About this Episode
In this episode, we sat down with John Fezzuoglio, master ice cream maker and owner of Owowcow Creamery. We visited John in his Lambertville, New Jersey ice cream shop to dive deeper on how he became an extraordinary small business. Was it a killer social media strategy? Was it clever marketing? This story is one about a relentless focus on authenticity and crafting the best product possible. Whether you are a small business owner or just love to support small and local businesses, this show is for you.
John Fezzuoglio 0:00
What’s extraordinary about making something if it doesn’t take you to a place that maybe is worth sharing with others.
Angela Giovine 0:11
Pop culture has become obsessed with entrepreneurship stories from Silicon Valley, and big startup. But the backbone of our economy is made of small local businesses. Every day millions of small business owners deliver quality products and services, support the local economy, employ their neighbors and follow their passion. We think their stories are worth telling. I’m Angela Giovine, welcome to the extra ordinary small business podcast. How has handcrafted small batch brand Owowcow, risen to the top in a saturated market like ice cream? That’s the topic of today’s show.
Angela Giovine 0:57
A longtime artist and graphic designer, John Fezzuoglio, decided later on in life that he needed to make a change for the sweeter. Influenced by his childhood memories of authentic homemade food in Brooklyn, New York, John decided to combine his love of crafted food with his artisan skill. The result? In less than 10 years, Owowcow has become a runaway hit. Going from one to four store locations and receiving many awards. We visited John in his Lambertville New Jersey location to dive deeper on how he became an extraordinary small business. Was it a killer social media strategy? Was it clever marketing? This story is one about a relentless focus on the best product possible.
Angela Giovine 1:49
John, you are the owner of Owowcow, which is in the Philadelphia region, and you’ve been in business how many years now?
John Fezzuoglio 1:58
We’re heading into our 10th year.
Angela Giovine 2:01
Wow, 10 years. And I would say that you have a bit of a cult following for your ice cream. It’s quite an accomplishment. Tell me how did the name Owowcow come to you?
John Fezzuoglio 2:13
You know I have that asked of me often. And I guess I could come up with something a little bit more interesting then I was driving one day and the name actually just popped into my head. But that kind of leads into the nature of who I am,
Angela Giovine 2:27
John Fezzuoglio 2:27
the nature of Owowcow, because I think it’s very much not only idea driven, but the allowance for the imagination to kind of manifest and become part of the story.
Angela Giovine 2:38
And that really goes into your background. You haven’t been in ice cream for decades and decades, correct?
John Fezzuoglio 2:44
Angela Giovine 2:45
So tell us about your backgrounds.
John Fezzuoglio 2:47
Well, born in Brooklyn, raised in in a somewhat mixed community but predominantly Italian. So I have first and second generation influences that really affected my sense of community, my sense of pride because these are people I imagine that came from towns and villages throughout Europe. And they brought those traditions that are somewhat missing. And I think people are hungry for them now. And they’re starting to look back and look for a deeper connection. And I think finding it very often and the passion for food, its origin and the sharing of what they discover and what they create.
Angela Giovine 3:26
Did you have a large family in Brooklyn?
John Fezzuoglio 3:28
I did. And the family, you know, transcended, you know, bloodlines because there was a commonality in terms of culture. My friends, families were very much like my family. So values were shared, and so you felt as you were moving into the community you were you were being enriched. It was feeding you and you’re giving something back to it.
Angela Giovine 3:50
Which neighborhood in Brooklyn?
John Fezzuoglio 3:52
This would be Bensonhurst.
Angela Giovine 3:53
Bensonhurst, and so that’s a heavily Italian community
John Fezzuoglio 3:56
Heavily Italian, first generation, you know, if you went for bread It was probably three or four or five, six different bakeries, Italian bakeries, because so you always had your favorite.
Angela Giovine 4:07
You grew up on some delicious
John Fezzuoglio 4:09
Amazing foods, yeah, so-
Angela Giovine 4:11
It was always been a part of your culture.
John Fezzuoglio 4:12
Yeah. So when I look for mozzarella, for example, I can only reference it to the best mozzarella I think I’ve ever had in my life, and I was probably I just remember it being this amazing, buttery creamy, and I had to wait for it to be made. The old Italian guys were busy and they, you know, finally brought it out. And it was just an amazing thing. And I don’t think I’ve ever had anything quite like that since.
Angela Giovine 4:36
Did you always understand that slowness, the craft that went into making foods like mozzarella? Or did you come to appreciate that later on?
John Fezzuoglio 4:46
I you know, there was a definite connection between the thing that was created and the creator. So you know, if it was Italian sausage, I knew that guy made it. You know, and if it was a pastry shop, it was a husband and wife, and they were in the back making the stuff. So there was always always this connection between, as I say, you know, the things that we embrace and those people who create them and share them and, and that’s the fabric of communal connections, but also the impact it it the value that you are part of that, that you have an identity. And it’s not a superficial one, it it runs deep.
Angela Giovine 5:26
So it’s been ingrained in you. But food was, it was always part of your family life and your personal life. Where did you go in your career early on?
John Fezzuoglio 5:34
Well, interestingly enough, I always had and was reminded of a talent, you know, I had an artistic talent. So that manifested fully in having gone to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I studied Fine Arts and once again, there was a connection between, you know, the creator and the creation of something.
Angela Giovine 5:55
John Fezzuoglio 5:56
So I was privileged to work with Chuck Close who’s you know world renowned painter, and you know, the story is that my mother and father, my first year went up there in parent teacher thing, and he told them that I was the best painting student he’s ever had. So that sense of responsibility of you making something, and that’s something should be somehow transcended. It’s not an object that a machine could make. It’s not something that you could buy in multiples, it’s one thing. And so I always know throughout my school years and beyond, what’s extraordinary about making something if it doesn’t take you to a place that maybe is worth sharing with others so
Angela Giovine 6:36
So painting was your main medium?
