Wes Jones is an alumnus of the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business and Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson Graduate School of Business. After receiving his undergraduate degree in business administration, Wes began teaching in New Orleans, La., as part of the Teach For America program. Following his time as a teacher, Wes worked in commercial real estate with CB Richard Ellis’s corporate services division while earning his MBA.
In 2011, Wes co-founded Honeysuckle Gelato in Atlanta, Ga. As CEO of Honeysuckle Gelato, Wes manages the company’s day-to-day operations with a focus on marketing, strategic planning, retail expansion, business development and overall growth.
Honeysuckle Gelato is a manufacturer and wholesaler of gelato and sorbet. As a wholesaler, Honeysuckle Gelato supplies caterers, restaurants, specialty food stores, big box retailers and select Delta Air Lines flights. In 2015, Honeysuckle Gelato opened its first retail location at Ponce City Market in Atlanta, Ga. and is currently exploring opportunities in Savannah, Ga., Charlotte, NC and Nashville, TN to open additional retail locations.
In addition to an impressive customer list, Honeysuckle Gelato boasts a number of product and business awards, including DailyCandy’s national “Start Small, Go Big” contest, a Southern Living Food Award and was runner-up for Garden & Gun magazine’s “Made in the South” food award.
Wes serves on the United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia Board of Directors and, along with his brother, Bryan, is co-chair for the Culbreth Cup Golf Tournament. The tournament is hosted in memory of their grandparents, Roy and Floy Culbreth, and raises awareness and funds for UCP of Georgia.
Wes and his wife, Caitlin, were married in October 2013, and reside in Atlanta, Ga. Caitlin is very active in the community and is director of communications at Pace Academy.
Shantel: Hi, Wes. Welcome to the Imagine More podcast.
Wes: Hey, Shantel. Thanks for having me.
Shantel: Of course. We're excited to learn more about Honeysuckle Gelato, and I'm sure you'll leave us all very hungry.
Wes: I hope so. That's what I want.
Shantel: Well, let's kick things off, and I would love if you could tell the listeners a little bit more about Honeysuckle Gelato, and then we can dive into how you got started.
Wes: Sure. Yeah, I mean just briefly about our business, kind of little look is we are a gelato manufacturer and supplier here in Atlanta, Georgia, so we sell to restaurants and stores. Our restaurant business is mainly here in the Atlanta area and we sell to stores in a few different states throughout the Southeast, and we operate, right now, one retail location over a Ponce City Market, and we hope to open more retail in the next few years.
Shantel: That's exciting. I can't wait to hear about possible locations.
Shantel: Let's dive even a little deeper, and you, as a kid, if you just always loved gelato ... Is this your first entrepreneurial business?
| FRIENDS TO BUSINESS PARTNERS |
Wes: Sure. I mean I think every kid loves ice cream. As a child, I had no idea what gelato was, and the opportunity to start an ice cream business or a gelato business really revolves around the experience that one of my business partners had in New York. He moved up there, at this point, probably nine years ago. He didn't really tell us why he was moving there, but we all knew. It was to chase down his high school sweetheart, and I'm happy to say that they are married with their third child on the way, so that gamble paid off for him big time. When he moved up there, he found a job making gelato and just loved it. He's always been a really hands-on guy, really creative guy, so this allowed him to do something that he thought would probably be pretty short-term, but use his hands and have fun and make a little money while he was looking for something a little more long-term, and then he just fell in love with it. I visited a few times while he was living there and loved what he was making, and every time he came home he bought a tabletop gelato machine and would make stuff in his parents' kitchen, so we ended up spending a lot of time just sitting around his house eating gelato and picked up another friend along the way before we started the business to make for the three business partners. We just saw an opportunity in Atlanta to do something that, at least for Atlanta, was different and fun and just a product that we hoped people would love. So while I loved ice cream as a kid, I certainly never envisioned getting into this business and this is my first entrepreneurial venture, so really everything was brand new to me when we started and it's still. There's practically not a day that goes by where I don't experience something different or have to figure something out that we haven't been exposed to before, so that's mostly fun. Can be a little daunting at times when you run across stuff where you don't have the answer, but keeps us on our toes and we've been having fun doing this for almost seven years now, which is really pretty crazy to think about.
