There is bravery and then there is bravery in the midst of a global pandemic, at a time when everyone is scrambling for survival. Sandra Foti, the founder of Melbourne institution Piccolina Gelateria, is like a gladiator entering the colosseum. Failure isn’t an option, no matter how scared you are.
Foti has repeated the same ten words in her head over and over again in the past six months, growing in belief with each repetition: ‘When everyone else is scared, you have to be brave’. That was the made-for-Hollywood line her late father drilled into her when she agonised over a major decision in her business career. A decision that could make or break Piccolina.
At that time, everyone in the world was frightened by the implications of COVID-19, especially those in the hospitality game. Foti had built Piccolina into one of the finest gelaterias in the country, with three Melbourne locations – Hawthorn, Collingwood and St Kilda – and ambitious plans for at least a couple more this time last year. But the game had changed. It was no longer about just creating a standout product in 2020; it was about survival.
Piccolina Gelateria didn’t just survive last year, they thrived. They did collaborations with Scott Pickett and Longrain. They produced take-home tubs for specialty supermarkets. And now they have doubled in size in the past month. Yes, you read that right. They have expanded from three stores to six. They opened a new store in Swan Street, Richmond, just before Christmas. Then they opened on Hardware Lane at the start of the New Year. Now they are about to open a swanky hole-in-the-wall site about in Degraves Street.
When it comes to courage in a hospitality world still picking up the pieces and dusting itself off after a tumultuous nine months, it doesn’t get much gutsier. But as it turns out, these decisions weren’t done on a whim. They weren’t the catalyst of bargain deals dangled by desperate landlords in the wake of the pandemic. They were methodical decisions that were more than 18 months in the making, involving more trips in the car than Foti can care to remember, driving up and down lanes and streets in the city and all through Richmond, at all times of the day and night.
“In my head when I started on day one at Hawthorn, my aim was five gelaterias in five years. In my mind, you’ve got to tell people what you’re aiming for and put yourself out there to fail, because if you don’t tell people what you want to do then you’ve got a bit of a get out of jail free card because no one knows. I set the vision and set the goal from the start. Five in five was the aim from day one. That has never changed, even with COVID,” Foti told Man of Style.
“After I opened St Kilda, I was on track going into year four. I had searched and searched and searched for number four, but I wasn’t willing to compromise on the location. I was specifically looking on Hardware Lane or Little Bourke; I was specifically looking on Degraves Street; I was specifically looking on Swan Street – and I’d been doing so for two years.
“I was literally driving around the streets of Melbourne at 9 o’clock at night, three o’clock in the afternoon, midday, 11 o’clock at night. Monday night, Friday night, Sunday night. January, July, November. I was just driving and scoping out where I thought was the right place and where I wanted to be. I was window shopping for sites and getting a feel for the area.
“We didn’t even know if we could keep our existing stores at the time and the new spaces came up. I did a lot of do I, don’t I? Do I, don’t I? We did all the numbers and from the back end and the logistics and operations I was ready to go. But it was really scary; I am human. I thought the pandemic isn’t forever, we will get through this. I was gutsy enough to do two, but three was scary. I don’t have any investors in this business. I didn’t know if I could do it.
“I had a conversation with my dad – who has since passed away – and he’s been an incredible mentor for me in business, especially in the past five years where I have appreciated his advice more than ever before. He reminded me that the coronavirus wasn’t going to hang around forever and to be brave. It was a really important moment in the process.”
When you consider what has transpired since the start of last year, thinking any further back takes some serious brainpower, especially late in the day when we chat for this story. How did Foti get here? It was early in 2015 when she was working for her sister, Jaci Foti-Lowe, the founder of leading design destination Hub Furniture, and realised she wanted to start her own business.
Foti had tried a few different things in the past, but the time was right to do her own thing again. She didn’t want to be a merchant. She wanted to create something with her own hands and leverage her background in graphic design to elevate the brand. For anyone who has stepped foot inside a Piccolina Gelateria, it’s not hard to see her fingerprints all over the brief she handed architecture firm Hecker Guthrie.
