Quietly and step by step, Coppa di Gelato has been churning up the gelato business, one scoop at a time
Photo (from left): Jeff, Viviane, Matt and James Swann
THE MAP OF this province is dotted with ice cream companies, many of which claim rich histories first as beloved local treats before becoming recognizable provincial brands. Think Shaw’s Ice Cream. Think Chapman’s. Think Kawartha Dairy.
Matt Swann wants you to add another name to that list: Coppa di Gelato, a family-run gelato company that has quietly grown from a small café in London slinging gelato, sandwiches and coffee into one of the largest manufacturers of gelato (Italian for “ice cream”) in the country.
“For people who live in London, they might remember it, they might not,” says Swann of Coppa di Gelato’s original café at Commissioners and Wonderland roads.
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Swann, the company CEO and son of founders Jeff and Viviane Swann, says the café first opened in early 2004 as a small food service business — coffee, soups, paninis and, of course, gelato — and was modelled on the neighbourhood cafés his mother grew up with as a Lebanese immigrant in Italy. “It was something the area didn’t have,” Swann says. “So, she decided to open one of those here.”
In its own right, the café business was doing just fine, at one point expanding to multiple locations in London. But the restaurant business was also wearing on the owners, who “got a little bit tired of running around on a Sunday morning looking for lettuce,” says Swann.
Photo: Coppa di Gelato founders Jeff and Viviane Swann
It was around this time, in the late 2000s, that gelato was starting to gain traction in the North American market, and Coppa was starting to get requests for wholesale orders.
“We said to ourselves, ‘You know what? Let’s drop the retail and open up the wholesale,’” Swann recalls.
The story from there is one of consistent growth and expansion. The family moved its production to Komoka, and then later to Strathroy, each time expanding its footprint to increase production. By 2012, they were a licensed dairy producer with a 4,000-square-foot production facility. Five years after that, they moved to an even bigger space on Swiftsure Court in east London — a 15,000-square-foot (and still-expanding) manufacturing plant they call home today.
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The key driver of growth has been the grocery sector, Swann explains, and a big part of that happened when a certain farm-themed grocery chain came to town and tapped Coppa to produce their private label gelato.
“That was our first little dip into saying, ‘We can use our facility to do other things,’” says Swann, referring to augmenting their own line with a move into private-label production.
Steadily, their reach expanded as relationships with grocery partners grew. You can now get Coppa as far north as Sudbury, in grocery stores across the province and in select locations outside of the province, too.
Indeed, Coppa has quietly become a major player in ice cream production in Ontario. Swann says they are likely the “largest, or second largest, buyer of Ontario-grown raspberries” outside of the grocery chains themselves — all for their raspberry gelato alone. (Buying local as much as possible is something Swann says the family won’t waver from. “We want the money to stay [local], no matter what we’re doing,” he says.)
Whatever they’re doing, it’s created a lot of momentum — and additional major retailers and wholesalers have come knocking, looking to stock Coppa di Gelato product. That’s kicked off yet another round of growth, with new equipment and new tooling underway at the Swiftsure Court plant.
“We had to gear up,” Swann says, “to service the growth we’ve experienced in recent years and the opportunities ahead of us.”
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Swan says the latest expansion will increase their production capacity to about eight times its current level. The business has also expanded with a line of dairy-free sorbet as part of the product mix, with seven flavours.
Another change for the business falls squarely in the promotional category. They’ve started talking more about themselves. You might not have heard of Coppa di Gelato before, even if you live in London, and Swann says that makes sense: they were always quiet about their self-promotion — not quite reluctant to tell their story, but happy to let their product do the talking.
But as they’ve grown, they feel they have a better story to tell now — one of family values and a family company that blossomed from café to manufacturer. “My parents still work here every day, my brother has now joined in, and we, along with 25 other amazing individuals, put smiles in cups every single day,” Swann says.
Their ambitions are significant: to go from regional producer to a brand that’s synonymous with a certain product in a certain area. When you think of Kawartha Dairy, you think ice cream in cottage country. When you think of Shaw’s, you think of ice cream on the drive to or from Port Stanley. But when you think gelato, maybe you still think about Italy. Coppa wants to change that.
“It’s ice cream, a different way. A foreign product, but we’re not foreign. That market, that ability to be synonymous with gelato, is possible – because that’s a part of your brain that has not been filled,” reasons Swann.