The Canadian Press
DaVinci Gelato Originale found themselves suddenly without any sales when the pandemic struck, but thanks to creative thinking and a desire for local products, the company successfully pivoted to sell hand sanitizer and launch an alcohol line.
Their gelato sales to restaurants – which makes up about 70 per cent of their business – disappeared overnight. The rest of their product, sold in retail stores, wasn’t moving either because shoppers were focused on buying essentials.
Yvonne Irnich, CEO and gelatiera at DaVinci Gelato said the beginning of the pandemic was devastating.
“I was shocked. I was devastated,” said Yvonne,.
“I really thought, ‘Oh my God, what is next?’”
Yvonne said for a few days the staff at the St. Albert-based, family-run company sat around twiddling their thumbs wondering what to do.
“We couldn’t do any in-store tastings any more. The (sales) reps couldn’t visit the stores any more, so everything pretty much dropped regarding gelato. But at the same time we had the distillery,” said Yvonne,.
The company had recently moved into selling alcohol, with the launch of their vodka under the name T-Rex Distillery, and realized they could use the equipment to make hand sanitizer. They had planned on launching a line of rum in the fall under the T-Rex brand, but moved the date up because of the COVID-19 slump in sales in gelato.
Sanitizer saves the day
The first move was to make hand sanitizer, said Yvonne, as there was a big shortage across the country. Their family converted their vodka-making equipment up to World Health Organization and Alberta Health Services standards for sanitizer.
Felix Irnich, DaVinci’s chief operating officer, said they felt strongly they needed to help local people stay safe, and the family decided to give the new product a shot to help keep the business afloat as well.
“I felt we could at least try to make it through,” said Felix.
Family and staff worked long days for three weeks to fill more than 80,000 bottles of hand sanitizer for the public. Felix said he called around trying to source bottles for their sanitizer and it was challenging to find anything to put the product in. Eventually, they were able to secure honey bottles and mickey-sized alcohol bottles to move the product.
The company filled every bottle by hand, twisting the caps on and labelling each bottle before packaging and sending them off.
“It was like an ancient assembly line,” said Yvonne.
But once the first batch of bottles shipped, the Irnichs realized the market was saturated with sanitizer and switched gears again.
The family had been planning the launch of a Raptor rum line this fall after the successful launch of their T-Rex vodka and alcohol-infused gelato last year.
“We moved the project forward because now we had time and so we could really focus on this,” said Yvonne.
The distillery hosted tastings with chefs and maître ds to sample the product so they could get it out to restaurants and liquor stores quickly.
Head distiller Johannes Irnich said they sourced as many products as they could locally, including the grain for the vodka.
Johannes learned how to distill alcohol from his grandfather in Germany in the ’80s, and his love of experimenting with alcohol products was born. Now the T-Rex line, named in honour of Alberta’s dinosaur fossils, is using local products and modern technology to produce 1,000 bottles of alcohol per day. Felix said they will soon move to producing 6,000 bottles per day.
Since the launch of the Raptor Rum line, the business grew drastically. Due to the success of the hand sanitizer, rather than have to lay staff off like other businesses did, the six-person company expanded to ten people. The Irnichs were able to keep the new staff on as they launched the rum line.
“It has kind of exploded. It has really taken off because we accidentally nailed a niche. Due to COVID, people are all about local at the moment,” said Felix.
Now that restaurants have opened back up, business is better than ever. Overall, Felix said sales have tripled from their pre-pandemic numbers.
“People were really craving to get on gelato again, restaurants and retail alike, so we saw a huge boost in sales there,” said Felix.
Johannes said it was “awesome” to have alcohol sales take off so quickly.
“Otherwise we wouldn’t be here anymore. With just the gelato, we wouldn’t have made it the rest of the year.”
Felix said the company was able to pivot products quickly because they are a small locally owned shop and have a groundswell of support from the local community.
The family is continuing to brainstorm ways to expand their business and plan on launching a gin and whisky line sometime in the future.
By Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/St. Albert Gazette