One Pint At A Time

Success tastes sweet at Ciao Bella

Most people who meet F.W. Pearce and Charlie Apt say the same thing: They have the best jobs in the world. "Every dinner party we go to, someone says, 'I can't think of a better job,"' says Apt, president of Ciao Bella Gelato, a gourmet ice cream maker in New York. "And they're right."

Beyond the obvious pleasures of spending his days sampling grapefruit Campari sorbetto and mint chocolate chip gelato -- Apt has gained 40 pounds on the job -- there has been plenty of hard work. Apt and CEO Pearce have transformed a 300-square-foot scoop shop on Manhattan's Lower East Side into a $10 million, 75-employee company. They got a nice push in September after two teams from The Apprentice vied on air to create new flavors -- red velvet beat out vanilla donut -- helping boost retail pint sales 30% for the year.

Ciao Bella's gelato -- an Italian ice cream that is softer and denser than its American counterpart -- and its sorbetto, made without eggs or dairy, come in varieties from the best-selling vanilla to innovations such as strawberry chardonnay and white chocolate lavender. The exotic flavors, most concocted by company chef Danilo Zecchin, have won over chefs such as Mario Batali and buyers for high-end groceries. Says Erica Dubreuil, a Sherman Oaks (Calif.) regional bakery coordinator for Whole Foods Market: "The flavors are extraordinary, anything from eggnog to rosewater. The texture is always perfect, because they take such care in what they do."

The partners arrived in ice cream nirvana via very different roads. In 1989, Pearce was fresh out of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration when he spotted an ad in The New York Times for a tiny ice cream company. "I thought, 'Eureka!"' says Pearce, 43. He borrowed $90,000 from his mother to buy the store, a freezer, a pickup truck, recipes for 60 flavors, and a list of 40 restaurants and wholesale customers of the then seven-year-old company.

Pearce and a couple of part-time staffers did everything from mixing flavors to delivering pints. By 1993 sales were $1 million, up from $200,000. But Pearce needed a partner to move beyond the local market. A friend introduced him to Apt, now 43, a banker who wanted to flex his entrepreneurial muscles. "Banks are very rigid, and I'm not that type of person," Apt says. "I wanted to grow a small business, and it was the best ice cream I'd ever tasted." Apt got half of the company in exchange for his sweat equity.

Apt's knack for sales was just what Ciao Bella needed. "He spent all day every day cold-calling restaurants," says Pearce. Apt also upgraded the brand's image, slapping bright logos on what had been plain white pint containers. Within a year of his arrival, sales doubled, to $2 million.

The partners don't expect Ciao Bella to sell in many supermarkets, as its price of $4.25 a pint is more than Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's Homemade. Instead, they're adding five branded stores, including one in Berkeley, Calif., to the three existing ones in New York and San Francisco. Funding comes from friends who have invested $800,000 for 25% of the retail operations. Putting Pearce and Apt on strong-enough ground to sit back and enjoy their newest concoctions.

By Chris Taylor

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