Shantel: Wow. That is amazing. I think there's some crazy stat, and I'll be making it up if I try to ramble it, but most businesses don't get over that one to three-year mark, so that's huge testament.
Wes: Yeah. We almost didn't either, but we did, and we're so happy that we did because I've got two great business partners that were friends before, which can be risky to start a business with friends, but it's really, really paid off and makes it that much more rewarding to be able to share this with people that I really care about.
Shantel: Absolutely. So did you graduate and that's when you just started this, or did you have something before, more in the corporate space?
Wes: No. Yeah, I had a couple different jobs before this. Right after undergrad I moved to New Orleans and did Teach For America there, so did the Teach For America program, after that moved back to Atlanta, worked at a school doing development work, but ended up starting business school a short time after that, and when I started business school, I did the night program at Georgia State and had a corporate job in commercial real estate at that point, so I transitioned from ... It's been a weird transition. Schools to commercial real estate and business school and stayed in commercial real estate for a few years and ended up quitting that job to start Honeysuckle Gelato.
Shantel: Okay, and as the CEO ... I mean do a lot of the things that you were doing in previous jobs apply to your role now, I guess, and how have you and the two other business partners divvied up the responsibilities?
| PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS |
Wes: Sure. I mean there's some overlap, especially at this point as we're looking for more retail sites. I didn't do a ton of retail work when I was in commercial real estate, but certainly have some good experience to fall back on when it comes to looking at contracts and evaluating sites and everything like that, but I think I was designated with the role of CEO because of the three of us, I was the one with business experience. I had an MBA. Jackson, who is my friend from growing, whose experience in New York I talked about a minute ago, his natural role was to oversee production because he was the only one of the three of us that had any idea how to make the product. We would have been in big trouble if they put that on my plate. Then Khatera has been great on the sales and marketing and social media side. So we still wear a lot of hats. I mean there are things that we all do that we would like to get off of our plates but that we still do because we're a small business, but we have designated roles that do play at our strengths.
Shantel: Okay. I know that you have the one retail store or location. Is that where any other teammates or employees work or is there a remote team that helps with that production side, and how big is the team?
Wes: Sure. So we have five full-time people doing production in the kitchen, and then me and my two business partners. So any given day at our production space and office there are at least eight of us. We have a part-time kitchen production employee too, and then at the retail shop we have a full-time manager that really oversees just about everything that's happening over at Ponce City Market. We like to stay up-to-date with things, and we go over there and pop our heads in a lot just because it's a great environment to be in, but she oversees the staff of about 15 or so part-time employees, and we've got a great group of kids, mainly college students that are looking for some cash to help pay the bills while they're in school, but we love everybody on that team and the team grows a little bit in the summertime. We get a couple more people just to help with added volume, but it's pretty steady with 15 or so folks over there.
Shantel: Okay. Can you tell us a little bit about the possible new locations or where you're hoping to break into the market?
Wes: Sure. I mean I can generally speak to that right now. Some of the specifics I'd rather keep a secret until we finalize some things, but we do want to expand our brand to be much more visible outside of just the Atlanta area. So we are looking at a few different neighborhoods in Atlanta for the possibility of adding a second retail shop. I don't know when that will be. We don't have anything concrete. We're having some loose discussions at this point, but we are talking to landlords in Nashville, landlords in Charlotte, and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill research triangle area. We're actually going to Savannah tomorrow to look at some sites. My plan is for the next round of stores to be potentially one or two in the Metro area, maybe not necessarily inside the city limits for one of them, and then to open one or two in Nashville, one in Charlotte, and then one or two in Savannah, and then expand beyond that three-and-a-half hour arc to places like the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area and we even are loosely keeping an eye on Charleston, even though that's a tough market to get into. It is super expensive but would, I think, be great for us long-term.
Shantel: Absolutely. That's, I mean, such exciting cities. Is this in the one-year plan, in the three-year plan? How quickly do you think?
Wes: Three years. Three years we'd like to ... Our goal is to have eight stores open by the end of 2020. So we'd like to open one or two this year, one or two next year, and then three or four in 2020.
