Springs man making gelato dream a reality

Starting to gel: The concept for the Gellazi Gelato Italiano Cafe includes restaurants with modern designs and bold colors.

Jan Horsfall is in love with gelato, the Italian version of ice cream, and he’s betting that once his fellow Americans taste it they will love it, too.

Gelato stores in the U.S. have popped up here and there over the years. But Horsfall and about 30 investors have decided it’s time make the frozen dessert part of American culture. They have put up $3 million to create Gelazzi Gelato Italiano Café, a chain they hope will eventually have locations across the country and be headquartered in Colorado Springs.

So far, Horsfall and his two partners have opened three gelato cafes — one in Fort Collins and two in the Denver area — and have received rave reviews.

With the café, Horsfall wants to create a relaxing experience in a space with a modern design, a place where Italy’s Roman columns and grandeur meets Argentina’s bright and bold colors.

In March, they will roll-out of a five-year plan that has their Gelazzi cafes opening by the dozen in warm-climate states. The company plans to open five stores in Houston alone.

Horsfall believes Gelazzi can become a $50-million franchiser with stores in Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada and Florida. Those projections don’t include online sales, their plan to ship the frozen dessert on dry ice in overnight mail.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m having a hard time understanding why someone didn’t do this sooner,” said Horsfall, the CEO of Gelazzi Inc.

Horsfall is not just a starry-eyed entrepreneur.

He started his career selling oil at The Valvoline Co., and eventually became vice president of consumer brand strategy. He was part of Lycos Inc., one of the first search engine companies. He also founded Gemini Voice Solutions Inc. in 1999, one of the first voice-over Internet protocol companies.

For his Gelazzi venture, Horsfall has assembled a collection of investors who have worked with him in the past. For most, however, this is their first investment in the restaurant industry.

“(But) they don’t see us as restaurant, they see us as a lifestyle brand that can be put into a lot of distribution channels effectively,” Horsfall said.

That includes overseas markets.

Gelazzi board member Duncan Stewart, the incoming chairman of the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator, was testing the mood for Italian ice cream in Saudi Arabia this past week, meeting with potential investors there.

In the U.S., ice cream and frozen desserts is a $25 billion industry, according to Packaged Facts, a Washington D.C.-based market research company. Horsfall doesn’t believe gelato has been properly introduced to the American market.

Gelato is Italy’s version of ice cream and Horsfall and his partners have been all over “the boot” to taste-test the country’s famous frozen dessert, which is typically made with filtered water, skim milk, fresh fruit and other ingredients.

Gelazzi makes 34 flavors, coffee drinks and “Gelatinis,” gelato mixed with rum, vodka or Kahlua. The company’s mission statement is, “making people happier than they could have been,” Horsfall said.

The name of the company was chosen simply because Gelazzi is fun to say, Horsfall said.

The fun name appears to be working. The company’s Colorado locations have had four strong years revenue up 32 percent at the start of 2009 over 2008.

Business at the Colorado cafes is strong too. Fourth quarter 2010 revenue was up more than 30 percent at one of the Denver stores and 11 percent in Fort Collins.