Before opening Caffe Gelato in 2000, Ryan German’s restaurant experience was limited to a summer bussing tables when he was 13.
He still busses tables – and hosts, and takes orders and refills drinks and delivers food and scoops gelato. Only this time, he’s the boss and it’s his restaurant, the one he’s owned since he was 22.
Caffe Gelato was built around gelato, an Italian ice cream. Like the gelato that’s been made in Italy for more than 300 years, Ryan makes his from scratch with all-natural ingredients. It’s different from our regular ice cream because it’s denser, not as solidly frozen and has less butterfat.
It tastes better and it’s not as bad for you, Ryan says, though he hesitates to advertise it as a low-fat alternative to traditional ice cream.
“It tastes too good to push as low-fat,” he says.
Ryan first discovered the creamy confection in Spain, when he was 17. After graduating from Newark High School, he spent the summer in Toledo, Spain as part of a high school exchange program.
Then, during the spring of his sophomore year Ryan returned to Spain through a University of Delaware study abroad program and realized that gelato could be the center of a business.
“Gelato is the product that most of the world sees,” he says. “It’s a product you see being produced in South America, Europe and Australia.”
Gelato wasn’t yet popular in America, and Ryan the businessman saw a niche to be filled.
Basing a restaurant on dessert is not a new idea – just look at the Cheesecake Factory. Ryan decided that if cheesecake could carry a restaurant, gelato could, too.
So he began planning a restaurant in a college town that wouldn’t target college kids, one that would serves Italian food, but not spaghetti and meatballs.
When Caffe Gelato opened, Ryan was a month away from his degree in business administration.
Even so, it was not his first business. He’d owned a vegetable stand and a painting business with his two younger brothers before. But this was his first restaurant.
“I just looked at it from the business side,” Ryan says. “A restaurant is similar to any other service business. You just have to continuously get better and do a nice job everyday.”
Ryan admits it was hard at times because he didn’t know all the dynamics of working in a restaurant.
“Some things you just don’t know until you get started,” he says.
But he worked through what he didn’t know. Now, they make more than 50 flavors of gelato, though only 24 are on display at a time. Their Mediterranean and Northern Italian menu has specials that change daily.
And it all started with a 17-year-old having dessert in Spain.
Q: Last summer you were voted as one of Cosmopolitan magazines bachelor hunks. Who sent your picture in for that?
A: I still have no idea how they got my picture. When I went up to the photo shoot it seemed like everyone from the other states had agents in New York who said “He’s from Minnesota, let’s use him.” I guess they found me on the Caffe Gelato Web site.
Q: Did being voted a Cosmo hunk to anything to help business?
A: Only slightly for that immediate time afterward. And it wasn’t even so much from the magazine, though there were some girls coming over from the dorms and asking me to sign their Cosmo. I think most of the spike in business came from when all of the guys who were voted to the magazine went on “Good Morning America.” I served gelato to Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, and 9 million people watch that every day and saw that. The biggest jump in business was the two weeks after “Good Morning America.”
Q: You discovered gelato in Spain. Did you discover anything else there?
A: I learned to play rugby when I was in Toledo after high school. I played for four years for the University of Delaware, and I play now with the Wilmington Men’s Club.
Q: Any good injury stories?
A: I broke my fifth metacarpal, in my hand, it’s a hand bone. I had to have surgery and have it pinned back together. That was just last spring. That and separated shoulders, but that goes with the sport.
Q: So what do you do when you’re not at the restaurant?
A: I’m training for a triathlon with my wife Shannon. She’s going to Chicago to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I go on long bike rides with her, and swim at the Y, run at night. I can’t go to Chicago because it’s a busy weekend, but in two weeks we’re going to do a sprint distance triathlon in New Jersey.
Q: How long have you been training?
A: Definitely since I broke my hand, so since the spring. I had to stop playing rugby for a while, so I started to do the low-impact.
Q: If you could only eat one flavor of gelato for the rest of your life what would it be?
A: I think pistachio. It’s pretty good for you, natural. You could almost use it as a meal replacement if you’re on the go.
Q: What’s been the hardest part of owning your own restaurant?
A: Not that I mind it, but the barrier that most people wouldn’t like about the restaurant business is the time commitment. There are a lot of hours that you have to work. If you want to work a 40- or 50-hour week, I don’t think that small business is really your thing.
By KELLY HOUSEN
Originally published July 20, 2005, at http://www.delawareonline.com/
©2005 delawareonline.com / The News Journal
Reprinted by permission