John Fezzuoglio 6:38
Painting, sculpture, three dimensional design, I’ve always looked at stuff and if I was touched by it, I was always curious as to why. If it made me feel something, you know, for was a movie. I remember this is now when I’m working in Manhattan. It was a slow summer day, I went to the movies on 57th Street. I went in to see a film called Koyaanisqatsi which is apache for a life out of balance. And I was by myself, I bought a box of popcorn, I sat down, the movie started, and when the movie was over, I hadn’t touched a single popcorn because I didn’t want to interrupt the experience with like,
Angela Giovine 7:13
John Fezzuoglio 7:14
Yeah like crunching and like
Angela Giovine 7:16
You were just so captivated.
John Fezzuoglio 7:17
Very deeply, pulled into that, that creative expression. And I think on that level, I felt an obligation to seek, to attain that in my own life and whatever else I created, so
Angela Giovine 7:30
Is that a moment for you?
John Fezzuoglio 7:31
Yeah, was transcendence. So that sense of transcendence I think we all have, when you fall in love, we have this amazing meal and cliche of the perfect sunrise or sunset, so we have that within us, I think.
Angela Giovine 7:45
So you were a student of art, and then where did that take you in terms of after graduation?
John Fezzuoglio 7:52
I started moving into the Communication Arts so graphic design, illustration, photography. So this I graduated probably in like 72?
Angela Giovine 8:03
John Fezzuoglio 8:04
Angela Giovine 8:05
Okay, so we’re not talking about Photoshop, you’re you’re an advertising agency? or
John Fezzuoglio 8:10
Well, I, you know, I didn’t trust big business.
Angela Giovine 8:12
John Fezzuoglio 8:13
I remained a
Angela Giovine 8:14
John Fezzuoglio 8:15
a freelance, virtually my whole my whole career until I opened up my own business down in Soho. And that was a whole other technology based company. But it was the opportunity for me to kind of merge the creative talents and integrate them fully with the resources of Photoshop Illustrator and so on, you know.
Angela Giovine 8:34
So early on as a graphic designer, tell us about what type of jobs that you did?
John Fezzuoglio 8:38
Well, as a graphic designer, I bounced around from agency to agency design firm to design firm and whatever projects they had, I had the responsibility of learning the language of the graphic art so you have words, pictures, and a blank canvas essentially and if that turns out to be a page like magazine, I did stuff with CBS, I did some album covers and that sort of thing. So as I’m designing album covers, and I’m saying, okay, who is this group? What is their music? And how do I give expression that to that type of graphically as well as illustratively. And you know, you have a blank canvas, and then you have these pictures and you have words, if you have a headline subheads, caption, one picture, many pictures, you have your text, you have your sign off, and all that nonsense. And so how do you compose that, so that the viewer is pulled into it? And so being pulled into that amazing mozzarel. Somehow you touched personally, and you’re engaged. You know, that was pretty much lifelong. It’s just like, really, how do I design this page?
Angela Giovine 9:44
John Fezzuoglio 9:45
And what words do I use that touch people?
Angela Giovine 9:48
John Fezzuoglio 9:48
And then, you know, the end result is an action. You know, if you’re going to advertise something, or you’re going to tell the story, you want people to be able to buy it and then to take action.
Angela Giovine 9:58
Yeah, I would imagine the onus was much more on you as the designer at that time, because there were less channels for PR and advertising. There wasn’t like you could create a social media guerrilla strategy back then. So you know, the art that was chosen for say an album, it was a lot was writing on that.
John Fezzuoglio 10:17
Without a doubt and giving expression to the nature of something means you better first take the time to understand the nature of that thing. And then if you’re speaking to an individual, or a group, what’s the nature of that group? In a way this is this kind of continuation of being selfless. Which is a word you don’t hear very often nowadays. But I do think that it served me well my whole life, including, you know, as an artistisan ice cream maker, and I wanted to make something that was extraordinary. And I wanted to share it with people and I don’t know how to say it otherwise, but you know, bring joy and and it’s one of the reasons why selected ice cream because I think, you know, in and of itself it’s transcendent, you know.
Angela Giovine 10:59
Yeah, yeah I mean all ages, all creeds, everybody loves ice cream.
John Fezzuoglio 11:04
Yeah, I’ve seen grumpy old men come in and you know, leave with smiles and little kids or, you know, maybe had a bad day at school and they like skipping around the store. So yeah, it does have-
Angela Giovine 11:14
Did it start as a hobby, were you playing and tinkering with ice cream or when you chose ice cream, you went for it as a business?
John Fezzuoglio 11:22
You know, there’s a certain degree of sales that has has to take place, and I didn’t want to be involved in sales. I don’t want to sell anybody anything. I wanted to create something and do it in a manner where they just wanted. So that was, you know, one criteria.
Angela Giovine 11:36
So in choosing the product, you wanted something that sold itself from the beginning?
John Fezzuoglio 11:40
Yeah, you get to know yourself how many, I don’t think I’m exaggerating. There’s probably hundreds of billions of dollars spent a year on branding, major corporations down to the smallest companies basically wanting to be liked.
Angela Giovine 11:53
And it’s kind of a juxtaposition because you’re coming from an industry where that was your job.
John Fezzuoglio 11:57
Angela Giovine 11:58
Working on advertising people on did you become disillusioned? Were you tired of it? Or did you just think as a small business owner, I’m going to get ahead by picking a product that doesn’t need that?
John Fezzuoglio 12:09
Yeah, I felt that the creative skill set, the knowledge, the experience that would actually go into creating something that would actually benefit a small company. At the time I was you know on my own freelancing. I spent so much time really kind of getting excited about putting something together and then sharing it with the CEO or the owner of the company or the decision maker and you know, they’re not really getting it. So I got tired of that.
Angela Giovine 12:34
So you choose to go into the business of ice cream. Was there ever a moment where you thought you might buy somebody else’s ice cream and sell it? Never, you’re always going to make your own. And that was probably influenced by that upbringing?
