When Gelato Messina first opened its doors in Darlinghurst in 2002, they did so all in the name of putting smiles on faces. Almost two decades on, and they’re still just as obsessed with making the best gelato they can. Having churned out over 5000 unique flavours, it’s no wonder they’ve amassed such a cult following. Messina’s obsession with quality is no marketing spin — every ingredient is meticulously sourced, while the cornerstone of every gelato, the milk, comes directly from their dairy farm in Numurkah, Victoria where they produce the “highest quality Jersey milk we’ve ever come across”. Incu shares a long history with Messina, so we recently caught up with our old mates to talk about where it all began, the philosophy behind their famous weekly specials and all things gelato.
Tell us a little about each founder. Your background and why gelato?
Nick Palumbo founded Gelato Messina in 2002, setting up our original store in Darlinghurst, Sydney. He’s the innovative pioneer behind our gelato and gelato cakes and has spent the majority of his life working in the food industry. Starting his journey at the age of eight, Nick was taken to Patisserie Irerra in Messina, Sicily by his Grandfather (hence the brand name) where his lifelong obsession with food began. Since starting Gelato Messina, he has obsessed over every aspect of the brand — from the product, to the packaging, to the architecture and design of every store.
Donato Toce earned his stripes in the kitchens of Melbourne before heading to Sydney in 2007 to work as Head Chef at hatted restaurant A Tavola in Darlinghurst, Sydney directly opposite the first Messina store. Donato would cross the road after close each night to enjoy Messina’s evolving creations and it wasn’t long before Nick & Donato became friends and started collaborating on new ideas, even before Donato joined the business in 2008. Donato quickly established himself as the chief creative chef at Messina, where his approach to food has made him the man behind our weird and wonderful specials that Messina is now famed for.
Declan Lee has certainly forged a unique career path in life — from physiotherapist to professional DJ’ing, to running some of Australia’s biggest music festivals, Declan put his stamp on the store ‘vibes’ with his much-requested music play-lists. As an early adopter of social media, Declan took Messina to new heights with a sense of humour, clever brand collaborations and next level co-creations. He now heads up Branding & Marketing at Messina and our mind-bending food festival concepts.
Danny Palumbo has always had a gift and a way with people and because of this, Messina has a service culture that is second to none. Joining his brother Nick in 2006, Danny has been instrumental in creating and building the culture in our stores where people want to work for Messina and don’t treat it as just another job! He’s also a carpenter by trade and designs and builds elements in our stores. Danny is Head of Operations and has managed the growth in the business and the inevitable challenges that come with expansion. Passionate about service and efficiency, Danny’s insights have been crucial in Messina’s success and our number of happy customers.
How and why did Messina start?
Messina started in 2002, when our first store opened in Darlinghurst. Nick had moved from Adelaide to Sydney and noticed a gap in the gelato market. Having spent time in Sicily with his family and learning how real gelato was made, he developed a passion to bring authentic Italian gelato to Sydney. From then it evolved as each partner joined, turning into a business that is obsessed with produce, quality and design in every aspect of its makeup.
Can you tell us about the philosophy behind the specials each week?
The specials bank is up to over 5000 original flavours. Donato started churning them out when he came onboard and customers quickly caught on. We have die-hard fans that beg us to bring flavours back and bulk buy when they can… flavours they can’t live without. Our weekly specials have become synonymous with the brand, creating weekly intrigue and delighting customers.
We're kind of like a gelato think tank.
Messina prides itself on honesty - can you tell us how this has come to light in your stores and in the gelato?
We’re very transparent. We like to keep our customers informed about where our produce comes from, how we run production and how our staff are trained and treated. From our mounded gelato cabinets and churners viewing window, to our open-ended free tastings and friendly staff who’ll always give an honest opinion, we want customers to see how their gelato is being made, and by who. Our production facility in Rosebery is not hidden behind walls - customers can see into the kitchens to see our chefs at work, whilst they choose their favourite scoop.
What is the creative process behind each flavour or new creation? What is the start to finish process?
Inspiration can come from anywhere or anyone. Donato is definitely the master keeper of this treasure trove, but lots of people contribute to our specials bank. It could be something delicious that one of us has eaten, an internal joke, a notorious line from a movie or something that a customer has suggested, but Donato finds a way to make it into a delicious and original flavour, that thousands of people flock to.
