The sky's the limit for Tucson's gelato guys - Tucson Local Media: Import

The sky's the limit for Tucson's gelato guys

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Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2006 11:00 pm

June 14, 2006 - They played little league baseball together. They endured university final exams together. And last month, Jeffrey Kaiserman and Stephen Ochoa celebrated a new milestone: their one-year anniversary as business partners.

The friends own the Frost gelato shop at 7131 N. Oracle Road that, at peak hours, features a line of hungry dessert seekers stretching into the parking lot. Although the two know the thrill of early success in business, every day of the past year has come with lessons.

"If there's one way to mature and grow up, it's to own your own business," Kaiserman said.

Kaiserman and Ochoa, both Tucson natives, met in the second grade. Their memories of each other go back almost that far. In fourth or fifth grade, Ochoa got a pinecone in the eye at summer camp, necessitating a trip to the hospital. It wasn't funny at the time, but now Kaiserman chides him about it.

"It wasn't me who threw it," he said.

The pals stayed close through middle school, but the high school years sent them in different directions. In college, they met up again. It made sense that both Kaiserman and Ochoa would attend the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. Both came from long traditions of entrepreneurship.

Ochoa's great-grandfather started a sausage factory in Chicago more than 100 years ago, and the family still runs it. Kaiserman's grandparents owned the Kaiserman's clothing store in Tucson, which prospered until a mall appeared. As a child, Kaiserman used to tag along with his mother, a real estate agent, looking at homes.

"She's her own boss - I always liked that," he said. "When you're your own boss, there's no limit on how creative you can be."

Both guys knew they wanted to make their own rules in life. Whereas many of their fellow students aimed to just graduate from college and find jobs, the pals wanted job experience that would help them one day start a business.

Because of this shared goal, Kaiserman and Ochoa found themselves dreaming up entrepreneurial possibilities together, such as a magazine for men and women that would help each better understand the other.

"Right toward the end of college we had four or five crazy ideas," Kaiserman said. "Everyone liked them but not enough that they said, 'You should pursue them.'"

No idea really captivated the pals until Kaiserman's dad suggested gelato. That made sense.

Kaiserman and his family once took a trip to Italy and discovered this rich, icy treat. On the island of Capri, Kaiserman tasted the best gelato he could imagine.

One night, he stepped out of his hotel to walk over to a dessert shop and satisfy his gelato hunger. Few lights illuminated the dark sky. As Kaiserman neared the shop, he saw his father leaving it.

"He was sneaking out to have gelato," Kaiserman said. "You know, when something is that good, you will drive distances or sneak out late at night."

Later, Ochoa went to Italy with a gang from University of Arizona and discovered the rich dessert for himself. He went all over Italy savoring gelato and had withdrawal when he returned to Tucson. So when the gelato business idea came up, Ochoa agreed to take part.

A course at a gelato college in North Carolina - complete with samples of finished products - fueled the guys' enthusiasm, but their families made them slow down and think.

"My grandfather said, 'Do you wake up every morning and look in the mirror and say, "I want to make gelato?" You're going to be dedicated to this for a really long time, especially if you're going to use our money,'" Ochoa recalled.

Ochoa's grandparents and Kaiserman's parents comprise Frost's investors.

It's a good thing the guys loved gelato so much, because the first batch of 39 flavors, which were to be made fresh daily, took 24 hours.

"I fell asleep on the floor and Jeff fell asleep on a bag of sugar," Ochoa said.

The pals left the store at three or four in the morning and returned for work at 7 a.m.

Another crisis arose the next day: the two arrived at work to discover that all the gelato in one of the display cases had melted.

And all this after months of hard decisions - choosing a sign and procuring cabinets from Italy, root beer mugs, mirrors and the perfect paint for the walls.

"There was just the anticipation every day - is it going to look good? Did we make the right decision?" Ochoa said.

Two busy months later, during which time neither owner took a single day off and Kaiserman lost about 15 pounds due to never having time to eat lunch, the guys' families sat the new business owners down for a round of congratulations.

Frost had a steady flow of customers and long lines - all that any business owners could ask for, they said. The time had come to take a day or two to rest.

"They said they were very proud of us - first that we created a great business, and, more, how dedicated we were, not complaining about spending so much time a day working."

But ownership of a new business didn't allow much time for rest. A few months after opening day, a supplier misordered a top-selling product and didn't have any available in the United States.

The Frost owners scurried around trying to find another supplier to rescue them and did some research to make sure they would never again find themselves without a backup plan.

"One thing we learned very quickly was that we didn't want to be in the position where a product was not available and you have to shut down," Kaiserman said.

Other surprises have cropped up as well in the past year, just as Ochoa's grandfather promised they would:

"Always expect the unexpected," he told them, adding that people would look to them to fix any problems.

Ingredients ended up in the wrong country. A display window shattered. A production room ended up too small.

When Ochoa and Kaiserman designed their gelato production room, they made it much larger than ones they'd seen in other gelato shops. They planned to eventually open several gelato stores in Tucson and make all their dessert in the one place.

It wasn't long, though, before they discovered that their production room didn't cut it in size or machinery. They had to buy an additional machine to satisfy gelato customers' cravings.

"They were eating it faster than we could produce it," Kaiserman said.

Despite surprises, business booms.

Recently, the owners bought an authentic gelato cart from Italy for catering. It has gone to a bar mitzvah and company parties, and it has a regular gig at the La Encantada shopping plaza. Kaiserman and Ochoa plan to open a second Frost shop in the next year and a half, probably on the eastside. In April, they received an inaugural Emergent Entrepreneurs Award from the Eller College of Management.

And all this without much arguing.

"We're like brothers," Kaiserman said. "We argue like any brothers would, but my mom always says, 'Get over it.' We have so much going on that it's the last thing we have time to deal with. It's kind of good it works out that way."

The old friends' relationship has matured as they've learned to appreciate each other's business strengths.

"One of the things I learned quickly is that Jeff would spend a lot of time talking to customers," Ochoa said. "He's out there talking and I'm in the back making gelato and getting exhausted. But then I see the relationships he has with customers."

One pair of customers brought hand-painted pots to Frost as gifts after returning from a trip to Mexico.

"It's taken me a while to meet all our customers that Jeff knows," Ochoa said. "I've come to realize how personable he can be."

And Kaiserman has discovered the extent of Ochoa's inventiveness. As Jeff tends to customers, Ochoa comes up with new gelato flavors, including pina colada. The idea for that one arose after Ochoa noticed people mixing pineapple and coconut gelato.

The two still work 12- to 16-hour days regularly and don't take work-free vacations. But they said they're fortunate their shop is so busy and that they share the same entrepreneurial aim:

"Our goal from Day 1 was to expand to several in Tucson," Kaiserman said. "From there, sky's the limit."

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