John Fezzuoglio 12:46
Yeah. So in my imagination, I thought about who was the first person to say I’m going to make this thing and I’m going to call it gelato or ice cream, right? So there were no recipe books, there was no prior point of reference, there might be hints, there might have been steps historically like they say in, you know the Roman Empire, they would get ice from some mountain and bring it down and mix it with some cream and some fruit. And they say that might have been the origin of it. So imagine that without having to be told how to do something, but to have a set of principles and values at hand to be the starting point to create something that didn’t exist before. And so venturing out into the unknown is something that I do just habitually.
Angela Giovine 13:32
Did you have concerns that you might not be any good at making ice cream?
John Fezzuoglio 13:36
Yes, I did. And I said, I don’t really care. Not so much whether or not I make good ice cream, but whether or not I would actually succeed, succeed as a company.
Angela Giovine 13:47
So let’s put this into reference. At this point in your career, how long had you been in the world of graphic design and advertising? How many years was that your career?
John Fezzuoglio 13:59
Well, I’d say from 72 to I don’t know, 2000?
Angela Giovine 14:04
John Fezzuoglio 14:05
Angela Giovine 14:05
And you have a family and I assume bills,
John Fezzuoglio 14:06
Angela Giovine 14:07
John Fezzuoglio 14:11
Angela Giovine 14:12
responsibilities. You go to your family and you say, betting it all on ice cream. How does that go?
John Fezzuoglio 14:18
As I said, venturing out into the unknown is something I’m, I kind of embrace. If I don’t have that, I don’t really feel like I’m being challenged. And so risk is a part of my, I don’t know, I dare say daily life.
Angela Giovine 14:33
John Fezzuoglio 14:34
Yeah, and I cherish that, I really do. So, you know, there’s some common sense, you know, application along the way. So I said to myself, well, how do I sell ice cream? This is what I discovered. So I said, Okay, I want to open up an ice cream business. So you start to look around say well-
Angela Giovine 14:52
And at this point you’re in, you’re still in Brooklyn, when you say I’m gonna open-
John Fezzuoglio 14:54
No, you know, I moved out to Bucks County back in 88.
Angela Giovine 14:58
John Fezzuoglio 14:58
So I’ve been out here for quite a few years.
Angela Giovine 15:00
Okay, so you were already here. You said I want to open up an ice cream shop.
John Fezzuoglio 15:03
Angela Giovine 15:04
How long did that ruminate in your head before you started to do some legwork on it?
John Fezzuoglio 15:08
Probably a year and a half, two years.
Angela Giovine 15:11
Okay. and then how much time did you spend on sort of the business planning process before you opened your doors?
John Fezzuoglio 15:17
I did some, you know, numbers on paper. I scratched it out.
Angela Giovine 15:20
John Fezzuoglio 15:21
So that at least gave me a point of reference to say, Okay, I need to sell at least this much to make an off to open up the next day.
Angela Giovine 15:29
John Fezzuoglio 15:29
or week. A business plan, I actually downloaded a business plan and I tried to fill out that out,
Angela Giovine 15:34
John Fezzuoglio 15:35
And it became like, I don’t know, I just, I didn’t want to become pragmatic. And I didn’t want to be defined by any precedents, if you will, but the tendency when you’re venturing out as to the unknown is to look for the familiar.
Angela Giovine 15:49
John Fezzuoglio 15:49
Right. So I said Well, okay, so let me look around and see what an ice cream shop should be.
Angela Giovine 15:55
Did you self fund, bootstrap? Did you go to find business partners? How did you get to the point where you could go and invest in the equipment and open your doors?
John Fezzuoglio 16:04
Yeah, so I it’s at the point where I had a couple of dollars in savings and I don’t mean a lot of money but enough to get a solid I think I woke up one morning it was a Saturday morning was early. I wanted to make breakfast for my family. So I was driving down some country road looking into some country eggs. And I saw this building and a for rent it looked
Angela Giovine 16:25
And this is your original Ottsville location?
John Fezzuoglio 16:28
It was a former service station, a gas station.
Angela Giovine 16:30
Yes. And Ottsville is pretty remote.
John Fezzuoglio 16:34
At that time, even more so. I mean, I’ve-
Angela Giovine 16:36
Now Ottsville’s about how far from New York City?
John Fezzuoglio 16:38
I’d say about an hour and a half at most?
Angela Giovine 16:41
And how far from Philadelphia?
John Fezzuoglio 16:44
About an hour? Maybe a little less,
Angela Giovine 16:46
And I’ve I’ve been to your Ottsville location. You’re truly surrounded by farmlands. So you’re in this unique situation where you are under two hours from two major cities but you do truly feel like it’s the middle of nowhere.
John Fezzuoglio 16:59
It certainly felt that way, I’m sure. and that’s exactly what I was looking for. Low rent, leave me alone, I mean, I’m in the back and I have to make icre cream and I have to figure it out.
Angela Giovine 17:09
Okay, so was that the logic there? I’m going to stay somewhere that’s a little bit remote while I kind of work this out for myself?
John Fezzuoglio 17:18
Angela Giovine 17:18
Kind of experiment and fit and get the business down?
John Fezzuoglio 17:21
Yeah, I had enough common sense to realize that if I wanted to indulge my passion, I needed to do it without the worry about how am I going to pay for this exorbitant rent.
Angela Giovine 17:32
So you self fund, what year do you open?
John Fezzuoglio 17:34
That was 2009, and that was at the beginning of the, you know-
Angela Giovine 17:39
Yes, so 2009, mid recession in the USA, you open an ice cream shop, that’s a pretty substantial drive for most people.
John Fezzuoglio 17:49
Angela Giovine 17:49
And how many employees do you have on day one?
John Fezzuoglio 17:52
Well, I was the only person making, procuring the ingredients. I should say at this point that I made it the hardest possible way you can make ice cream.
