How Nigel Langstone got Tesco to love his ice cream

Unimpressed with the cold slop served in British restaurants, Nigel Langstone set out to bring the delights of Italian gelato to Britain.

Nigel Langstone got the idea, but sadly not the energy, for his business while studying in Italy. "I'd sit there and eat a pizza, have some ice cream or drink an espresso and think, this is great pity it will never take off in the UK'." However, while he was subsequently trying his hand at everything from piloting planes to being a private investigator, Italian coffee and pizza took off in Britain in a big way.

In 2004, Langstone was just drawing the curtains on his latest career, as a publican, when he pondered his Italian experience once again. By then Langstone and his girlfriend had had children so he started to think about settling down and "thinking seriously about business".

Italian pizza and coffee were by this time well established in Britain, but Italian ice cream was still a rarity. "The standard of British ice cream is terrible. The stuff in the supermarkets is pumped up with air so that they can sell more volume. And restaurants treat it as a cash cow. They'll serve some slop that cost them 20p and charge £3.90 for the pleasure."

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Langstone managed to convince an "old drinking buddy", Richard Pierce, to help him set up an ice-cream import business and returned to Italy to search for a supplier. Eventually, he found a firm making gelato an Italian variant of ice cream using traditional ingredients and processes. The pair took a sample to a food-buyers show in Birmingham.

"We said to ourselves, if we don't get any orders we'll just drop the whole thing." Fortunately, two wholesale suppliers to restaurants came on board and the new firm, Joe Delucci's, had its first customers.

But progress was slow. "Wholesalers didn't want to take us on because they thought they wouldn't be able to sell to restaurants." So the pair visited restaurants directly. "We got owners to try it and they loved it." While they soon built up a network of 30 customers, "we wanted to be in the wholesale business, not dealing with so many individual clients". To get a big industry player on board they needed to push the brand.

As an experiment the pair opened up a kiosk in a shopping centre in Leamington Spa. "It was the first time we dealt directly with consumers and they absolutely loved it." The success of that first kiosk encouraged and funded another 20 in shopping centres around the country. That network also made it easier to persuade wholesalers. "We could point to the kiosks and show them that people loved the product."

With the kiosk and wholesale business going well, the pair decided to approach the supermarkets in late 2012. "We left it that long because we wanted to go to the supermarkets from a position of strength. We've seen other ice-cream firms get taken out by aggressive pricing strategies from competitors with deeper pockets."

Tesco agreed to trial their gelato product in 120 of its most affluent stores. It was then rolled out to a further 100 shops. A deal with an Irish supermarket quickly followed.

Langstone, now 47, is confident that Joe Delucci's will have more longevity than other brands that pop up only to fail soon afterwards. "We have a great product and a strong business model." Last year's sales of £3.7m have dispelled any lingering doubts Langstone may have harboured from his student days about the popularity of Italian food.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.