Success Story: Zirilli’s Chilly Treats by Jackie Aaron

Southwest Florida is known for its warm and balmy days, but on Aug. 23, 2014, Cape Coral felt a cool chill when Zirilli’s Chilly Treats opened its doors for business on Pine Island Road.

Originally from Philadelphia where Italian ice, or “water ice,” is a popular treat, Barbara Zirilli-Lonergan moved to Cape Coral with her husband six years ago, and immediately noticed its absence.  She would often joke with her husband that they should open a water ice store, until one day her husband finally said, “I’m tired of hearing you talk about it.  Are you going to do something about it?”

At about the same time, her father, Chuck, had some extra money to invest after selling the family home in Philadelphia before moving to Southwest Florida with her mom.  Zirilli-Lonergan proposed to him that he invest in a new, water ice shop, and her father gladly agreed. “He was on board 110 percent,” she says, adding that the new business was a way her dad could live vicariously through her.

Then she got to work.  The former prekindergarten teacher was well aware that she needed some sound business fundamentals to get her on her way, so she researched  how to start a business in Cape Coral and discovered the local office of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC).   The daughter-and-father team went to meet with Russ Winstead, the SBDC’s certified business analyst in Cape Coral, in January of 2014.  “We needed the feedback to make sure we were looking at this realistically and that the idea was feasible here,” says Zirilli-Lonergan.

“She was already taking the right steps,” says Winstead — steps like researching manufacturing equipment, pricing and profit margins. He encouraged her to take Goodwill’s MicroEnterprise program, a 12-week program taught in Cape Coral because “it’s like Business 101, like getting a mini-MBA,” says Winstead. The program resulted in the creation of a feasibility plan, similar to a business plan, which the two reviewed together.

Winstead offered her guidance regarding selecting a brick-and-mortar location, what to know about leases and also how to interact with the  city, encouraging her to bring water ice samples to the monthly Business Chat held at the City of Cape Coral Economic Development Office.

When looking at properties to lease, Zirilli-Lonergan ultimately decided on Pine Island Road, a busy road separating the northern and southern parts of the Cape. Winstead is quick to point out that Sam’s Club and Wawa’s are each in the process of building new stores down the road from Zirilli’s Chilly Treats.  “These companies do demographic studies for traffic flows,” he says, indicating that Zirilli’s Chilly Treats chose their new location wisely.

The tropical-themed store now proudly serves high-quality, homemade Italian ice and gelati.  Zirilli-Lonergan painstakingly researched the manufacturing equipment, and customized each Italian ice flavor until it tasted authentic to her Philadelphia, water-ice palate.  Patrons can sample flavors like cherry, mango, strawberry lemonade and chocolate, before choosing a personal favorite.

Zirilli-Longergan is at the store full time, and also has one part-time employee and three high school volunteers.  She hopes to hire additional staff in the summer.  She is already working on wholesale opportunities, and a mobile unit for on-location sales.  “Locals are the foundation [of sales]; snowbirds are the icing,” she says.  Still, she anticipates the business’ busiest months will be from January to March.

But life has been bittersweet for the new business owner and her family.  In September of 2014, just one month after the store’s celebratory opening, Zirilli-Lonergan’s father and business partner, Chuck, took a serious fall, leaving him with severe brain damage.  Three weeks later, her mother received an unexpected diagnosis of stage-four pancreatic cancer and was moved to a local hospital.

“To have your world rocked so difficultly and to still live your dream is significant,” Zirilli-Longergan says. “But I come in here and I’m at peace, and I feel their love.” She shares advice, her business-minded father gave to her before the store opened: ” ‘You’re going to have days when you don’t have people come through the front door.  Look it in the face, and move forward.  Don’t let it hold you back,’ ” he said. “He was relating it [the advice] to the business, but now it seems as though he was relating it [the advice] to life.”

“Russ made sure we were on the right path and doing things in the right order,” she says of Winstead. “His advice was invaluable.  I don’t know if we could’ve gotten where we got without Russ…he is a mentor, friend and counselor.  He stops by [the store] and encourages me.  He’s one of those people who came into my life when I needed him.”

She describes her experience with the SBDC as equally as invaluable. “For anyone looking to open a business, this should be your first stop,” she says. “There are so many complications to opening a new business; going to his [Winstead’s] office can make or break you.  And it’s free.”

Editorial note:  Since the SBDC interview on Dec. 3, 2014, Zirilli-Longergan’s mother passed away on Dec. 18 2014, and her father passed away on Jan. 2, 2015.

Writer:  Jackie Aaron, The Wordsmith Company,  “Putting Your Business into Words”, Ph. (239) 676-9793