Wes Jones and Jackson Smith grew up as best friends in their north Atlanta neighborhood. At some point, says Jones, “we thought it would be fun to start a business together when we got older.”
Maintaining their friendship through college, they went on to jobs in education, for Jones, and gelato production, for Smith, who had moved to New York City. When Smith would travel home, he’d bring cartons of his delicious craft with him to share with family and friends. Their requests grew, and Smith realized he may have found a product they could turn into a business.
The friends started working on a business plan. They invited another friend, Khatera Ballard, to help them on a brainstorming session, and she joined them in the start-up.
Honeysuckle Gelato launched from a food truck in 2011. The locally produced gelato desserts were an instant hit.
Within the year, the partners knew they needed help working on their business rather than in it. “We had gotten tied down in the day-to-day demands, working just to make the sale or get to the next day,” says Jones. “We needed to take a step back, put a strategic plan in place and follow it.”
Ballard had heard about the resources available at the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, so Ballard reached out to the DeKalb office. She asked for help ensuring the business had systems in place that would lead it to long-term sustainability.
“They were growing so quickly that they were going in many different directions. No one had a defined role. They were all doing whatever was needed to keep things running,” says Sharon Macaluso, area director of the Dekalb office of the UGA SBDC. She asked them to complete an organizational assessment chart to prepare for their strategic planning retreat.
With the assessment as a starting point, Macaluso led them through a strategic plan and helped them discover the areas that needed attention. She shared some of the resources available through the UGA SBDC, including IBISWorld Industry Research Reports and IndustriousCFO, a financial analysis software that provides four-year industry metrics. Jones and Ballard later attended the UGA SBDC’s GrowSmart® program, and Jones met with consultant Andy Fried of the UGA SBDC at Kennesaw State University to develop a financial scorecard and dashboard.
“Until we met with the SBDC, we had not set any goals or deadlines outside of what our customers want,” says Jones. “The SBDC offers the right environment to talk about goals and how we want to look in the next three-to-five years. They’ve helped us take a step back and really think about our growth. They helped us make sure to get results.”
They began to grow Honeysuckle Gelato “intentionally,” says Jones. Smith now oversees everything product-related. Wes manages the business and strategy, and Ballard leads branding and marketing.
They’ve secured several lucrative commercial contracts, including Whole Foods and Delta Airlines. In 2015, they opened their first retail shop at Ponce City Market to wide acclaim. Honeysuckle Gelato products are now available in stores throughout the Southeast.
Sales have grown more than 800 percent since Jones, Smith and Ballard first came to the UGA SBDC in 2012. Employment has grown to 10 full-time staff, with a store manager and production workers, and 15 part-time. In June 2017, they moved production into a building four times larger than their previous facility, with room to expand. They are located near the Atlanta Community Food Bank, to which they donate a generous portion of Honeysuckle Gelato’s profits, in keeping with their values.
“We want to make a tangible impact with our work through the food bank,” says Jones. “We’d always wanted to find a way to give back. Being in the food business, they were a natural t for us.”
Smith, Jones and Ballard continue to work with the SBDC as they expand nationally and internationally.
“Being accountable to someone else is really important. That has allowed us to take the time to be intentional about our business,” says Jones. “Our work with the SBDC has taught us how to make sure we’re asking ourselves the right questions and that we’re positioned to act on everything we put on paper.”