Cool Customer

Ice-cold nirvana

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

shy_guy_gelato0819Three years ago, with business partner Tim Elliot, Paul Sansone opened Shy Guy Gelato in Burlington, fulfilling his dream of operating his own business.

Three years ago, almost to the day, Paul Sansone made a bit of a splash in Burlington’s food-lovers market with the opening, with his business partner, Tim Elliot, of Shy Guy Gelato, on St. Paul Street and a gelato cart on Church Street. Since then, things have been looking up for the Jericho native, whose genuine Italian gelato has impressed enthusiasts, who keep coming back for more.

Ann Curran of Burlington, who has traveled often in Italy and “had some wonderful gelatos in a very famous gelateria,” was delighted to discover we have a gelato maker of that caliber in Burlington. “I always look forward to going downtown and stopping by the little cart on Church Street. It’s a wonderful treat; a great, authentic gelato.”

A group of five flavors — a panoply of unique tastes — changes daily, and joins a dark chocolate sorbet that’s always on the menu. “A flavor might be something a customer asked for that day, maybe to bring their kid in for, or maybe just what I feel like making,” Sansone says. “So every day the dark chocolate sorbet, then the other five will rotate between stranger stuff like avocado, honey/tahini, or the more classic (sriracha, hazelnut, pistachio).” The shop serves two or three vegan flavors a day.

shyguy_rebecca_pilgrim0819Shy Guy has six employees, only one of whom, Rebecca Pilgrim, is full time. According to Sansone, Pilgrim operates more like a partner than an assistant and is central to the organization.

Sansone comes by his talent honestly, having grown up in a food-loving Italian-American family in Jericho. His dad, he says, worked for UPS most of his working life, but was a chef at he Ice House Restaurant, “back in the day, before he had kids.” His mother stayed at home raising him and his brother, Nick, but when he was in middle school, she worked as a special education assistant at Richmond Elementary. She now works in the Welcome Center at Shelburne Farms. His grandmother, Jane Milizia, has been Business People–Vermont’s copyeditor for 35 years.

Sansone has worked in kitchens most of his adult life, beginning right after high school. It wasn’t long before he joined some buddies and headed to Jackson, Wyoming, “to be a snowboard bum,” he says. He found, working in restaurants there, that he enjoyed making ice cream, and would play around with flavors both at work and at home.

Sansone was 29 when he left Jackson and returned to Vermont. Tired of working for other people for low pay, he wanted to “leave and mix it up.” He had some savings, sold everything he had, and moved to Italy for a year, working in restaurants, “mostly making fresh pasta,” first in a small town called Casteldimezzo, “up in le Marche region,” he says, “then in Jesi (also in le Marche), and then in Parma.”

Working in Italy was a much better experience than working in the States, he says, “and you couldn’t go into a town without finding a gelateria. I fell in love with gelato!” It was there that he learned the basics of making it. “Once you learn the basic format,” he says, “you can make things up and switch things around, so I learned a lot more here making it myself, that’s for sure.”

After a year, his visa expired and he returned to the States, sleeping at his aunt’s house in New York for a year. “She was nice enough to put me up so I could save up and come back to Vermont. I was pretty broke at that point.” He left New York in 2012 and returned to Vermont.

He took a job at a Burlington restaurant, working in the kitchen for six months, but wasn’t happy with the $11 per hour he was paid. He left and worked at odd jobs for the next couple of years, but hoping to pursue his dream of opening a gelato shop — his own business where he could set the tone.

Sansone knew he needed a business partner, and his brother, Nick, introduced him to Tim Elliot, the co-owner of Zabby & Elf’s Stone Soup. “I needed someone who knew more of the back end,” he says. “I can make gelato, make things taste good, talk to people in the shop all day long, but the bookkeeping and all that? Tim and I hit it off, and I started taking him samples. Finally it clicked, and he said, ‘Let’s sit down and talk.’”

“Paul Started bringing in gelato samples to me,” says Elliot, “and, honestly, I’d heard the word “gelato” before, but I didn’t know the difference between ice cream and gelato when I met him.