Shantel: Well, that's very exciting. I mean do you anticipate having to bring on a more management team I suppose to help launch those locations, or are the three of you really going to take ownership on kicking those off?
Wes: Sure. I think to start, I think we can handle the first couple on our own, but we're going to need help at some point. Like I said, we're still doing jobs and tasks that we'd like to get off of our plates. So the more we add to our plate, the harder really getting anything done is going to be. So long-term we certainly see the need for some sort of regional retail manager to help coordinate .... It's a lot of logistical issues that are going to pop up because we will continue to do all of our production here in Atlanta, so there are going to be a lot of problems to solve, good problems to solve as we open more stores that we will start looking for great team members in the next 18 months or so to help us really facilitate that.
Shantel: Yeah. Certainly, as a business owner, I continue to find that there's just so many hats, and you find yourself in like, "Oh, this is not my strength at all, but I have got to do it and figure it out and lend a hand here. I just recently got connected with a great company called BELAY. Have you heard of BELAY?
Wes: I have not. I'm not familiar.
Shantel: They offer virtual assistance, and they have a lot of great differentiators that just the list of things that they could do, I never even thought that that could help solve a problem of not having a full-time teammate, but just to have off-load some of those things that we still have to do, but speaking of things that you're excited to get off your plate, is there anything really top-of-mind that you just can't wait?
Wes: Oh, man. I mean there are a number of different paperwork-related tasks that I would love to get rid of. I mean honestly still stuff that's as simple as just delivering stuff over to Ponce City Market from time to time. I feel like I'm taking stuff over there every week still, which is great. It gives me an opportunity to be over there, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not something that I particularly want to be doing, loading up my car with coolers and dry ice and getting stuff over there when there's an emergency. So that would be one thing that I think would save a lot of time, and then just I mean there are just so many different paperwork issues that if we had more money and more team members, I would have offloaded already, but we're a small business so we don't. We don't, yeah..
Shantel: I can't even imagine that in a food and beverage and the permitting, but just the annual registrations and the renewals, navigating those websites are horrible. Yeah.
Wes: Yeah. That's not fun. It's not fun. We do have some help. We've hired some people to help us with some of that. Our accountants are great, and bookkeepers are great with some of that end-of-the-year, beginning-of-the-year stuff that we were doing for a while and just really didn't have the bandwidth for. So some of that is offloaded, but not nearly all of it.
Shantel: Well that's good to know. I didn't know. Maybe I need to pick our accountant's brain to see if they can help with that because that is just a thorn in my side.
Shantel: Is there maybe a challenge that comes to mind that you learned pretty early on when starting the business that you think of and you're excited that you learned it so then you can continue to innovate but a challenge that stands out to you?
| SET BOUNDARIES |
Wes: Sure. I mean I think for me for so long you can work an 18-hour day every day if you own a business. There's always work to be done. There's always something popping up, and there's always planning to try and make things better, and I think the lesson that ... I mean it took me a long time to learn it, but I would get up early, go to work, and then just stay at work until it was super late, and I was unhappy. I wasn't particularly productive, so I think the biggest lesson I look back on that I wish I had really learned a little earlier was trying to set boundaries. One, I'm much better with deadlines anyway, so I know if I have to leave at 6:00 that I'll be more productive in those last few hours just so I can get everything done, but just setting those boundaries allowed me to be happier in my personal life and be more productive as far as the business goes, and as soon as I set that and made it a priority, we started doing better as a business, and it seemed so simple looking back, but it really so easy as a business owner to get continually bogged down in the day-to-day stuff because there's always something to be done. You want to treat every task as if it's the most important thing that you're going to do, but at a certain point you do have to either say, "You know what? We're just going to have to stop doing this side of our business, or I'm just going to have to completely let this go and hope that we still survive," and there were things that I did that maybe short-term we took a little bit of a ding from but long-term it has really paid dividends, so that I hope answered your question. I mean I think really just setting boundaries was really hard for me to understand and implement at first.
Shantel: Do you find that a lot of it you just have to start to say no to things, or ... ?