Angela Giovine 18:03
Right I wanted to get into that but you-
John Fezzuoglio 18:05
So I’m buying real cream and milk from farms, I’m buying raw eggs, I’m cracking the eggs, separating the the yolks,
Angela Giovine 18:12
And by juxtaposition, what people may not realize is that in the ice cream industry, the majority of ice creams are made with a base, a premade base, even those who call themselves handcrafted, handmade, are using this base. What percentage of peop- of of ice ice cream-
John Fezzuoglio 18:29
I’d say the vast majority.
Angela Giovine 18:30
John Fezzuoglio 18:31
98% of artisan ice cream makers are not actually making their own base.
Angela Giovine 18:37
And that was never an option for you.
John Fezzuoglio 18:39
Never an option because I wanted to make sure that I was getting cream from a small family farm, and the cows were out in pasture, and they were cared for by a family who’s in my case, it was like three generations and finding a degree of the remarkable in everything I incorporated was an essential part of this vision, and there were no compromises to be made. If I was going to make the compromise, then I might as well just call up, Haagen Dazs, have to truck back up to the store and just put it out in the kitchen server.
Angela Giovine 19:11
And I met you back then in 2009, because I happen to also be starting a business in your area at that time and I I would drive 45 minutes or an hour sometimes to go to your Ottsville ice cream store because it was worth it.
John Fezzuoglio 19:26
Angela Giovine 19:26
I think I tried it the first time at a at a restaurant and we were hooked. How do people start to find you in Ottsville?
John Fezzuoglio 19:33
I don’t know it was as organic as it could possibly be. There was no grand opening, there were no advertisements, there was not much signage. But people were curious because when we were tricking out the space, no, there was like I don’t know newspapers in the windows, and they were wondering what’s going on in there.
Angela Giovine 19:53
And visually, all of your locations are pretty cool looking by virtue of the fact that you have design in your background.
John Fezzuoglio 20:00
Yeah, well, the first thing was I didn’t want to look like an ice cream shop. I didn’t want to sound like an ice cream shop. And so I gravitated towards spaces that have their own integrity, their own history.
Angela Giovine 20:11
John Fezzuoglio 20:11
And all I did was try to unearth them, and to represent them in an environment that had a sense of authenticity. And that was another part of this story, you know, so I said, Well, if I had to come up with words that described this company, what words would I attribute to it? So one of the words was authenticity, that if I said it was going to be something, that’s exactly what it was going to be, goodness. So you say, Well, I want this to be a good business. So what does that mean? So I wanted to make a really good product. I wanted to share with my community, which I feel is a very good community. I wanted to treat my resources, my vendors, my farm partners well, so I want to goodness in those relationships. The people who came in the back door and delivered me the amazing stuff that was making it possible for me to share them. I wanted great relationships with my employees. So the word good became of foundational, descriptive, if you will, of the nature of this company. And it served me really well because foundationally these are the principles that have, I think determined the value of the brand as perceived and realized by my communities. And I’ve used that the plural because, you know, as you know, we have three different locations, each one in a distinctly different community and the privilege of really being able to empty oneself and allowing, again, the community to find the nature of this place.
Angela Giovine 21:47
We’re sitting here in your Lambertville New Jersey location. It’s a warehouse looking building with exposed ducts and beams and beautiful original brick and it’s been outfitted with vintage or I don’t even know how to describe the furniture. It’s, it’s all mismatched, but in a very beautiful way. Tell us about this location.
John Fezzuoglio 22:11
You know, the absence of pretense is important. I think it’s the antithesis of of authenticity. So if an object has an inherent quality to it, I’m attracted to it immediately. If I have to create something and integrated into a space, I want to use materials that are speak to their nature. So we have a lot of you know, this counter for example. So that’s 120 year old PC-
Angela Giovine 22:36
Do you have any idea what this building used to be?
John Fezzuoglio 22:38
Yeah, it’s it’s part of the diamonds and silver manufacturing facility. So yeah, they literally literally used to smelt silver. When I walked in, it was a former florist was here and the ceilings were maybe 8 foot high.
Angela Giovine 22:54
John Fezzuoglio 22:55
Angela Giovine 22:56
They had like a drop ceiling in?
John Fezzuoglio 22:57
I yeah, they had a drop ceiling with the fluorescent lights and all that craziness. I’ve got a broom and I just kind of poked one of the tiles and I saw brick.
Angela Giovine 23:06
You saw a beautiful-
John Fezzuoglio 23:07
All of Berkeley’s covered up with sheetrock. And that large window, that industrial factory window that was actually covered up from the inside, you couldn’t even see it. So it was a privilege to be able to come in here and just open the space up and, you know, reveal its true nature once again. And I think people gravitate I, you know, I don’t know. You know, it’s really interesting that people are so immersed in the culture of food and community these days, because they, I think they’re hungry for that sense of being connected to something that is, I don’t want to say primal. But, you know, maybe part of you know, that dynamic is the fact that, you know, the economy’s is been really poor over the last 10 years. And so, students coming out of college not finding jobs as easily if if at all
Angela Giovine 23:59
John Fezzuoglio 23:59
moving back in to their homes,
Angela Giovine 24:00
John Fezzuoglio 24:01
reconnecting with their high school friends,
Angela Giovine 24:03
John Fezzuoglio 24:03
getting together on weekends and looking for stuff to do.
Angela Giovine 24:06
John Fezzuoglio 24:06
And this is a you know Bucks County happens to be an extraordinarily rich and very complex and dynamic cultures. There’s a lot of stuff going on here. I think people are being fed by that. And likewise feeding it.
Angela Giovine 24:20
So it’s 2009. You open your doors, you are getting up with the roosters, you’re going to the farms, you’re picking up the cream, you’re picking up the eggs, you’re picking up all the ingredients on your own, you’re heading up to your Ottsville shop, which is a refurbished gas station, you’re making your own ice cream. And you have a couple people scooping for you. And that’s about it?