“I’m a really busy guy, and it wasn’t until Paul brought me cornflake gelato that something clicked, and I was moved to start going forward.”

Elliot had launched Stone Soup in a “grass roots” way and, he says, he knew how to get that done. They tested the market by hosting an open house every Sunday for friends and family members to come over to Elliot’s small condo on St. Paul Street try samples from his kitchen. “A couple of people helped us out with social media, so we had a really strong social media start,” he says.

“We did that for a year and a half, I think. And that turned into a capital campaign, reaching out to all those people, friends and family, who had been coming for gelato.” They opened the 500-square-foot shop at the corner of St. Paul and Howard streets in July 2016.

At the same time, they introduced the cart to Church Street. The cart is an elegant thing featuring containers with peaked silver covers that was purchased from a company in Italy. It can also be taken to any location for private events.

Elliot says there were qualities about Sansone that impressed him enough to make him comfortable about entering this partnership. “He is, first of all, incredibly talented. His food is really good, and I’ve had other food that he’s made. I just recognized somebody who cares about the details, is willing to put out any effort to make sure it’s done right. He really cares, has a lot of personal pride — I would also call it obsession with quality.

“I really liked spending time with him. He’s a bit of a people magnet, in that people are attracted to him, and there’s so much value in that for a small business.”

One quality Elliot particularly liked was that, over the year or so they worked from Elliot’s house, Sansone always showed up. “He never got sick, never got grumpy about it, so this impressed me, too, to think that this wasn’t a thing that was just going to turn into an unfulfilled dream.”

Sansone does show up. If it’s a busy day, he rises around 5:30 a.m. and goes to the shop to prep for the day. “I’m blending, mixing, cutting fruit, juicing fruit, making sorbets. The production takes from about 6 or 6:30 to noon,” he says. “Then we break down and clean everything, sanitize it, scrub it, then open up at noon.”

Kathleen Horton, public health marketing director for the Department of Health, works downtown and has stopped at the Shy Guy cart for dessert. Except for once in the Italian section of Boston’s North End, she had only had gelato from the supermarket. “Shy Guy’s dangerously delicious,” she says. “I was impressed. Unlike ice cream, it’s so rich, you only need a little, because it’s quite satisfying.”

Sansone places a premium on sourcing local products whenever possible. He buys fruit from the Burlington Farmers’ Market or City Market when it’s in season; when it’s not, it comes mostly from Black River Produce, “or wherever you can find the fruit and make sure it’s ripe,” he says. “Things like chocolate and whatnot, obviously, we order in slightly more bulk size than you would buy around town. Deliveries of cases of dark chocolate, milk chocolate, good cocoa powder, stuff like that, is through Hillcrest.” The milk comes from Monument Farms Dairy.

He has six employees, five of whom are part time. The full-timer, Rebecca Pilgrim, is central to the organization, he says, and operates more like a partner than an assistant.

Of course there were hurdles to leap, Sansone says. “For example, we’re a dairy-based business, so we have to deal with the Department of Agriculture, not the Health Department. They’re way more stringent than the Health Department. Whereas the health inspector comes once every year or two, the Agriculture Department inspector comes every three months and takes a sample pint to test it and make sure everything comes back clean.

“As a very, very small business — everything’s made from scratch — and being in a state with Ben & Jerry’s means we’re locked out of a handful of events because we’re competition. People come to Vermont wanting to have something from Ben & Jerry’s, even though they’re not owned by Vermonters. It’s like going up against Walmart. It’s brutal.”

Weather is its own challenge, he says. “You have a good three to four months to make all the money to support yourself for the year, which is tough.” Still, Sansone is happy doing what he does.

The name Shy Guy came from a “name our business” contest, he says, “and Heidi Conant, the girl who had thought of the contest, came up with the name.” Does the name fit? Who knows? But his favorite activities away from work are fishing and hiking, typically solo endeavors.

“I’m definitely introverted enough,” he confesses, “and I love and greatly cherish my alone time.”

More time for making gelato. •