Close

The imagination machine: Giapo's sweet science

Amid news that Giapo Grazioli is closing his ice cream shop on Auckland's Queen St and moving to Gore St, we're republishing this piece from Damien Venuto on Giapo and the mad world of haute ice cream.

It was an uncharacteristically crisp Auckland evening in late July, one of the few each year when the visual presence of your breath becomes a talking point among friends. Puffing plumes of condensed air, a group of us joined the ever-present queue outside the boutique Giapo ice cream shop on Queen Street, knowing all too well that we were in for quite a wait.

Nothing about this was rational. We were standing in the cold, when there were countless bars to escape to; waiting 20 minutes for an expensive dessert, when there was an empty frozen yoghurt store next door; and enduring all this on one of the coldest nights of the year to eat something even colder. And yet, there wasn’t so much as a whimper of disagreement from anyone in attendance. Like a group of overnight campers outside an Apple Store on the eve of a big launch, we had committed to the queue. We would go the distance, no matter what.

This is not a unique occurrence. The line of irrational humans outside the ice cream store has become so common that owner and head chef Giapo Grazioli employs staff to hand out shortbread and glasses of water just to make sure the experience of time wasting away is as tolerable as possible.

“The queue is symptomatic of the artist being understood,” Grazioli says as we sit down for a chat at his house in Mission Bay.

“To decide to join a queue is quite a big statement of love. Why would you do that to yourself, if you don’t really need it? Especially, when you can buy an ice cream anywhere.”

The cheeky grin on his bespectacled face as he makes this statement betrays the fact that he knows as well as everyone else that he does a little more than just sell ice cream. And the description above the door of the shop – haute ice cream – shows Giapo is anything but vanilla. 

False start

Grazioli’s backstory features the stuff that would make for a great innovator’s mythology. He comes from a small town between Sorrento and Napoli, known for lemons, which are often used in some
of the best sorbet to be found in Italy (one wall
in his house is dedicated to paintings of his homeland, while on another wall sits a photograph of his unique take on the Kiwi classic, Jellytip). When he was a child, a doctor told his mother to give him as much ice cream as he wanted because he was too skinny. And he also has the classic immigrant narrative, having arrived in New Zealand on a whim, without even the slightest semblance of a plan.

But before the conversation gathers any great momentum toward the past, he quickly brings it back to the present.

 “Those memories have nothing to do with what I do,” he says. “This isn’t negative, but there’s no nostalgia in our creative process.”

Grazioli argues that successful businesspeople – across any discipline – generally fall into two categories: “Either you are on the edge of creating something new or you are working to create the emotions or feelings of something that has already happened.”

The one thing you don’t want to be, he says, is noncommittal, straddling both sides of the fence.

“You define what kind of artist you are no matter what you do, and only the ones who stay in the middle are the losers.”

Grazioli doesn’t make this observation only from the position of a privileged business operator. His thoughts are informed by his own early failures.

Nine years ago, when the doors to Giapo were first opened on Queen Street, it was a patisserie, which lasted only three months, leaving Grazioli with a financial nightmare.

“We had about $350,000 of credit card debt, at an interest rate of about 35 percent,” he says. “We had credit cards from everyone. Two from BNZ, two from Westpac, one in my name, one in my wife’s name. Nothing was straightforward about it.”

Unlike other innovators who might valorise the experience of failure as a defining stepping stone, Grazioli doesn’t give it any greater significance.

“Failure wasn’t good,” he says in a moment that’s uncharacteristically subdued. “I wish I was right from the beginning. I wish it never happened.”

After closing that initial store, Grazioli rethought the entire concept of the store and started selling ice cream. And it didn’t take long before the innovation started.

“We came to the realisation that everything anyone else was doing anywhere else wasn’t good for us,” he says. “We decided that ‘new’ was our narrative.”

Breathing alone

Over the years, Grazioli has come to embrace that purpose entirely, pushing the concept of what could be understood as an ice cream as far as possible. Much like the owner of a theatre, Grazioli understands that people don’t queue for the same show time and time again. They do it in the hope of being surprised and entertained. And, also like the owner of a theatre, he keeps the main event behind the curtain until showtime in an effort to increase the excitement.

“He knows that anticipation is everything with indulgent food, and enhances that by hiding the ice cream from view,” says Alice Harbourne, food editor of Metro and the forthcoming Paperboy. “It means you’re forced to engage with another human. You can’t robotically point at the flavour that looks tastiest and run away. There’s an encouraged dialogue that all good salesmen know is key. The art of the open question leads to customer rapport, which leads to loyalty.”

Harbourne compares Grazioli’s innovation in food to that of British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, who, she says, takes familiar ingredients—cornflakes or the humble Yorkshire pudding—and elevates them to something fantastical.

However, while Grazioli isn’t one to shy away from compliments, he doesn’t really see himself operating in the same space as other chefs.