John Fezzuoglio 24:40
Yeah, my daughter helped out initially, my wife helped out initially and then we were able to hire a couple of young people out of the community and get them trained up, you know, whatever that meant at the time.
Angela Giovine 24:51
Right. And how quickly were you able to determine that you were successful?
John Fezzuoglio 24:57
Wow, that’s a really interesting question. I don’t know that I ever thought I was successful, quite honestly. I guess when I was working seven days a week, 17 hour days, trying to keep up with the demand,
Angela Giovine 25:11
People just wanted their ice cream.
John Fezzuoglio 25:12
I had no idea where they came from. And so if that meant success, I mean, when I was exhausted and like trying to figure out how to make flavors. So the one thing I did was I wanted to make sure that the ice cream was visually accessible. So instead of having an ice cream dip in case I brought on a a gelato case where the Italians have enough sense to present the you know, the beautiful things, visually
Angela Giovine 25:37
You eat with your eyes.
John Fezzuoglio 25:38
Angela Giovine 25:39
John Fezzuoglio 25:40
So people were asking well what is this? And it was traditional ice cream by virtue of being a high fat product so put them you know, this 24 pans in the case and
Angela Giovine 25:49
24 pans in a case
John Fezzuoglio 25:50
Yeah so I have to figure out
Angela Giovine 25:52
for 3 locations now. How many flavors in total?
John Fezzuoglio 25:56
Well over five six hundred?
Angela Giovine 25:58
Wow. And each gelato style pan has what looks like or is a home drawn or hand drawn label on it that looks like maybe someone in the back just wrote wrote it with some markers. I’m assuming that’s by design.
John Fezzuoglio 26:15
Without a doubt, you know, the other thing is I, in my years as a graphic designer and you know communicator, I understood the value of differentiation. You know, there’s a term zig when everybody else is zagging. And so, you know, part of that authenticity, you know, I had all these young people working for me and some of them just like, creative. So we would love them to make the labels yeah.
Angela Giovine 26:41
It’s just so interesting that almost 10 years in business now and did it broke don’t fix it. You never switched over to printing some elaborate title cards for your ice creams or anything like that. We’re still you’re still using the same idea almost 10 years into your business.
John Fezzuoglio 26:57
Yeah, to me that’s leaning in the in the direction of institutionalizing the nature of the thing.
Angela Giovine 27:03
John Fezzuoglio 27:03
And that would be in violation of the very nature that we created and and people have embraced.
Angela Giovine 27:09
Right. So you went from Ottsville to your second location in Wrightstown, which is approximately 20 25 minutes?
John Fezzuoglio 27:17
Angela Giovine 27:17
Maybe more? from Ottsville? When did you decide to open your second location? And what gave you the courage or the idea that it was time to open a second location?
John Fezzuoglio 27:27
Well, you know at that time, Ottsville was fairly well established and
Angela Giovine 27:32
John Fezzuoglio 27:33
I’d say 2011, maybe 12. And that,
Angela Giovine 27:36
So a couple years in.
John Fezzuoglio 27:37
Angela Giovine 27:38
You thought I’m working 17 hour days. Let’s open another location.
John Fezzuoglio 27:41
Yeah, well at that time, you know, I managed to bring on a couple of people that helped me. So
Angela Giovine 27:46
We’re you still making all the ice cream at that point?
John Fezzuoglio 27:48
Still yes. Still making all the ice cream myself, and some fella came in one day and he dropped off his business card and he said I have a location just outside of Newtown, you know, it’s an old barn and I’d love you to consider opening up. And so the fella Glenn, who’s currently, you know, the owner of the property where I have my second shop, turned out to be an amazing guy. And he used to drive up to Lehigh University to, you know, spend time with his daughter, and he happened to come into the shop, he loved the product. And then, so I want you to take a look at it. And it’s like 100 year old barn, and it’s you know parking and you know, it was just a great location.
Angela Giovine 28:27
Now it has parking, and it’s, it is a beautiful location, but it was a risk and that it wasn’t downtown. Though you didn’t have necessarily the traditional foot traffic that many people might look for, which is similar to your Otssville location. Was that a consideration?
John Fezzuoglio 28:44
Yeah, and add to you know, that list of negatives, it’s about three, maybe 400 feet off the main road.
Angela Giovine 28:51
John Fezzuoglio 28:51
Angela Giovine 28:52
I actually drive back there, right.
John Fezzuoglio 28:55
You know, I just trusted that there’s something also very compelling about people discovering something and then
Angela Giovine 29:02
John Fezzuoglio 29:02
being struck by that and then they are compelled to share it.
Angela Giovine 29:06
John Fezzuoglio 29:07
So word of mouth that really has been the key and I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but it has been the key to success in in in a number of ways
Angela Giovine 29:15
John Fezzuoglio 29:16
And I think that people discover something and they can’t, they can’t really stop sharing it with social media. I think things really kind of took off for us so.
Angela Giovine 29:26
So hundreds of flavors, which flavor has been the most unexpected runaway hit?
John Fezzuoglio 29:32
I guess, and it’s still one of the most popular cashew caramel you know that flavor originally with my love for cashews. I remember riding the betrain in Manhattan, stopping at 14th Street Station, and the doors will open, and there’d be guys up on the next level roasting cashew.
Angela Giovine 29:51
John Fezzuoglio 29:51
And I can’t even tell you how many times I jumped off the train that cashews and waited for the next one to go home.
Angela Giovine 29:56
John Fezzuoglio 29:57
So anyway, I bought you know I bought cashews, and then laying around for a while and you know, I make my own caramel, so I make caramel and one day I was walking by the cashews. I grabbed one caramel. I dipped it. So we do cashew caramel ice cream, and people I mean it’s it’s if I don’t have vanilla, chocolate and cashew caramel,
Angela Giovine 30:18
John Fezzuoglio 30:18
and strawberry I’m in trouble.