Wes: I think you have to pick and choose. Yeah, you do have to say no to things, but I think you still have to be very aware of the things you can't say no to. I mean there's still a number of things that if somebody reaches out to me about it I'm going to say yes, even if I don't necessarily have the time for it right there. There are still things that, especially when it comes to networking and meeting new people and meeting other business owners, any opportunity for me to do that, I say yes, even if it's a business that's unrelated to what I do. I think there's so many different lessons I can learn there, but when you do that, it is understanding where to say no or where to ... I mean we make a product and offer a couple different services, so being able to, at this point, have a few years under our belt where we've done a number of different things, we can look at something and say, "This isn't working for us, yet we're spending so much time on it.” So we have two questions to answer at that point. "Can we make this worthwhile? If so, how do we do it?" The other question is, "Should we put that effort in?" If we don't think we should, if we don't see the long-term benefit of offering a certain type of product or a certain type of catering service or anything like that, then we've made the decision to cut or shut a couple things down because the numbers just don't add up. As much fun as it might have been or as much as we try to please everyone, you do get to the point where you realize, "I can't please everyone." We need to stick to doing what we're best at and make the people that get that product and service as happy as we possibly can and provide the best product and service we possibly can and not spread ourselves so thin that we're giving 70% of our attention to something that needs 100%.
Shantel: Well, and then on the personal side, if you don't have a hard stop that day or a commitment that you have to be at, are you just really intentional about saying, "I'm going to leave at 6:00"?
Wes: Yeah. Yeah, I have been, unless there's something absolutely necessary, like an after-work event that we've agreed to do, which we don't do as many as we used to, but yeah I get home. I mean it's important for me to be home and be with my wife. That's an important part of my life. Why else would I work so hard if I don't get to share that with the people I care the most about? So it's important.
Shantel: Well, I'm glad that you shared that piece, because I do think it's very easy if you're not thinking about that balance to get sucked into the weeds of all of the things that you can be doing because-
Wes: Right, and I learned the hard way. I mean I really did learn the hard way. I mean I just woke up one day and was like, "Oh my God. I haven't done anything fun outside of work in a year. What am I doing?" Like I said, I wish I had set those boundaries earlier because everything has been so much better for me personally since then and professionally, which is great.
Shantel: Well, and sharing, I imagine, the load and the pain points and challenges with the other business partners certainly helps. Do you have also a network outside of that of other business owners that you draw inspiration from or talk to during challenging times?
Wes: Absolutely. There's a group I meet with every six to eight weeks. We're all small food business owners here in Atlanta, and it's an unofficial advisory board. They know just as much about my business as some of my closest friends and family do, actually probably more, because I tell them everything that's going on and ask for their advice, and it's important for me to get that perspective that's outside of someone that's in the day-to-day with me to say, "Wes, you're wasting your time on this," or, "I think you could do a better job here." So that's been an important group for me, and it's a great group of business owners here in Atlanta. I don't know where I'd be without some of those folks.
Shantel: How did-
Wes: We do a lot of work with them so ...
Shantel: That's great. I think it's so important to surround yourself by other entrepreneur or just motivated people because it does get tough and there are bad days, and it's nice to have people to experience share that, "Oh, I struggled with that too, and this is how I dealt with it."
Wes: Right. I think if you don't own your own business, some of the issues are almost impossible to understand. So to have ... I mean we kind of just called it a support group at first because you need that support, but it has turned into a really valuable advisory group for all of us I think. I mean I know it has for me.
Shantel: Absolutely. I do imagine. Is there any advice that has come from that group or the people in that group that is held on to?
Wes: I mean there's some project-specific stuff. Even right now I'm working on hopefully what could be a pretty big deal for our business that I can't really talk about, but I go to them for advice on this, and I've gotten a lot of really great feedback on ways to approach it, questions to ask, so that's one thing right now that pops into my head. Then outside of that we've had, I mean every once in a while we'll even get an accountant come and speak with us, a financial advisor to come and speak with us, and salespeople to come and speak with us and talk about different strategies. So every once in a while we'll have a very specific thing that we go over that I've been able to create some great tools from that help us as far as sales go, as far as projections are concerned, and then there's just the general business stuff that other people can hold you accountable for because if you're your own boss, you don't have any real deadlines. It's just a matter of when you get work done, but if other people know about big things you're working on and you know they're going to ask you about it and you want to make sure that you're putting your best effort forward so you have good reports to tell them, and it's not just the same thing every time. Even though it means literally nothing to them other than wanting to see a friend succeed, it is nice to have people hold you accountable.
