If you visited Art Fair in 2004, you might have noticed two kids selling Italian water ice out of a cart on East William Street, in front of College Shoe Repair. In fact, because it was a hot July afternoon and the dessert looked cold and delicious, you might have even bought some Italian water ice from them. If you did, you might have talked to them a bit, learned that they also take their cart to the Farmer’s Market in Lansing, and to music festivals, and wherever else their parents would drive them.
Those two kids were Nick and Mary Lemmer, who grew up spending their summers on the East Coast visiting their great grandparents, Luigi and Maria Iorio, who were Italian-American immigrants. On those hot summer days, their great grandparents would treat them to Italian water ice, which is a non dairy frozen dessert.
When Nick and Mary started to crave Italian water ice year round, their father bought them a cart and an order of inventory. “It was his way of teaching us what the value of a dollar is,” Nick Lemmer explains.
Today, Nick and Mary’s cart has become Iorio’s Gelataria, a storefront location on East William Street, with additional locations in Grand Rapids and Lansing. They opened up the brick and mortar location when they were students at the University of Michigan.
“Summer of my sophomore year, the building we’re currently in became available,” Lemmer explains. “We ended up meeting the architecture professor that led the Italian study abroad. We approached him and he loves gelato, so he designed our store, worked with us, and we’ve had it since.
“It was a little crazy because [in addition to opening Iorio’s], I was working full time with the women’s basketball team and travelling all over the country with them. My roommates at the time always ask me if I even remember that time. I’d come home, I’d have a box of pizza, I’d sit on the couch, and I’d fall asleep with a half-eaten box of pizza on my lap,” he recalls. “It was so busy, but I definitely prioritized the business and my job with the basketball team more than I did my schoolwork.”
After Lemmer graduated, he realized Iorio’s had the potential to be more than just a passion project. “I took five years to graduate because I changed my major in the last semester of my first senior year. That fifth year was actually one of the most valuable because all of my friends from those first four years, they were going off to do banking, engineering, law school, whatever. Whenever I saw those friends, they were like, ugh working sucks. I didn’t want to hate my job like they did.” He’s been at Iorio’s ever since.
Gelato is essentially a richer, denser version of ice cream. “It’s made predominantly with milk instead of heavy whipping cream, so you’ll get a third of the fat,” Lemmer explains. “Second, there’s less air in it, so it’s more dense. The best way to illustrate that is if you had a 4 oz cup of gelato and 4 oz cup of ice cream fully frozen and you melt it down to your liquid form, you get close to 70% of your cup full of gelato, but 50% of it full of ice cream. That’s why some places sell ice cream for so cheap; it’s half air. Lastly, we serve at a little bit warmer temperature than ice cream, so it’s a lot softer and creamier.”
Initially, Iorio’s bought its gelato from a manufacturer. During this time, Lemmer worked on building an authentic brand and customer experience. “We figured out it’s one thing to have a good product, but you have to serve authentically and provide good service,” he says.
Eventually, Iorio’s started manufacturing its own gelato, which it serves at all three storefront locations and distributes to local retailers like Busch’s.
“We actually sublease some space from Zingerman’s down at their complex on Plaza Drive,” Lemmer explains. “After graduate school, I traveled to Italy for two weeks and just learned from people and companies. Then I came back and started our own little process, which has changed dramatically as we’ve grown. Now we have a dairy partner, Country Dairy, in New Era, Michigan, which is about 4 or 5 hours from here. They provide us all our milk, and they mix it for our main gelato mix, and then they send it to our different stores and we flavor it.”
Lemmer believes that success and longevity for a small business in downtown Ann Arbor all comes down to the people. “You sit and talk to someone like Amer [of Amer’s Deli] for twenty minutes and you realize that he’s one of the hardest working people you’ll ever know,” Lemmer says. “He’ll be the first to admit that he’s made a lot of mistakes, but at the end of the day, he just gets it done.
Lemmer acknowledges that owning a small business isn’t always easy, and he speaks highly of his colleagues in downtown Ann Arbor: “The people who understand it and just put their nose down and keep grinding are the people who are going to be successful.”