Angela Giovine 30:20
Okay, okay. Now what flavor did you expect to be a hit but bombed?
John Fezzuoglio 30:25
I can tell you that anything that actually bombed, it bomb before it made it’s way into the case.
Angela Giovine 30:30
Oh okay, so you determined it was a bomb. It wasn’t a public.
John Fezzuoglio 30:33
Yeah, If it didn’t, you know if it didn’t resonate it didn’t hit the right notes. It was gone. I don’t know I made some really wild flavors. You know, sometimes I’ll make like a Jalapeno chocolates or a mole chocolate mole and sometimes I’ll spice it radically. And people will say wow, this is too spicy and then I’ll cut it back, and then people say well, it’s not spicy enough. So you you find that kind of thing. They really kind of niche flavors,
Angela Giovine 31:02
John Fezzuoglio 31:02
I’ll make them maybe three or four times throughout the year.
Angela Giovine 31:05
So what my next question was you have all of these hundreds of flavors 24 trays in a case. How do you decide what what comes when? Is it season, seasonal ingredients driven?
John Fezzuoglio 31:16
Yeah, I mean once you know, the spring hits, and the strawberries and the rhubarb and derivatives, you know, from those source ingredients, as core main ingredients kind of drives the exploration. And I think having built flavors for, I don’t know, almost 10 years now, you know, the palette has a mind of its own, it really kind of has its own vocabulary. And so
Angela Giovine 31:40
Do you like a test, taste tester group?
John Fezzuoglio 31:42
You know, everybody’s wants to know what’s going on, back there. And, yeah, so people always sampling and if I’m not sure, but it’s been in an amazing journey, and so far as you know, the refinements of the palette and how educated a palette could be. So to they can pick up subtle nuances and then factor those subtleties into flavor combinations that maybe never existed before.
Angela Giovine 32:10
John Fezzuoglio 32:10
It’s a fascinating kind of exploration.
Angela Giovine 32:12
What your did you finally have to have someone else start helping you make the ice cream?
John Fezzuoglio 32:17
Well, I’ve always made the ice cream. I’ve always made the flavors. So the pasteurization process for example, once I got the formula down, it was sacred and there were no deviants there within.
Angela Giovine 32:30
John Fezzuoglio 32:30
So people help me you know, with the pasteurization process
Angela Giovine 32:34
So parts of it. Okay.
John Fezzuoglio 32:34
batching the ice creams, so once you know the base is made, I age it for a couple of days, and then I take it out and I start building my flavors. At that point, you have to freeze it. So I would have two gelato machines and two helpers, freeze the product and I was really critical because if you over freeze a product, especially with a high fat content, it will tend to separate like if you have a beat with cream, little buildup of fat on the palate, so you really have to be careful with that part of the process.
Angela Giovine 32:46
So to this day, you’re still involved in the majority of ice cream making then?
John Fezzuoglio 33:12
Well, that changed about nine, maybe by nine months ago.
Angela Giovine 33:17
John Fezzuoglio 33:17
So I brought on Amanda, who is a graduate of the CIA,
Angela Giovine 33:24
Culinary Institute of America not the Central Intelligence Agency.
John Fezzuoglio 33:27
let’s be clear about that, and she’s, you know, she’s like a a remarkable person.
Angela Giovine 33:33
John Fezzuoglio 33:33
In so far as she brings this innocent, childlike imagination to it far beyond even my own ability to create flavors so
Angela Giovine 33:42
What made you choose to bring someone straight out of culinary school as oppose-
John Fezzuoglio 33:45
Well, she wasn’t straight out. She ran a number of restaurants, she is up the, you know, from around the eastern area.
Angela Giovine 33:52
John Fezzuoglio 33:53
And she’s, you know, she’s an establish chef,
Angela Giovine 33:56
So she wasn’t always just an ice cream then?
John Fezzuoglio 33:58
Never. I shouldn’t say never. She I mean in the restaurant she’d made,
Angela Giovine 34:03
John Fezzuoglio 34:03
Her own small batch.
Angela Giovine 34:05
But not in a retail situation?
John Fezzuoglio 34:06
Not at all.
Angela Giovine 34:07
So you happened to find Amanda, you bring her in and now you have someone finally nine months ago, almost 10 years into this now, that you can delegate some of that responsibility to. How has that changed your business?
John Fezzuoglio 34:20
It freed me up to pay attention to the nature of the business. Obviously, we’ve grown dramatically. So we have the three shops, I opened up a production facility. So we weren’t like six people on top of one another.
Angela Giovine 34:35
Right. So how long did you continue, you continue to make all the ice cream in the original Ottsville store?
John Fezzuoglio 34:40
Ottsville for eight and a half years.
Angela Giovine 34:42
Okay, so maybe about a year ago then you you opened up a separate facility.
John Fezzuoglio 34:47
Yeah, outside of New Hope.
Angela Giovine 34:48
Okay. So sort of central to all three of your location
John Fezzuoglio 34:51
It’s perfectly centralized.
Angela Giovine 34:53
John Fezzuoglio 34:53
In terms of distribution, I have Peter who drives around the ice cream and delivers it to all three shops. That helped a lot because all of our baked goods were local baked goods, but frustrating, you know, they get exactly what we wanted,
Angela Giovine 35:07
John Fezzuoglio 35:07
So no we’re just a baking in house,
Angela Giovine 35:09
John Fezzuoglio 35:09
Again, all organic and natural everything. And that allows us to experiment, explore and create new stuff that we weren’t able to do before,
Angela Giovine 35:19
Considering you were part of the production and are still part of the production for so long. What were some of the pieces that you were able to delegate early on?
John Fezzuoglio 35:27
Well a key, you know, person in all growth is Shira Tiser Wade, she’s been with me for this six, seven years.
Angela Giovine 35:37
Okay. And what is her job?