Shantel: Absolutely. In your industry and your business, do you feel that you continuously have to innovate, whether that's flavors or ... I know you guys recently just did a rebrand. Have you felt like you have to continue to change things to stay up-to-date?
| PUSH INNOVATION WITHIN |
Wes: Yeah. I mean I think there ... We want to make sure we're always in the forefront of what we're doing but that we're not changing so much that people can't find some sort of identity within what we're doing. So we, like you said, we just updated our logo. We've got new packaging rolling out this year. We've got a new product rolling out this year. I think it's something that we have not done a great job of in the past. I've been probably a little too risk-averse over the first few years, but now I think we see the importance of really pushing innovation within, as we look at new retail stores, how can we make the retail experience different? As we roll out with new products, how can we make the product visually different, the flavor lineup be different from what all is out there but still have that mass appeal where people aren't going to look at it and say, "That just sounds a little too weird for me”? So I think there's a fine line when it comes to certain things in the food industry where you do want to innovate but where you have to understand that innovation doesn't necessarily mean coming up with the craziest thing you can think of. The store allows us to do that. It allows us to test out flavors that we would probably never put in pints, so that's a lot of fun. I think the biggest place where we could innovate right now is with restaurants, as we sell to restaurants. One of the biggest tools we have is the ability to customize flavors and be able to turn that around really quickly, so that allows us to test some fun things out, try some things that we never would have tried, and see if they work, and if they do work it might be something that we, in some form or fashion, put in our retail store, and then that might be something that we end up putting in pints. I mean we have a brown butter flavor that we probably wouldn't have really done before, but a chef asked that we make a brown butter flavor with fig a few years ago, and we were like, "Okay, that sounds interesting." Then we made it and we loved it and we keep adding our twists to it and it was something we finally ended up adding to our retail store, and now it's going to be something, a variation of that, that we roll out in pints this year. So we're always looking for something new, but always have to be mindful that it needs to still be appealing and a viable product for us.
Shantel: Well, I can't wait to try that flavor. That's exciting. What is your favorite flavor?
Wes: That's a tough question. It changes a lot. I feel like it changes with the seasons, to be honest with you. Whenever I get something from our shop, I always get a scoop of brown butter with a scoop of Nutella. I mean I think those two together are just ... that's the combination I keep going back to. So those two I think are best, but for trademark purposes we can't do Nutella in pints, so it will continue to just be a chocolate, hazelnut Nutella flavor at our stores.
Shantel: I realized after asking you that it's like when we get asked the question, "What's your favorite client?" It's like you're picking favorites of your kids, so sorry to put you on the spot in that way.
Wes: No, no, it's good. The one thing great about having made so many flavors is I don't feel bad when I change my favorite because that just means we've come up with something new and better than what we've had before, and I love what we've already made, so it's a bit fluid.
Shantel: Well, speaking on the kid talk, I know you have some exciting news with twins, right?
Wes: Yes. We are on baby watch.
Wes: Yeah. Twins on the way. We're hoping to make it to March 23rd, but really, I hate to say it, but it could happen anytime now. Hopefully March. March would be nice. If we can get through February I'd be very happy.
Shantel: Well, that is-
Wes: But we're excited. Yeah. It's going to be a whole new world, and I'll probably have to reset my boundaries once the twins come too because it's going to take a lot of work.
Shantel: Yeah. I was going to ask are you going to take some time off and ... Being a business owner with that flexibility, in theory, do you anticipate restructuring those benefits and options for your team as well?