“I don’t look at chefs,” he says. “I have no interest in what they do. And the simple reason is that whatever they’ve done doesn’t work for me.”

Instead, he takes inspiration from “artists, innovators in science, university professors, engineers, architects and designers,” listening to their stories and applying what he learns to his own trade.

“This is really what innovation is,” he says. “The moment you stop breathing where everyone else is breathing, you can innovate.”

This isn’t to say that he’s entirely against the notion of using somebody else’s ideas. On the contrary, he says that this tendency so prolific among chefs is part of the reason why innovation in food moves so quickly.

“Food is such an interesting subject, because it has no copyright,” he says. “So, it’s an area of our society where you see innovation going faster than medicine, faster than science, faster than music, faster than art, faster than photography. I can copy any recipe, and no chef is going to come to me and tell me, ‘that was my idea’. Nobody gives a damn. It’s too wide. And you already know that if you do exactly the same thing, nobody cares.”

The food industry is open-source by default, which in turn invites other contributors to pick up a core idea and build on it, and then make available to someone else to continue the process. Understood in this way, there is no single light bulb moment. Innovation is actually a series of building blocks, with contributors from each new generation adding a layer to what already exists. But for it to work, each generation needs to have the freedom to build.

“What happens in other fields is that somebody might see someone who has put down some blocks, and then they won’t bother, because they’re already a few steps ahead,” Grazioli says. “And then once the first person gets the copyright, he has another 20 years to go at it.”

There is certainly a role for copyright and other forms of intellectual property protection, but, as evidenced by the likes of Google, Tesla (which made all its designs open-source) and, more locally, Air New Zealand, there’s also a growing awareness that the most successful companies are the most innovative and the most innovative companies have an offensive rather than defensive mindset; they back themselves to stay ahead of the pack and believe that when the competition eventually catches on, they’ll already be well and truly onto the next thing.

There can be only one

As offensive as Grazioli is when it comes to innovation, there’s also a very defensive side to his business approach. Over the years, numerous investors have approached him, querying the potential of opening a franchise bearing his name. In fact, it seemed such a likely progression of the business that Dish editor Lisa Morton counts herself among those who expected a new store or franchise to open up years ago.

Grazioli’s rationale for not extending his brand as a franchise or opening a second or third store comes down to not wanting to be a full-time businessman.

 “I don’t want to manage 100 staff that bother me every day because they’re trying to take leave,” he says. “I’m trying to find my balance between the necessity of being a businessman in the sense of not going broke and on the other side the opportunity to keep innovating.”

Grazioli compares innovative businesses to any art form, saying that to continue pushing the bounds and moving forward, the artist needs space to pause and think about where to go.

“This negative part of being busy is that you don’t have the space anymore,” he says. “When that happens the creative process breaks down.”

Already, with things the way they are at the store, he says the only reason he’s able to focus on innovation is because his wife, Petrucci, manages the staff and keeps things ticking.

“She’s 99 percent,” he says. “She’s the mind, the management, the marketing and the business intelligence.”

It’s also worth noting that replicating what Grazioli and Petrucci do is more complicated than opening a store and employing five ice cream scoopers. Although it’s not immediately apparent at the tiny store on Queen Street, Grazioli has a staff of 25 on the payroll. The full Giapo experience doesn’t come cheap (similarly, Ferg Burger in Queenstown, which has only one store, now has hundreds of staff and, through word of mouth, has become a major tourist attraction).

James Hurman, the founder of innovation consultancy Previously Unavailable, isn’t surprised at all by the unwillingness of Grazioli to expand beyond the single store, saying it reminds him of Kiwi entrepreneur Murray Crane, who similarly understands the value of a unique experience.

“People who are fastidious about the experience do tend to be very cautious about expanding their business.” 

Paying to work

While Grazioli isn’t necessarily interested in expanding across New Zealand, he isn’t one to let a cash-flavoured gelato melt in his hands. And he has, in turn, found a somewhat unconventional solution to address the steady stream of people who ask him if they can open a franchise. As an alternative to the franchise, he offers to teach them.

“People can apply and pay to work with us,” he says, chuckling at the absurdity of people paying to work.

“I already have two people doing it, and you have no idea how much this helps us to make the whole shebang sustainable. That is really the latest piece of innovation in our business.”

Asked whether he’s concerned that these trainees might steal his tricks and then become his competition, Grazioli responds in way I’ve come to expect at this stage of the interview: with an analogy about Van Gogh, of course.

He hypothesises a person studying day in and day out to learn all the technicalities of Van Gogh’s style. Every brush stroke eventually becomes second nature, so much so that Grazioli imagines the student becoming technically better at painting like Van Gogh than great artist himself. The point being that no matter how much the student might try, he can’t be Van Gogh. 

Confidence by the scoop

Some might view this as arrogance on the part of Grazioli, but Hurman disagrees.