John Fezzuoglio 35:38
She I guess, for lack of a better term is a general manager. And she oversees virtually every part of the business in terms of its administrative, you know, and the pragmatic side, you know, as we’re hiring people, we’ve learned what to look for. We’ve refined our training,
Angela Giovine 35:59
How? That’s that’s an interesting topic. How were you finding people? How did you find her?And what kind of credentials are most important to you?
John Fezzuoglio 36:08
Well Shira came out of New York City as well.
Angela Giovine 36:10
John Fezzuoglio 36:10
She was in the advertising and making six figures in doing the whole thing,
Angela Giovine 36:14
John Fezzuoglio 36:15
I don’t know. You know what happened. She was running Door to Door Organics, so she was the operations manager there, went on sabbatical came back, sort of two companies that she wanted to be associated with. We were one of the two, she worked for some time with this other company. I won’t mention their name.
Angela Giovine 36:33
John Fezzuoglio 36:34
Lastly came with us and never left. It’s tough to you know, we’re a lot of house but for me in particular, I flourish with the imagination, the creativity, and the humanity of the business. And so she’s on top of every administrative, she’s the you know, mental agility that I lacked, and she is in the moment, If something needs to be dealt with, she’s dealing with it now. So she helped us to grow.
Angela Giovine 37:02
So you were able to find someone top caliber, and you didn’t really have to recruit for her. That’s pretty amazing. She kind of found you.
John Fezzuoglio 37:11
Yeah, because I had many people coming and asking if I wanted to franchise and I said no a thousand times and, but this one fella Michael, who was a great guy and he was associated with a hotel chain. He said, just, you know, just read this book. So he gave me a book on franchising on Donald’s and Pizza Hut and all that nonsense. And, you know, it reaffirmed you know, my repulsion for
Angela Giovine 37:34
So he thought he was going to convince you and you did the exact opposite.
John Fezzuoglio 37:38
No, but you know, I left after reading the book or actually, in a cursory way, going through it, I asked myself Can you franchise found? And, you know, that was really interesting to me. And I said, Yes, I can. So, we’ve created an infrastructure of the things that facilitate our success are clearly catalyst in defining the brand and the user experience. So anyway, we formalize that, and we just transposed it to another location. And lo and behold, it was the same thing. You know, if you go from shop to shop to shop, I don’t think you’ll ever experience a discord with the brain, or dissatisfaction with the service or the aesthetic of the space or the quality of the product. So it’s been pretty remarkable in that respect.
Angela Giovine 38:25
What sort of mechanisms do you use to train people in your core philosophies and your authenticity? How do you prevent it from becoming watered down?
John Fezzuoglio 38:35
So you know, we have a manager at each of our shops, and those managers are key to our success.
Angela Giovine 38:40
John Fezzuoglio 38:41
making sure that we have the right people, who value the nature of the company. So that’s a starting point, we interview Shira and myself, so the manager will do an initial interview for a prospective employee. And then that employee comes to me- us Shira and myself, and generally Shira will start the interview and when I walk over, if the person doesn’t smile at me, it’s highly unlikely that person will be hired. So you could tell people how important your customers are, and how much they deserve to be treated exceptionally well. But if you don’t have that, in your heart, it’s very difficult to learn how-
Angela Giovine 39:16
To train, Yes.
John Fezzuoglio 39:17
So those are the type of people who we look for and we, we hop on, and we try to instill in them a sense of the importance that each one of the people who we serve feels special, and that’s not some marketing ploy. That’s our obligation. I feel that deeply. You know, the people who walk into the shop, they choose to do so. And then it’s our job to thank them for that. So the product is got to be extraordinary, the service has got to be authentic, and therefore each and every person and I think that level of training and you know, carefully selecting, and then you know, we’ll do a 30 day training if it doesn’t work out, you know, it’s it’s on to the next person. And then we have, you know, a number of other protocols in place, where will we have, for example, every shift has to report. So we have a digital means of them reporting every aspect of what that shift was like. So we have managers, and then we have shift managers, all of whom are responsible for the pros and cons what happened during that shift? Was there a customer who was dissatisfied? Did you discover a product that shouldn’t have been the case? Did we, you know, there’s everything’s by hand, for example, if we make cookies and cream, we make the own our own cookies, and we hand swirl them. Sometimes you put too many,
Angela Giovine 40:36
John Fezzuoglio 40:36
sometimes they’re too large,
Angela Giovine 40:37
John Fezzuoglio 40:37
sometimes it’s not enough, sometimes it rooked up in the corner and that’s spread up that way.
Angela Giovine 40:41
John Fezzuoglio 40:41
So, you know we get all that feedback and that goes right you know to the production team and and they, you know, respond accordingly. So you know, when we say artisan or handcrafted, every player at the end of that process is a factor into our success or failure.
Angela Giovine 40:57
John Fezzuoglio 40:57
Angela Giovine 40:58
So you mentioned that you are now baking all of your owned baked goods, but fine at large, as I’m staring at your at your set up here, it’s not like you have a whole lot of other products other than ice cream. You’re selling ice creams, milk shakes, cones, handcrafted cones, like you said you’re making cookies that go inside the ice creams, but you haven’t extended the business into coffee or fountain sodas or anything that might some business owner might consider to be complementary in nature. What’s the logic behind staying solely in the world of ice cream?
John Fezzuoglio 41:33
Well. you know I don’t want to be everything to everyone, that’s number 1. And number 2, the sodas that we do have available they’re all micro brewed so they all all relatively local,
Angela Giovine 41:45
John Fezzuoglio 41:45
We don’t have any major manufacturers in Oregon. We have expanded you know for the last 2 years we’ve been making ice creams pops and hand dipping loaves as well as sorbet pops. The cookies, we’ve expanded now to 3 I believe, soon to be 4, varieties of ice cream sandwiches. So we did expand in Oregon, you know over some volitions somehow people started calling us up and asking us if we could be at their weddings or special family events or corporate. So no advertising or no promotion and so that kind of took off so we developed bun buns for example for weddings so like a little you know kind of more oriented products, and there’s a number of those that you won’t find in the store that probably do make available for speacial events.
