When Jon Snyder sold his New York-based gelato company Ciao Bella in 1989, he was asked to sign a five-year noncompete clause. In the years that followed, he told anyone who would listen that he gladly would have signed himself out of the category for life. "I was done with gelato," he says. "Ready to move on. I never thought I'd come back."
So what's he doing with Il Laboratorio del Gelato, a 10-year-old company making a similar product? "Things change," he says. "I know that now."
What changed most of all was Snyder. He founded Ciao Bella as a 19-year-old after rustling up $25,000 from family and friends. The company struggled, but it became a point of pride for him to keep it going. That was admirable, perhaps, but it meant that by the time he started to turn a profit and had placed product in prestigious New York restaurants such as The Russian Tea Room, the ‘21' Club and The River Café, he didn't want to look at another carton of gelato.
He'd been working seven days a week for more than five years. He longed to finish school, see the world, experience corporate life. "I was too young to understand the potential of what I had," he says. A $125,000 offer in the company's sixth year sounded too good to turn away. "At that point, Ciao Bella either needed me to be invigorated somehow, or [for] someone else to come in and take it to the next level," Snyder says.
The new owner did just that, expanding into national distribution. From Wall Street, where he worked for Lehman Brothers for five years and then for another firm, Snyder cheered him on, taking pride in his old company's success. He worked, traveled, grew bored, decided to start something new. And somewhere along the way, he realized he was glad the noncompete had expired.
"Having tasted ice cream around the world, I thought I could do something even better this time around," he says. Truth be told, he also liked the idea of revisiting his early success. "Ciao Bella had become so big and had such a presence," he says. "The idea of competing with my old company was an interesting and cool spin on it for me."
In late 2002, Snyder started Il Laboratorio del Gelato, another wholesale company. Like Ciao Bella, he was again operating out of downtown Manhattan, which had renewed resonance in the wake of 9/11: "My small contribution," he calls it. But while Ciao Bella never had anything more than a rudimentary retail shop, which lasted for only a matter of months, Il Laboratorio had enough financing to get prime space in a high-traffic location.
While Snyder hadn't thought of hiring a PR firm the first time around, with Il Laboratorio it was one of the first moves he made. Almost immediately, style writer Alex Witchel penned a love letter to the brand in The New York Times. "That just mushroomed into every kind of press you can imagine," Snyder says.
Last year, he moved the company from its 500-square-foot space into one more than six times the size. Now he has a cafe with 48 flavors on display, as well as a booming wholesale business.
This time, if someone makes him an offer he can't refuse, he'll think twice about slamming the door shut. "If I ever get to the point where I'd want to sell, I'd think in my mind that I never want to do this again," he says. "But I realize now that things come around. I'd never actually tell anyone ‘never.'"