Ice cream entrepreneurs urge Italians to stay at home

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The founders of Italian ice-cream maker Grom, Guido Martinetti (R) and Federico Grom pose in a field of their farm in Costigliole d'Asti.

Two young entrepreneurs who started an award-winning international ice-cream business from scratch are urging talented Italians not to abandon their recession-hit country.

Friends Guido Martinetti and Federico Grom started their Grom ice-cream company in 2003, when the pair, in their twenties and with little capital, set out to revolutionize Italian gelato despite knowing nothing about it.

Inspired by Italy's gourmet and eco-friendly Slow Food movement, the ice cream was a hit and there are now 58 Grom parlors across France, Italy, Japan and the United States, with booming profits despite the crisis.

"Neither of us knew how to make ice-cream, that was the first problem. Worse than that, we didn't have any money," joked Federico Grom, 39, who confessed that the initial business plan was "not very sound at all".

But Martinetti -- inspired to act by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini's comments that it was no longer possible to find "ice-cream made with excellent ingredients" -- refused to give up on his plan to plug the gap in the market.

He took out a loan of 32,500 euros ($40,860) and, with Grom's savings, they opened their first shop in Turin, the Italian city that is home to the Slow Food movement, which strives to boost local cuisines and respect the environment.

The pair say that despite a sense of resignation and frustration among Italy's young, who have been hit hard by the economic crisis and recession that followed, the answer is not to flee the country but to become innovators.

According to Confimprese Italia business association, around 120,000 Italian youths went abroad in 2008 and 2009, 70 percent of them graduates.

The economic outlook has since worsened, with Italy re-entering recession in 2011 and youth employment reaching a new record high in May.

The country's young must disregard "the myth that everything is easier abroad" and instead seek out the "great opportunities" at home, the pair say.

Martinetti and Grom, committed at first to recreating the traditional nut and chocolate gelatos of the region with pre-industrial methods, began sourcing ingredients such as coffee beans and pistachios from small farmers globally.

Determined to use only fresh seasonal fruit, they bought a 15-hectare (37-acre) farm in the Piedmont region in 2007. They named it "Mura Mura", which means "slowly" in Madagascar, as homage to the Slow Food philosophy.

From dark chocolate to pistachio or liquorice, their ice-creams are made with organic eggs and cocoa and coffee from central America, while fig, mandarin and apple-flavored sorbets are made with Italian mineral water.

"We grow certain fruits so as to be able to control how they are grown and have the best quality ingredients to make excellent sorbets," Martinetti said as he showed off the organic farm in Costigliole d'Asti in the Piedmont hills.

The mixtures are shipped frozen to Grom parlors abroad from the farm and factory outside Turin, and are then churned on location.

Despite the economic crisis, Grom's turnover has jumped from 250,000 euros in 2003 to 30 million euros today, and the company has sold five percent to Italian coffee maker Illy and another five percent to a partner in Japan.

Martinetti and Grom say they hope their success can inspire some of the 36 percent of 15 to 24-year-olds now unemployed in the country to have faith in themselves.

"Italy is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It still offers great opportunities and is rich in talent," Grom said.

"I hope that lots of young people still believe in themselves because they can turn their dreams into reality."

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