Angela Giovine 42:32
Right, right right right.
John Fezzuoglio 42:33
We’re also looking at botanical in which actually over the last year, probably did 6 or 8 iterations of that concept. And that concept being how do we get these amazing herbs, combined them with these fruits in the way that are nutritionally in harmony, and create ice cream flavors also base that have this kind of medicinal herbal quality to it.
Angela Giovine 42:56
What flavors are, I guess you call them flavors at that point, what selections have been successful there?
John Fezzuoglio 43:02
Yeah, I think we said um we said Milkwee, not Milkwee but trying to think of the name of it. It is fairly popular 6 months ago,
Angela Giovine 43:11
John Fezzuoglio 43:12
And you know, we incorporated that herb into the ice cream. Yeah, we want it we want to really flush it up in a lot more
Angela Giovine 43:19
John Fezzuoglio 43:20
more focused and then the other thing we do is this old well in Frenchtown, where we get our spring water. We use that exclusively in our sorbets rather than tap water, city water, well water that we don’t know the the naure of so, again you know we really try to create items at a singular and with the highest regards for the source ingredients.
Angela Giovine 43:43
Sure, you mentioned you’re you’re really starting to ramp up that, not catering but event I guess special event business, and I’m staring at a freezer full of pints and quartz that people buy and bring home, are you doing wholesale?
John Fezzuoglio 43:59
Angela Giovine 43:59
John Fezzuoglio 44:00
Angela Giovine 44:00
What’s the logic there?
John Fezzuoglio 44:01
Well, you know why would I want to compete you know on a manufacturer of volume basis, because I could never win that.
Angela Giovine 44:09
John Fezzuoglio 44:10
And it’s of no interest to me.
Angela Giovine 44:12
John Fezzuoglio 44:12
You know, I don’t want to be known for making the most product, I just-
Angela Giovine 44:15
It’s similar to like a retailer who has to go through a store instead of selling directly to the customer I guess, from a pricing perspective because you have to sell a wholesale to the restaurant,
John Fezzuoglio 44:25
Well you have to discount, yeah. And so why would I want to discount a premium product that is in limited supply?
Angela Giovine 44:31
John Fezzuoglio 44:32
Discounter intuitive, although ones ego, wants to step in and say Oh my god, of course I want to sell to whole foods and-
Angela Giovine 44:39
Of course so, that’s probably not a direction you’re going to go. It sounds like direct to consumer will be your main focus. You’re opening your 4th store, do you believe there will be continued growth in your future? Or 4 is about as much as as you can handle?
John Fezzuoglio 44:55
Well given that I’m developing a team of people that are truly self sufficient, I mean my role in the company from you know the sole creator and and producer of everything, shared with some really intelligent, hardworking, bright people and I think the future of the company is really on the hinge on the continuing you know supporting of ropes. I I mention Shira earlier and I think she’s a driving force. As I start to kind of pull out a little bit, I could see her taking more of essential role-
Angela Giovine 45:32
That’s amazing, that’s amazing to have, to feel like you have people that you can trust like that. Do you see a world’s speaking of direct to consumer where you’re selling ice cream through the internet?
John Fezzuoglio 45:41
No, no it it’s extraordinarily expensive to ship, with dry ice and so on. While it’s an exclusive product in a lot of ways, and singular in so many aspects, I want it to be available to a family of 6 people who walk in.
Angela Giovine 45:56
Right. I have 2 questions that I always end my interviews with. First one is, fill in the blank. I would not be standing here today, if not for blank.
John Fezzuoglio 46:07
Think my curiosity, my imagination, and my determination.
Angela Giovine 46:12
Okay, and my final question is, what advice would you give your 18 year old self?
John Fezzuoglio 46:19
Angela Giovine 46:21
John Fezzuoglio 46:23
You know, I think you know there’a a battle between habbit and pay attention because every moment is is this new spark of life, there’s a new opportunity, there’s a new insight, there’s a new decision to be made and I think moving into the space of wonderment, the word wonderful, being full of wonder is what children are and I want to hold on to that part of me.
Angela Giovine 46:48
John, thank you so much for being with us, I’ve learned a lot.
John Fezzuoglio 46:53
Well, thank you so much for you know sharing this time with me and I hope there was maybe useful down the road to somebody somewhere.
Angela Giovine 47:01
I think it will. And I should mention that, my 4 year old is super excited that I’m basically meeting his super hero or talking to his super hero today.
John Fezzuoglio 47:11
How that happened?
Angela Giovine 47:01
I said I’m
John Fezzuoglio 47:14
Angela Giovine 47:14
I’m meeting the ice cream God, the man who makes all our ice cream today.
John Fezzuoglio 47:18
Angela Giovine 47:18
John Fezzuoglio 47:20
Yeah, well it’s quite remarkable. You know the impact that this company has had on the community and individuals sometimes I look at you know this little kids and I’ll say these are their memories you know,
Angela Giovine 47:32
John Fezzuoglio 47:32
And so we’re responsible for that.
Angela Giovine 47:33
And you’re part of it.
John Fezzuoglio 47:34
Yeah, it’s a priviledge.
Angela Giovine 47:36
Angela Giovine 47:38
Thanks for listening. For more information about our show and our company, head to extra ordinary small business dot com. And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook or Instagram. We would be so grateful, If you could help us reach more listeners. All you have to do, is go to iTunes or wherever you get your podcast and rate, review and subscribe. It would mean the world to us. Ratings, reviews, and subscribes are how iTunes decides which podcasts are worth sharing. Help us continue to bring these stories of extraordinary small business owners to the world. By rating, reviewing and subscribing, you’re helping our small business. It’s free and it takes just a minute. Thanks!