where gelato is produced and shipped to different parts of the cities every day. This is where the magic happens, where Maria Agnese experiments daily with new flavours and ingredients. And here is where the story becomes even more interesting: the need to standardise the process of production while keeping its uniqueness and high quality led to the development of a sophisticated technological system to produce gelato, which granted Fatamorgana the status of innovative start-up.

Maria Agnese’s team was able to develop a software that allows someone to reproduce her distinct recipes with outmost precision, by connecting the various ‘smart tools’ used to make the gelato with digital devices that follow every step of the production process, from the selection of the ingredients to the sale. The software thus acts both as a guarantee of quality and as a means of providing assistance and training to new artisans. But the ‘high-tech craftsmanship’, as Francesco defined it, is only one side of the equation. The same app is accessible by consumers, who can verify at any moment not only which flavours are available in their local shop (yes, I have already tried push notifications for my favourite, pineapple & ginger) but also check the list and proportions of the ingredients used for any flavour.

Thanks to the software, Maria Agnese and Francesco’s horizon suddenly expanded, as the possibility of starting an international franchise without compromising the quality and production of the gelato became more concrete. Their new goal? To create and train a network of artisans who can make natural gelato with local produces. When I talked to Francesco, he was excited to embark on a trip to Los Angeles, where they had been working to open their first-ever American shop.

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But success does not come (only) from talent, innovation and creativity. As Francesco explains to me, at the beginning things weren’t as smooth as it seems – after all, it’s not easy at all to be a young entrepreneur in the Italian capital. Despite the government’s grant, Francesco and Maria Agnese had to draw heavily from personal and family finances to jump-start the gelateria. Not everyone is so lucky, and obtaining credit is the hardest challenge that young entrepreneurs face when trying to start a business, especially in Italy.

It is hard for Francesco to hide his frustration with Italy’s suffocating bureaucracy, which seems even more absurd to him since he started negotiating with businesspeople in the United States and Singapore to expand Fatamorgana’s franchise. In Italy, costs are high, labour flexibility is low and there is no support whatsoever to entrepreneurs in navigating the overwhelming universe of taxes, regulations and norms. Instead, while working to set up the new shop in California, he was stunned by the simplicity of the process, the investors’ faith in the enterprise and the availability of support throughout.

In Rome, he tells me, they experienced no such support, trust and simplicity: regulations for opening high-street retails changed from borough to borough. Navigating the overlapping and sometimes contradictory norms was a nightmare and the criteria to fulfil to exercise commercial activity were at best unclear. Years after opening their first shop, he still expects officials to turn up and point out some obscure regulation that hasn’t been followed to the t. Indeed, they were once fined 750 euro because – it’s so absurd he learned it by heart – “the shadow of the lamp-post over the shop’s entrance door occupied a portion of public soil 20cm in excess of the area allowed”. A metaphor for the country, he calls it.

Regulations like these are so widespread that, unsurprisingly, tax avoidance is an incredibly common phenomenon in Italy – yet rather than cracking down on offenders, the government has gone on a taxing spree that mostly hurts small businesses owners. This of course has led to increased rates of tax evasion, which for many small entrepreneurs seems to be the only way to avoid going under – the phenomenon is deeply engrained in the economic structure of the country. For business owners like Francesco and Maria Agnese, dealing with stifling taxation has been an uphill struggle since the beginning, a struggle that they have fought by learning the ins and out of the tax code and coming up with ingenious ways of paying their taxes in reasonable instalments – a system that requires, according to Francesco, enormous amounts of time and paperwork, and extremely tight timing.

Despite the new government’s Jobs Act, which was supposed to deal with Italy’s soaring unemployment by increasing labour flexibility and incentivising employment, Francesco says the situation has only slightly improved in the past few years. Indeed, Italy’s tax burden is among the highest in the OECD, making it impossible for employers to hire as many workers as they’d like to or else to provide employee with fair pays and benefits. While welcome regulations that were part of the Jobs Act – for example, tax breaks to employers that hired workers on long-term contracts – have been largely scrapped, the introduction of more red tape to – supposedly – prevent employers from paying workers off the books meant that hiring legally has become an even more cumbersome business. No wonder, sighs Francesco, that unemployment figures are staggering, and investors, entrepreneurs and businesses flee the country.

Why would foreign investors want to start businesses in a country like this? And more importantly, why would Italian entrepreneurs stay in a country where setting up an enterprise is a long, exhausting uphill struggle? No wonder Italian productivity is dying: the deepest core of the Italian economy, made of small, family-run businesses is becoming extinct. In fact, the next generations are going abroad, where they can count on generous tax breaks, simple administration and rewards for their creativity and talent.

But Francesco and Maria Agnese have made a conscious choice not to move abroad, despite the price they have paid in 13 years of taxes, red tape and instability. Of course, Francesco admits, having made it in Italy is perhaps even more rewarding – the additional pride coming from having somewhat managed to survive in an environment that is so hostile to business.

Things in Italy will have to change, says Francesco, by following the model of countries like Singapore, where high-tech artisanal production is heavily incentivised, start-us are followed in every step of the development of their business by a designated official, and entrepreneurs can count on five years of generous tax breaks. Instead, while Italy’s potential in terms of natural resources and human capital is immense, nothing is done to retain it, exploit it, and encourage long-term growth.

Fatamorgana’s success story is, unfortunately, only an isolated example of what should be the norm in a country like Italy – yet this is no reason to be less happy about Francesco and Maria Agnese’s extraordinary achievements. Upon embarking in their new international adventure, Francesco is confident: if they have made it in Rome, they can make it anywhere.