Despite a challenging economy, Robin Williams (no relation to the actor) took a leap of faith when opting to launch , Bolingbrook's newest quaint local eatery, in lieu of working for someone else.
Open a little more than a year now, Williams' entrepreneurial venture has hit pay dirt, tapping into a niche market by serving freshly prepared gelato, sorbetto, specialty treats and gourmet foods.
"This idea began forming a few years ago," Williams said. "We were with friends driving down Route 59 when we pulled over for ice cream. The line was out the door. We waited and ended up paying $24 for basic ice cream.
"That next week, our friends came over again and I made ice cream in my Cuisinart. I made shortbread and had fresh strawberries to go with it. They raved about it."
The praise effectively served as the starting point for Williams' journey to entrepreneurship.
In 2007, nurturing an interest in cooking, Williams traversed the country participating in master chef classes in Chicago, Las Vegas and New York City.
In 2008, while working for AT&T, Williams attended a Chicago-based french pastry school.
"I arrived at 6:45 a.m. every day for six months. The class let out at 12:45 p.m. and it worked for me because it was only 10 minutes from my job on Canal Street, where I worked second shift."
Later that year, William’s and his wife engaged in a nine month program sponsored by Living Word Christian Center at the Joseph School of Business in Forest Park.
"After enrolling, the instructors wanted to know what was our business. They had us do a feasibility and marketing study and prepared us to do our business plan. The research I did was for ice cream, which led me to gelato."
Gelato is an Italian word that refers to frozen desert ice cream. It has one-third less calories than ice cream and less air. Gelato isn’t categorized as ice cream because it is technically too low in butterfat.
What became crystal clear, once the duo began strategizing, was that the concept they’d envisioned didn’t exist in Bolingbrook. With that in mind, they scouted a location, acted as general contractors and in March 2010, opened Gelato Forte & Patisserie in the Oaks Plaza at 317 N. Schmidt Rd.
Loyal customer and Bolingbrook resident Vivian Grandberry was so impressed with the quality of their offerings that she suggested Williams hire her son as a chef apprentice.
"My son John is a great cook," Grandberry said. "He will be starting his sophomore year in high school and he already knows he wants to go into the culinary arts. John will be taking his first official culinary arts class in the fall before going into the WILCO culinary arts program in the spring."
Acting on Grandberry’s recommendation, Williams interviewed and hired the student to work as an intern in the kitchen this summer.
"Family and friends have given us so much support working at the store," Williams said. "My wife, Alecia, comes in after she gets off work, our friends Patty and Tony Noble come in, my mother-in-law Lucy Simpson and sister-in-law Sheila also help out. It was time to add another employee."
Adding John Grandberry to the mix was a natural choice.
"He's young you know, so I didn’t think he’d be that serious at first. I was wrong ... John’s really serious. He picks up on things real quick," Williams said. "With alot of young people, which is understandable, they wait for you to tell them what needs to be done. Not John. I’m always multitasking either physically or mentally. It didn’t take long to train him and I notice that when I’m making things he’s right there anticipating my moves. That’s really good."
John Grandberry, who said he's helped his mom around the kitchen since he was 5 years old, said he's enjoyed his time at Gelato Forte. Even more enjoyable, he said, was the artistry involved in making the food.
"The decoration and the different flavors when you add certain ingredients (is neat)," he said. "Just over the summer, I've learned so much, especially about measuring ingredients. In the future, I want to learn how to cook all foods. I can see myself with my own restaurant someday."
Everything at Gelato Forte is made from scratch. In addition to producing frozen desserts, it also makes pastry items such orange and cranberry scones, quiche, assorted cakes, French macaroons and tarts.
For the lunch crowd, the menu boasts fabulous panini sandwiches, gourmet soups, smoothies and beverages. And for health conscious individuals, a variety of homemade sorbetto is offered as a healthy, dairy-free frozen treat that contains no fat or cholesterol.
Williams takes his show on the road each Thursday during the summer to The Promenade's Farmers Market.
There, he sells assorted scones, carmel corn, frosted nuts, cheese corn, three different types of gelato and sorbetto as well as coffee cake with an apple filling and pecan topping.
To entice curious seekers, Williams extends an invitation for individuals to "taste test" flavors until a favorite is found. He believes the best way to eat gelato or sorbetto is by combining two, three, or more flavors to create a personal culinary masterpiece.