“I’ve got a really entrepreneurial family – in particular my dad, who was really entrepreneurial – so starting a business wasn’t something foreign to me or to my family. It is very much a part of our DNA. I worked in lots of the family businesses over the years, I started two or three of my own and wrapped them up and spent the longest amount of time working on my sister’s business and then realised I wanted to properly do something of my own,” she said.
“I thought a bit about hospitality, but I’m not a chef and I have never worked in the industry in any capacity whatsoever. But gelato was something I knew how to make. I could never find the type of gelato that we would eat at home at Christmas and Easter; I couldn’t find that anywhere else. Dad used to make little 500ml containers and I would give them to friends and everyone went crazy about them. They were very coveted. You knew you were special if you got one of them. I thought to myself, maybe there’s something in that?
“Once I landed on that idea as a concept, I just ran with it. I found a place I wanted and signed a lease and then I realised I better figure out what I’m doing. I knew how to do it a little bit, but making one litre of ice cream is very different to fully stocking and selling ice cream as a proper business.”
When you have Italian blood coursing through your veins and you want to open a gelateria, there is only one place to go to hone your craft. And that’s exactly what Foti did a month after signing the lease for the Glenferrie Road site.
She spent weeks scouring the internet in the middle of 2015, searching for the right person to teach her how to run a gelateria. And not just a standard gelateria, like the thousands sprinkled across Rome, Sicily or the Amalfi Coast, one that was dedicated to serving natural gelato. As it turns out, of the more than 50,000 gelaterias in Italy – yes, there are that many – only three per cent make gelato this way. No wonder Piccolina Gelateria is like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.
“When I was researching what I wanted to do in Melbourne, I found it was even unique in Italy. Finding someone who a) was doing it the way I wanted to do it and b) was willing to teach me was tricky but I found someone near Tuscany. I asked him to teach me and be a bit of a mentor for me. I spent two weeks with someone who taught me everything from the machinery to the manufacturing,” she said while reminiscing on the two-week stint she spent just outside of Tuscany in 2015.
“It was really bizarre when you think about it. You know when they talk about finding people on the internet and then making a phone call and then going and meeting them? All the things that you just should not do. But it just felt right. His gelateria had won quite a few awards and had been recommended from my research.
“I spent part of the time talking about what I wanted to do and paid him to help me map out what I was going to do and how I was going to tackle it when I got home. Production started at 4 am and I was still scooping ice cream at midnight before a clean-up. I wanted to see every part of the business and he let me do that. It was like a major crash course.”
Within a few months of returning from Italy, the doors to the original Piccolina – which translates to ‘tiny’ and ‘little one’ in Italian – swung open for the very first time. It only took a few months for it to dawn on Foti that the concept that accompanied many of her happiest childhood memories was a home run. By that time, she was looking for another ballpark to take her swing to the next level.
“I opened in mid-December 2015 and in February we had lines out the door every single night and I had interesting chefs who I had only read about coming from the other side of town and lining up for the gelato and the word was spreading a little bit. I realised then that people could actually tell the difference and they actually cared about what we were producing,” she said.
“I didn’t know if anyone would really care but I remember when Bernard Chu from LuxBite and MasterChef was in the line one night and one of the girls in our team was scooping and said to me oh my god, look who is in the line. I went and had a chat and he said, ‘Do you realise what you’re doing? You’re bringing patisserie to gelato. I can taste the fact that you’ve made the ingredients in this gelato. I thought I knew what gelato was but this is on another level’. He has become an amazing friend and mentor.”
From one to three to six, it has been a whirlwind five years for Piccolina Gelateria. There has never been a better time for Melbournians to consume gelato with Messina and Pidapipo two of the biggest players in the game, along with a pack of northside options – Billy van Creamy, Bico, Il Melograno and Kenny Lover – all doing incredible things. But when you consider the vision behind the brand and the boldness, there is one scoop that stands out among the rest.
It will only be a matter of time before Piccolina infiltrates other cities around Australia. We hear there has already been a push from some inside Foti’s inner sanctum to open gelaterias in New York and London. You wouldn’t rule anything out.
They now have four $60,000 Carpigiani gelato machines – the Ferrari of gelato machinery – whirring in the Collingwood store. It won’t be long before they put another order through to Milan to keep up with the demand. Fortune favours the brave.