RICHMOND, Va. -- Many of us are turning to food to help cope with the stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19 and ice cream may be that perfect comfort food for these times. At least that is what Steve Rosser thinks.
Rosser owns Gelati Celesti Ice Cream.
He has been able to keep his locations in Richmond, Henrico, Bon Air, and Virginia Beach open throughout the crisis.
Rosser detailed some of the changes he and his team have made to keep both employees and ice cream lovers safe.
Below is a lightly-edited conversation Rosser had with Eat It, Virginia co-host Scott Wise as part of the CBS 6 We're Open campaign.
Let's talk a little bit about the world and the world of ice cream. When did you realize the virus was going to be an issue for local businesses.
We had been watching the news and in late February became concerned that it may become an issue for us, not only socially, but from a business perspective.
So we actually started doing some financial modeling to determine what would happen to us if we had to shut down with minimal sales for one and two and three, even four months. It was pretty concerning to us.
What did those models show?
Well, we're very fortunate. We've had a good run the last couple of years. We have a good amount of rainy day funds sitting in the bank. But paying our employees, because we never intended to furlough or lay anyone off, to continue to pay in full and pay all of our expenses, we would have run out of cash in August.
What kind of adjustments have you made in your locations to respond?
I'm really just so proud of our team. We have not furloughed or laid anyone off to date and don't have any plans to do that. We have asked a few employees to stay home because they're in a higher risk situation, but we are still compensating them while they're at home.
We have been using the Virginia Department of Health's coronavirus hotline. We call them and ask them about specific situations and risks. They're providing counsel to us on who should work and who shouldn't work.
We have transformed our business.
We are now a complete curbside take-home portion kind of business.
Our whole objective was to keep employees safe and keep our customers safe. So the very basic thing that it starts with is washing hands.
We use lots of gloves. Everybody's gloved up. Last week we started phasing in masks. We now use masks with every employee all day long. So we're wearing masks.
Remind me how many locations you own and how many people you employ?
One in Virginia Beach and five in Richmond.
We were halfway through construction on a brand new store down in the Swift Creek area in Chesterfield County. We've put that on pause. So construction is about 50% complete on that project.
We are a seasonal employer. In the wintertime we have about 95 employees, that's full-time part-time. In the summer will peak out in about 165 employees.
My second favorite part of Gelati Celesti (ice cream is my favorite) is the smell when you walk in. The waffle cones.
Obviously that's not going to be a thing for a little bit.
What does curbside pick up look like in the ice cream world.
We've come a long way. We're only selling two portion sizes.
We sell pints and we sell quarts for take home. Initially, we brought in some technology that we could process orders with customers and it didn't require any employee to customer contact. They could insert their credit card into a machine. It would process it then they pull their credit card out. We were not accepting cash as payment. It was all credit card.
We still have that technology in place but we've now moved to online ordering so customers can go to our website, pick the store, they want to pick up the product, they place the order they pay.
They get an email back confirming the purchase and they pull up to the curb. Give us your name and we just hand in the bag and off they go.
So it is a very, very safe and fast transaction model.
Was any of that online ordering in place before this happened?
No. I think like a lot of companies, we've been talking about it for a year or two, just never got around to it. But we worked really hard to get this in place and real pleased with it. So sometimes it takes a crisis in order to get a lot of things done.
Have you had to scale back your flavors?
We normally have 36 flavors available for customers when they come in our store. We now have anywhere from 10 to 12 flavors available on a daily basis. So it's scaled back greatly.
That's because primarily we're packaging up pints and quarts now in our in our central kitchen. That takes more time, so we just had to cut back on the flavors in order to make enough ice cream.
Is that decision made based on sales? How did you decide who made the cut?
We certainly look at the popularity of flavors. But we're also trying to have something for different groups of people. You know, there's some folks that like chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, and that's all they're going to eat. So we have those.
So even though vanilla is not our top seller, by any stretch, we always had that flavor available because it's real popular, particularly with children.
We've got a couple of other flavors that we rotate in that are a little more for the adventurous palates. So we tried to provide a source that meets most needs.
We don't have it every day, but we also have a dairy-free product available from time to time as well.
I know you're tracking sales, so tell me what is the ultimate flavor for the situation right now? What are you selling the most?
We have a flavor called Just Ask. White chocolate ice cream. It has peanut butter and Oreo cookies. And I'm not exaggerating, because we've consolidated our flavor assortment to 10, Just Ask flavor is far and away number one and we are struggling to keep up with it. It's really popular.
How is your involvement as an owner and a manager been? How has it changed over the last few weeks? How are you managing your teams as both employees and as people throughout this crisis?
Yeah, that's another great question. I think probably every owner would have the same answer.
Up until this past Sunday, which was Easter Sunday, I worked 26 straight days and they were long days. Every owner is probably doing that.
A lot of my job was around leading the innovation that we had to accomplish in order to stay in business. But then also just communication, constant communication with employees.
I'm in every store, every day. I write emails every morning, giving the entire company an update on what happened the previous day.
Early on before large groups were discouraged, we had a big meeting to talk about everything that we were doing for all the full-time employees. But we're still doing that electronically, communicating every day.
People just want to know, how are things going? What are we doing? What kind of changes can we expect? Are we safe? Are we keeping our employees safe? Are we making it a safe place for customers?
So that's a constant dialogue never stops.
You mentioned working 26 days in a row. How are you doing emotionally and mentally throughout all of this?
Right now I'm doing great. We're in a great spot. We're starting to operate in a much more defined and predictable routine. So it's a lot easier.
I think like everybody I had my ups and downs. I had doubts about whether we should stay open, whether we should close. I had concerns about being able to keep everybody on the payroll because again, that's been the most stressful thing of all is doing everything we can to keep paychecks flowing. And my team has just been fantastic.
As I mentioned a couple of times we've not laid anyone off, everyone's still getting the pay, which is just awesome. That was fantastic.
We have applied and have been approved for the relief program called the paycheck Protection Program, which gives us a little more sense of comfort.
I literally almost cried when I got notification of that and I'm going to plug a bank called Village Bank. They did an unbelievable job processing this and giving us the reassurance that we'll be in business for a long time.
You guys do a really good job with making events out of like certain days like Ice Cream Day, Chocolate Day, things like that. What's the event going to be like when the governor says it's safe to go back to the way things were?
You know, Scott, and again, another great question. I don't know what normal is going to be when restrictions are lifted.
I don't know if people are going to want to congregate or not.
So we're going to have to get a sense of what our customers' expectations are, and plan around that. I can't think of any better if we could just say it's back to normal, back to business as usual, but I don't anticipate that.
We'll talk about it. We'll talk to the customers and get a sense of what they want from us in terms of their ice cream treat, and develop the right kind of programs to fit that.
What message do you have for the community?
Just a huge thank you to the community. I spend a lot of time on the curbs talking to customers and every time I thank them for supporting us, they look at us in the eye and they say thank you for being here.
You know, this is a nice little treat, a nice little welcome relief from all the stresses out there.
I think ice cream is comfort food.
I think anyone that's in this category understands that. So this support from Richmond has just been tremendous. Just a wonderful, wonderful experience for us.
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