Wes: Oh, that's a good question. I do plan on taking some time off, as much as I can, which probably means I'll have to pop into the office shortly after the babies are born. We want to be able to ... and as it relates to our employees, we want to be able to offer the best packages we can that make sense for us. We don't really have any days off policy. It's really a matter of us coming up with individualized plans for everyone. We haven't had anyone else in the company, other than my business partners, have kids. None of our employees have had kids while they've been with us. So to be perfectly frank, we don't have a set maternity or paternity leave in place for anyone, but we would work with them to make sure they get at least 12 weeks, if not longer, depending on what their needs are. So it would be a case-by-case basis. Like I said, we don't have a days off policy necessarily. We'll know when people are taking advantage of it, and we trust our employees to make the decisions that are best for them and their families, and we know people need time off every once in a while, so we don't want to say, "You're limited to 10 days or 12 days or 15 days." If you have life events, which have happened with some of our employees in the past, that you take the time that you need, and you know that we're here for you when you're ready to come back.
Shantel: I love that. We also currently don't have paid time off or vacation policy, but we do have our first teammate that's expecting, and it's exciting and a little scary to figure out, "Okay, what do we need to do as a company to prepare for that, and what are we offering?" So I appreciate you just sharing anything.
Wes: Yeah. If you come up with good stuff, let me know. Like I said, this is some of the stuff that, as a business owner, you might not think about things until they happen, even if they're big, life-changing, obvious things. It's hard to come up with a maternity plan when you start a business because you're worried about turning your first profit and making a sale and keeping your customers and clients happy. That's a perfect example of so many of these big things that can happen when you're a business owner, and you're like, "Oh. It was so easy at my last job. We had an HR department that could just tell us what to do."
Shantel: Exactly. Well, Wes, I've got just two more questions for you, and the first being was honeysuckle your favorite flavor at the beginning? Is that what spurred the name? Would love to hear that story.
Wes: Yeah, so one of our angles when we started the business, our tagline is Southern-inspired gelato, so we were worried with starting a gelato business in the South that people would not know what gelato is. They would be afraid of the word gelato and have all these misconceptions of what they were getting, so we wanted to create flavors that people in the South understood and wouldn't be afraid of. You might not know what gelato is, but if you hear bourbon pecan or watermelon sorbet or anything like that, you're like, "Oh, well I like those ingredients, so let me at least give this a try.” So we were trying to find the right name that fit this feeling of being Southern, natural, sweet, a bit nostalgic, and it took us a long time, but one day Jackson just called me, and I picked up and said, "Hey," and he just said the word honeysuckle, and before I could say anything, he'd hung up the phone. Ever since then, it just kind of stuck, and I'm glad he hung up because I'm always ... He probably hung up because I'm always the one playing devil's advocate within the business. If we come up with ideas, I always try and poke holes in it. So I think maybe part of that was a defense mechanism on his part to say, "I'm not even going to give him a chance to poke a hole in this. I know this is right. I know this is going to define us," and once he hung up I just sat there and was like, "All right. I guess that's who we are," and it stuck. It's perfect. Jackson is certainly our ... he's the creative force behind what we do here when it comes to flavors and a lot of different things, so I trust his judgment a lot when it comes to being creative. Every once in a while I have to rein him on certain things, but I think he nailed it on that one and I like the story behind it too. I like how confident he was in presenting it.
Shantel: So if you ever get a call again and he hangs up, you know it's serious.
Wes: Yeah. No, I know have to put some real thought into it before I get
Shantel: Oh, man. Last question for you, Wes. How can people get in touch with you and learn more about your journey or try your gelato?
Wes: Sure. Easiest would be go to our website or follow us on Instagram. The website is HoneysuckleGelato.com, and that's H-O-N-E-Y-S-U-C-K-L-E-G-E-L-A-T-O.com. Our Instagram handle is Honeysuckle Gelato as well. There's a Contact Us link on the site. Like any small business owner, the email will go to me even though it doesn't have my name on it, so you can use that email address and I will see it. Then the big thing we always ask people to do is just come by the shop at Ponce City Market and say hey. Even if you don't want to buy anything that day, just ask to sample a few flavors. Just give us a try, sample a few things, and hopefully you'll like it enough to buy something on site or come back later or hopefully tell your friends and family about it. So website, Instagram, and Ponce City Market are the easiest ways to stay up-do-date with what's going on in our business.
Shantel: Great. Well, thank you so much, Wes, for carving out the time and spending 30 minutes with us.
Wes: Thanks for having me.