It’s a Tuesday afternoon, but there’s a queue snaking through the doors of Gelato Messina’s store and onto the Crown St pavement outside their Surry Hills store. This would be an odd state of affairs for your average ice-cream shop, but Gelato Messina is hardly another vanilla scoop shop.
They have 30 000 Facebook fans and rotating specials that veer from experimental – a ginger and sake sorbet was a recent offering – to explosively popular, like ‘Robert Brownie Jr,’ which was a milk chocolate gelato with chunks of chocolate brownie and fudge sauce. ‘Robert Brownie Jr’ has 2856 likes on Instagram.
The Messina specials, which are always creatively named, photographed, and uploaded to social media, are a driving force behind their success. There are 5-6 specials at any one time and they outsell the 35 fixed flavours, appeasing the paradoxical public hunger for constant novelty.
A firm dedication to using only ‘real’ ingredients – there are no numbered flavours at Messina – makes creating new specials both more remarkable and more challenging. “Sometimes we have these great ideas, but trying to source the real stuff… it can require a lot of tweaking,” says Nick Palumbo, the Gelato Messina founder. The popularity of certain ingredients eases the pressure to constantly figure out how to use new ones. They keep at least one peanut butter flavour in the specials rotation at all times, and “anything that has peanut or salted caramel just walks out the door,” according to Palumbo.
There is a direct link between social media and their sales, beyond the normal publicity boost. The number of likes a flavour receives is a sure indicator of how well it will sell – the fast rotation means that an upload will quickly bring in customers specifically seeking that flavour before it disappears off the specials board. The quick turnover is, in turn, a result of the rapid pace of social media.
“In the old days we used to make one special a week, leave it in the cabinet for a few weeks before people tried it and would freak out,” says Palumbo. Now, “a week is an age in social media,” and to keep pace Messina are introducing a special every other day.
Originally the Facebook page was peripheral to the business, and it took them a year to scrape together a thousand Facebook likes. By the beginning of this year they had about 15 000. In the past six months, that number has doubled. They now have a business partner who primarily looks after their marketing and runs their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.
Palumbo says that they don’t have a business plan as such – the phenomenon that is Gelato Messina is apparently “just a group of guys with their own specialities.” If they lack a business plan, then they must have incredible commercial acumen. Messina has grown fast, and isn’t slowing. Opening their Darlinghurst store in 2002, they now have stores in Surry Hills, Bondi, and are on the verge of unveiling two new locations. One will be in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. The other will be in Hangzhou, China’s fourth largest city.
For many companies, this sort of prolific success would be followed by a sense of fatigue in their customers, which Gelato Messina understandably wants to avoid. In a world infested with froyo stores and franchises, the boutique feel and relative uniqueness of the Messina experience is a huge drawcard. Palumbo acknowledges this, explaining that they see themselves opening 15 stores at the most within Australia.
Instead of saturating the local market, they plan to grow internationally. Starting with China, Palumbo outlines an ideal future that entails two or three stores in the US, another two or three in London – they are currently exploring a potential East London location. By 2015, “we’ve got it locked in our minds that we want to be in Williamsburg or Brooklyn,” he says.
If our fervent devotion to Gelato Messina is any indication, the residents of Hangzhou, New York and London may soon be packed into their own lengthy queues, ready to receive Messina with open wallets, hungry mouths, and iPhone cameras at the ready.