“Giapo is an imagination machine,” Hurman says. “And because he’s Italian, he’s got a very different type of confidence about him. He believes 100 percent in his ideas and does everything he can to execute them.”

Hurman says Kiwis entrepreneurs shouldn’t judge him with the local sentimentality and could, actually, learn a lot from Grazioli’s ability to follow through on ideas.

He argues that the natural shyness of Kiwis often allows self-doubt to creep in, which ultimately could be to the detriment of what would otherwise be a fantastic idea. Without that passionate commitment, he says, it becomes very difficult for anything to come to fruition.

We’re not talking about curing cancer or stopping humanity’s impending demise here, however. And Grazioli is all too aware of that. But he thrives on it.

“We’re taking the most needless item of food and we’re making it even more needless for the sake of what? It’s because I’m post-modern … I’m taking that thing to a level of needlessness that is unprecedented.”

So far, this self-confidence and almost religious commitment to innovation has served Giapo well, but, even for him, the future is far from certain. He is in the process of moving from his prime Queen Street location to 12 Gore St, which, while still in the CBD, doesn’t have the levels of foot traffic he has enjoyed until now. If anything, this will be another big test of exactly how far his reputation for ice cream innovation can take him. But if he’s concerned, he doesn’t show it.

“We are not finished,” he says. “Most of the time, I don’t even think I’m understood yet. The greatest joy for any artist is to be understood. There is no money they can pay that equates to the feeling of being understood.”

*****

Let the right one in

If you want an innovative company, you need to start with the culture. And Giapo’s wife and business partner Annarosa Petrucci Grazioli is the gatekeeper of that culture. She is in charge of hiring for the company, and she says it can be a challenge to find suitable candidates.

“50 percent of the people who start our training give up,” she says. “Giapo isn’t for everyone.”

Before the training even starts, candidates are given a book to read on the store. Petrucci says if they return having not read the book, then she knows immediately that they’re not suitable for the role.

“The people who really stay with us are the ones who embrace our philosophy. You need to have confidence. You need to love what you do.”

By cultivating this careful selection process, she says the team is able to maintain the culture that’s so integral to the experience of entering the store – and so important to ongoing innovation. 

*****

Giapo's test tube

Grazioli didn’t simply walk into the kitchen one day and start making weird and wonderful post-modern ice creams. He learnt what he refers to as the literature of ice cream at food science school (he graduated from AUT), and then used his core skill – curiosity – to innovate. Here are some of the things he’s already created and some of the things he’s working on with universities. 

1. Better flavours

Not surprisingly, Grazioli has experimented with a whole range of interesting flavours. Among the most interesting, Greek salad ice cream, which was flavoured with cucumber, cheese and olives.

He has also created Hokey pokey and bacon gelato and, on the Mexican tip, smoked chilli chocolate infused with tequila and lime for Halloween.

And for his take on Jelly Tip, Grazioli cooked the raspberry jelly, flavouring it with Pioneer Block 3 Sauvignon Blanc from Saint Clair Family Estate. He then poured the warm jelly mixture into the silicon moulds using a funnel. Not surprisingly, it was only available to those 18 years or older.

2. Better cones

Giapo isn’t just about the ice cream. He’s also given the things they’re generally served on a kick in the pants. Earlier this year, he developed the Kim Kone, a tongue-in-cheek nod to narcissism that allows customers to pose for a selfie with their ice cream. It took more than one year and many different versions to develop a 3D printed mold.

Previously, Grazioli created the aforementioned Jelly Tip cone and an All Blacks cone in the form of a boot (replete with Adidas branding), which took around 6 to 7 months to create.

Most recently, he also launched the Yorkshire pudding cone with the help of a recipe from Yorkshire-born, Auckland based chef Sean Connolly. And he even created some edible miniature roadcones (filled with cherry plum ice cream) for an art show on Karangahape Road.

3. Better spores

We’re pretty accustomed to enjoying mould in foods like blue-vein cheese. And born out of wanting know whether this gastronomic experience could be extended to other foods, Grazioli commissioned four Otago University students to look into the application of the same process in chocolate.

Grazioli has also commissioned research with AUT toward the development of better bacteria for yoghurt, not only because of the taste but also because of the health properties. Thankfully, perhaps, Grazioli hasn’t been tempted to create new products from the bacteria found in belly buttons, toes, nether regions or other bodily crevasses, like some other mad scientists. But don’t be surprised if he does.

4. Better music

There’s a reason you always hear music playing at Giapo. Working with his alma mater, AUT, Grazioli collaborated with researchers from the applied science school for a study and showed that that “people who ate chocolate gelato while listening to their favourite song reported higher levels of positive emotions and sweetness than when listening to their least favourite song.” 

*****

This story first appeared in Idealog 63.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription, an Idealog t-shirt and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).