It’s not every day you come across a new franchise that has over 120 years of history to back it up. However, Crolla’s Gelateria isn’t like any other franchise
Most entrepreneurs launching a new business can only dream about their enterprise still going strong after a century. But then again, having launched when Serafino Crolla opened an ice-cream shop in Glasgow in 1895, Crolla’s Gelateria isn’t like other businesses. From starting a gelato factory in the interwar period to repurposing ambulances as ice-cream vans after the second world war, the entrepreneurial flair of Crolla’s children and grandchildren has fuelled the enterprise’s evolution throughout the 20th century. And now the founder’s great-grandson Peter Crolla is taking the next step with the franchise.
Like many other success stories, this latest evolution was born out of the business leader having a keen sense of which way the wind was blowing. “We noticed that more gelaterias and parlours were opening,” says Crolla. The sector had been in flux since the 1990s when more people started purchasing their icy treats at supermarket rather than at ice-cream vans, pushing the mobile vendors out of business. Responding to shifting demand, the family company sold its fleet of vans and repurposed its factory to supply places like restaurants and hotels, as well as other ice-cream van owners with frosty delights. But with the rise of ice-cream parlours, Crolla saw an opportunity to ensure the company’s success into the 21st century by opening a chain of gelaterias. “I knew that it would become a stepping stone to get even more business,” says Crolla. “And I quickly realised that franchising was the best model to open more stores.”
But while he always intended to franchise the business, Crolla first wanted to ensure that he had a successful recipe for franchisees to replicate. So he opened a pilot in March 2013. “The first shop allows you to learn from your mistakes,” says Crolla. Fortunately, this inaugural gelateria on Byres Road in Glasgow quickly proved a success, going on to break its own record every year since its launch. Additionally, it helped the franchisor understand that providing great service isn’t the only factor that matters to consumers. Just like in real estate, the franchise’s success was dependent on location, location, location. “In a restaurant, people may spend £30 to £40 per head,” says Crolla. “For us that number is more like £5. That means that more people have to spend money and we have to be really careful about our site selection.”
Nevertheless, finding a prime location for the inaugural gelateria wasn’t enough to ensure it got the footfall required to turn a profit. “It’s not like in the good old days when you just had to open the doors to get people inside,” says Crolla. Realising that fact, he embarked on a marketing campaign that saw the company serve up scoops of ice cream at events and hand out flyers. Using social-media sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter was also instrumental in attracting customers. “You’ve got to keep moving with the times, so obviously social media became very important,” says Crolla. These efforts certainly proved effective: the Scottish Italian Awards named Crolla’s Gelateria Scotland’s Best Ice Cream Parlour in 2014.
Having established the concept, Crolla felt ready to take the next step and franchise Crolla’s Gelateria. “But I needed expertise to help me through the journey to make the franchise easy to run for franchisees,” he says. This help was provided by David Moffat, operations manager of Iguana Eyes, the business consultancy, who was hired as Crolla’s Gelateria’s business-development manager. Together they ensured each procedure was streamlined and systemised, enabling future franchisees to replicate the success of the pilot. And after eight months the model was finalised.
Given that the venture is part of his family’s legacy, it’s hardly surprising that Crolla is quite particular about the quality of the franchisees who join the business. “We can’t just let anybody inside the door,” he says. In order to ensure the ice-cream franchise is attracting the creme de la creme, the franchisor enlisted Platinum Wave, the franchise-consultancy firm, to help with franchisee recruitment. In terms of what qualities he looks for, one thing stands out on Crolla’s list. “While franchisees don’t need a lot of experience, the main thing is that they’re passionate about the business,” he says. “They need that enthusiasm in order to do well. The rest we can train.”
Carol Cordiner certainly had this passion in spades: not only did her parents operate an ice-cream van for three decades but she was also so eager to become a Crolla’s Gelateria franchisee that she signed up before the model was even finished. “She has wanted to run an ice-cream parlour all her life but lacked the confidence to go it alone,” says Crolla. “But she believed in us.” That passion saw Cordiner open her own franchise in Aberdeen in August 2016. And just like the pilot shop, signing up the first franchisee would prove to be an education. “We learned the timescales needed to train someone up to a level that we were comfortable with,” says Crolla. “Now we’re much more confident that it will work in other areas in the UK too.”
That confidence certainly shows as the company is gearing up to open 13 new franchises by the end of the year. “So it’s going quite fast,” says Crolla. Some of the entrepreneurs joining the franchise are already building their shops in places like Wales, Leeds and London, while others are in the final stages of raising funds. However, they aren’t the only ones: the franchise has had over 110 enquires from prospective franchisees, although some of them are more hesitant than others. “Many of them want to hear more success stories before they’re ready to invest, which is fair enough,” says Crolla. “So if we can get these stores up and running then many more people will be able to come on board.”
And interest isn’t limited to these shores: prospective franchisees have reached out from as far away as the Middle East and the US, enquiring about opportunities to become the company’s master franchisees. While not ruling out the possibility for future international expansion, the franchisor has told the candidates to bide their time. “We’ve told them to let us get these 13 stores up and running, see how they perform and that we’ll be in touch by the new year,” says Crolla. “We want to walk before we run.”
And given that the family company’s century-long history, it’s safe to say that the ice-cream-slinging franchisor knows a thing or two about taking its time and keeping its cool.