How important is innovation to the business, and how has this changed over the years?
Innovation is everything to us. It’s really what’s driven Messina forward. It’s not about keeping up to date, it’s about staying ahead of the game, pushing boundaries, creating the unexpected, the weird, the wonderful. Every department in our business is pushed to do better, think smarter and be more creative on a daily basis. We’re kind of like a gelato think tank.
Messina now owns a few farms producing the raw ingredients. How did this come about and why?
Ever since the very beginning, we have been obsessed with making the best gelato we can, using the highest quality ingredients we can get our hands on. As we've grown in store numbers — from our single site in Darlinghurst — to where we are now, we have maintained our ethos and in some way, are now able to get even better produce, due to the volumes we need. We work with a handful of amazing suppliers for everything from our pistachios, which come from Bronte in Italy to our mangos from Erskine Park in QLD. And it got us thinking, could we produce anything ourselves?
Tell us a little bit about your Dairy farm and why you chose to start it?
We started with a Dairy farm in Numurkah, Victoria a few years ago and now we have a herd of 450+ Jersey cows who are all milked once a day and grass fed on natural lucerne, clover and grass. Milk is the foundation of gelato, it was a no-brainer to start with a dairy farm and create the highest quality Jersey milk we’ve ever come across. Super high in cream content and full of flavour, we have complete control over our supply.
Ever since the very beginning, we have been obsessed with making the best gelato we can, using the highest quality ingredients we can get our hands on.
Messina also makes everything in house, including the pastries we see in each special flavour, how important is quality to the Messina brand?
We’ve always made every addition that goes into our gelato — something a lot of people still don’t know about us! We have a team of pastry chefs working from our Rosebery factory every day, who create and bake all the delicious chunky bits in our gelato. We are obsessive about the ingredients we use and where they come from, and even more obsessive about the recipes we make. Quality is everything, at every stage of the process.
Messina has collaborated with some amazing brands in the past. What would be your dream collaboration?
VANS would be pretty cool. We’re all sneaker addicts. It’s part of the unofficial Messina office uniform. VANS have done a heap of enviable collabs, we love their brand and we love to wear them. Our wallpaper would look pretty good on a pair…
Music is a big part of the overall Messina experience. What are some of the all-time favourite playlists? What is usually heavily on rotation? Favourite artist?
This is Declan’s area of expertise. Since coming onboard he’s been curating deep house mixes for all of our stores, leading to some customers referring to our sites as a “gelato nightclub”. We’ve just relaunched Messina Music, where you can view our monthly mixes on Soundcloud, curated by Dec’s DJ mates from days gone by.
COVID-19 has impacted the way we live, eat, shop, and think. What’s something you hope people can learn from this change in habit?
It’s brought to the public eye, how small the profit margins are for the hospitality industry and small businesses. Hopefully people will understand how volatile these industries are and have a better understanding of what support means to small businesses. Whether it’s turning up to a reservation and not cancelling at the last minute, not making complaints over petty gripes just to get a free pass or continuing to show loyalty to brands you love… there are many ways to support local businesses.
From each founder, which is your favourite flavour?
DECLAN: Pandan and Coconut (or anything with cheesecake in it)
DONATO: Fat Clemenza
DANNY: Danny Two Times
Both personally and professionally, what has been the most important lesson you’ve learned through your career?
DECLAN: Patience and understanding when it comes to people (everyone has a talent and no one is good at everything). Honesty and truthfulness when it comes to building a successful business.
NICK: Patience and run your business assuming you will be handing it over to your grandchildren.
DONATO: You achieve more being calm and considering your answers.
DANNY: Don’t try to understand for everybody, you’ll never win. Do what you feel is right and move on.
If you could have a conversation with yourself 10 years ago, what advice would you like to give?
DECLAN: Be more calculated in taking risks and learn how to say no to opportunities.
NICK: Stay the course and continue to do what you think is right for your brand even though there is little to no pay off in the short term.
DONATO: CALM THE FUCK DOWN, YOU ARE COOKING NOT SAVING LIVES!!!
DANNY: Think before you react.
You’ve managed to turn gelato into an experience. What’s the secret to your success?
We’ve always treated our customer offering as an experience, not just a product. We don’t compromise on quality and are always looking for ways to do better, create the unexpected and do what no one else has done, whilst allowing our customers to be a part of the process.