His Concord business aims to freeze and please

For more than a century, Marco Casol's family in Italy has been in the gelato business. Now he is working to expand gelato's popularity around this continent.

Casol is the 37-year-old leader of PreGel America, the Concord-based North American headquarters for an Italian company that supplies ingredients for gelato. Gelato is Italian for “frozen” and is a low-fat, low-calorie alternative to its other freezer rival, ice cream.

PreGel's products can be found from the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas to Cafe Mia in Huntersville's Birkdale Village. The company supplies powders, natural flavors, pastes, toppings, and fillings for gelato and other specialty desserts.

The Italian company set up shop in Charlotte in 2002, then moved its North American headquarters to Concord in May. It has about 40 employees.

The company already invested $15 million in that site – which includes distribution, training, marketing and administration – and has told Cabarrus County officials it intends to spend another $12 million to $16 million for expansion. The timing of that work depends on when contracts with certain customers can be completed, Casol said.

PreGel is projecting U.S. sales of $15 million for this year. The company sells to more than 1,000 gelato cafes, hotels, bakeries, coffee shops and other customers and offers extensive training at its Concord headquarters.

While gelato was first introduced to America in the 18th century, and has resurfaced periodically over the years, it remains a relatively untapped market. Casol estimates that there are about 800 or so standalone gelato shops in the United States.

Casol spoke to the Observer last week about the company. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. Why do you think your business will do well in the current economy?

It's very important to be realistic and approach the market with flexibility to overcome difficult times. You will always find opportunities, even in a recession. There will always be people, particularly in bad times, who look for new opportunities.

We are lucky. In business, especially in bad times, people tend to go to very decadent products because they find relief and enjoyment out of that. And fortunately, our product is healthy as well. We talk a lot to our customers and to keep up with how they are doing.

Most tell us their shops are well visited because their customers think it is cheaper to go to an ice cream shop than an amusement park. We want to be a partner with our customers, and we need to understand how they move.

Q. How long did it take your business to get established in this country?

We started with a very small office on East Boulevard. It took a couple of years to get established, and we are still working on it because we are planning to grow. The first two or three years were difficult. But we identified markets by attending seminars and other events. I tried to show the success stories.

And we have a lot of commitment to customer training (for making gelato, marketing, business plans.) Especially in times like this, it's important to teach people to do it right.

Q. What is the biggest challenge facing you now, and how do you deal with it?

The challenge is to have people invest, to set up a gelato store. Fortunately we are able to show them the costs and returns on the investment, and we are not going to urge anyone into anything that's not right. By being honest and good communicators, we are able to communicate the passion and commitment.

A standalone gelato stand, the start-up costs are $150,000 and up. If you have an existing store, you can do it for $30,000. We still have customers opening new stores because it is an up-and-coming market. People want to be pioneers and leaders in their local markets.

Q. How do you develop new flavors, and what are some of the strangest flavors?

We have a very strong research and development team. All they do is work on new flavors, look at trends. Every year they develop a certain number of novelties to help customers. We have a lot of exotic fruit flavors, pomegranates, pink guava and chile chocolate. We also do a rose flavor. A lot of restaurants like that in their desserts. You'll always find a market for any single flavor.

Q. What advice do you have for people considering the gelato business?

There is no bad time or good time. If you believe in what you do and have the right amount of passion and commitment, the customer will react to that. I wouldn't let the economy affect the decision on whether to open a store. If you offer a quality product, and the business plan is good, you'll be successful.