As a concept, it seemed exciting. And doable.
My cousin Al became self-employed by opening a small pizzeria. He built up the business over a few years, sold it, then opened a larger one in another location. He repeated this a few more times. Some of the businesses and properties he sold outright, for the others he took back long-term mortgages. He has made a comfortable living, a fitting reward for the long hours of work he put in.
I have long admired Al for what he accomplished. As I stumbled from one unsatisfactory job to another, I thought about my cousin’s business model. It made sense to me, but I could not imagine being cooped up in a pizzeria for 12 to 14 hours a day. Plus, any establishment that prepares and serves food must deal with extra layers of licensing and insurance requirements, inspections, upkeep, and employee management. I don’t have the patience and ability to handle all that, even with my wife’s help.
I came up with the idea of selling Italian confections, specifically, Italian chocolates and torrone (nougat). I could build up the business, sell it, and open another one, then another one after that, just as Al had done with his pizzerias.
Before long, my wife and I bought a small building close to our home for a low price. The place had been a shoe repair shop for many years, and it had not been cleaned or renovated in all that time. To transform it from a dingy, bleak dive to a bright, appealing candy store took determination, months of haggling with contractors, and not a little money. We tweaked the title of a Lucio Battisti song and named our store Il Dolce Pensiero (The Sweet Thought).
The store’s location – on a major street that connects two municipalities – seemed ideal. At first, some people came in out of curiosity after seeing our displays and Grand Opening signs in the picture windows. Along with the confections, we offered hot coffee and tea, cheesecakes, and gift items. We opened the store a few weeks before Easter, so we raffled off tickets for a huge chocolate egg, like everyone enjoys in Italy.
Still, the sales numbers were poor. I felt discouraged right away, while my wife kept saying that it takes time to build a business. As if on cue, ad salesmen from local newspapers and radio stations began showing up, trying to convince us to spend lots of money for publicity. We tried one or two ads, but we did not see any uptick in business.
What really annoyed me was how many people came in the hope of getting free or nearly-free merchandise. Some would come asking for samples of our chocolates or cheesecakes. Sometimes we complied, but we stopped when those people would return with friends who also wanted samples. One time, a group of firefighters from a nearby station house came by and bought a good quantity of items. They seemed surprised to have to pay full price. None of them ever returned. Another time, a health inspector stopped by unannounced. After a cursory inspection, he selected several boxes of torrone and chocolate. He did not ask for a discount, and we did not offer one; he looked disappointed. We never saw him again, either.
At the six-month mark, I said “no more.” We were not making enough to cover our expenses. My wife wanted to get through Halloween, which is the biggest candy occasion in the U.S. I said “no.” I knew our high-quality Italian confections could not compete with the poorly-made, cheaper supermarket candies that Americans hand out to trick-or-treaters.
Fortunately, the real estate market was still robust at that time. We did not have to wait long to find a buyer for the building, and we even realized a small profit.
Il Dolce Pensiero was one of my biggest failures, and it has been painful to recall that time of my life, not a sweet thought at all. My wife says I hold on to pain too long, that I should not take the experience so hard, that at least I tried to realize a dream.
The only thing I have realized is that I am no businessman.
If the store had been in a more affluent location, it might have done better; but we could not have afforded such a place. Or we might have stocked cheap chocolates and other items at prices more in keeping with the neighborhood, but that’s not the type of store I had envisioned.
I should have figured out all this before buying the shop.
Years have passed and I don’t think about that time too much anymore. But I have not forgiven myself.