‘I don’t think our ice cream would look out of place on Fifth Avenue’
Small business focus
Even as a child, Michael Nugent knew he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and make and sell ice cream.
Despite his dream, he went to Queen's University in Belfast to study civil engineering.
However, after a year working for a leading international infrastructure group, he walked away from it all to start up Nugelato.
The company manufactures and sells ice cream and gelato at its premises in Newcastle and Newry, as well as at a recently opened franchise in Bangor.
It was a massive leap of faith, but Michael is so passionate about his product that he believes it could become a global brand.
"I honestly believe we offer the best ice cream experience you will get anywhere on the planet," said 34-year-old Michael.
"It deserves to be everywhere, I don't think it would look out of place on Fifth Avenue in New York."
Michael first became interested in making ice cream by helping his father in the family-run business, The Strand, also located in Newcastle.
"By the time I was in my teens I was making the majority of the ice cream," he said.
"I picked up the science. It's very interesting, once you understand the recipes and how they work, you can start inventing new flavours and trying out new things.
"I actually have a degree in civil engineering and I worked in England for a year with Balfour Beattie on some major roads projects.
"I have always been inspired by travel and after a year of working for Balfour Beattie I decided to leave and book a round the world ticket.
"People thought I was mad, it was the largest construction company in the UK at the time, they really looked after me and I was well paid, but I always harboured an ambition to start up my own business making ice cream."
Given his background working for the family business, Michael is aware of the number of coffee shops and other eateries that serve ice cream, so he was determined to create a unique brand, unlike anything else in Northern Ireland.
To this end, he has turned to his extensive travel to inspire him in building the Nugelato brand.
He has installed a specialist hot chocolate tap in his flagship shop in Newcastle, something he saw while travelling in Italy.
"I was blown away by it. I didn't have Nugelato at that stage but I wanted it," said Michael.
There is also specialist machinery in the Nugelato shops that allows customers to watch the vanilla ice cream being made in front of them.
"You have to have a unique selling point," he said.
"I think it's important to be different, we are always trying to keep ahead and do something different.
"The whole experience of coming to Nugelato is different from anywhere else, it's not like any other ice cream shop you go into.
"With regards to production of the ice cream, we have invested very heavily in the best possible equipment to make the best quality product that we can make.
"We've also concentrated a lot on the customer experience and ensuring we have a unique concept.
"We have a machine that makes the ice cream in the store so it isn't possible to get any fresher ice cream anywhere.
"Of course, the machine requires a lot of work, it's not like Jimmy Joe could buy one and create the same kind of experience as we do - you have to have the knowledge that we have."
Michael first opened a juice bar in Newcastle in 2011 before finally opening his first ice cream boutique in 2015.
"I spent a summer in California and when I was out there, there were a lot of juice bars and I loved the idea, I loved the concept, the freshness, the healthiness. I loved everything about it," he said.
"I still wanted to make ice cream but it is a lot more expensive to get started and that's why I opened Sucos first.
"It was a great experience, it was definitely tough, there were a lot of hard lessons, but I learned a lot of things very quickly.
"One of the most important things I learned during the experience is the importance of branding.
"I really believe that if you have a good product, a good consistent brand and you can offer the customer a good experience, then those are the three core ingredients you need to succeed in business."
He added: "In our case, when we started out everyone asked what we were going to do during winter.
"They said we would have to sell teas and tray bakes, but I didn't want to do that, I wanted to sell ice cream.
"I would say that it's really important when you are setting up your own business that you know what you want to do and stay true to that.
"We are good at making ice cream and gelato and that's what we do and actually the winter isn't a problem for us.
"We realised very quickly that we would have the tourists and visitors to the town come into the shop during the day and then the local people would come in during the evening.
"Businesses in Newcastle get queues on special days, like when there is a Red Arrows display, but we get queues out the door at 3pm on a Monday afternoon or 6pm on a Wednesday."
The success of the Nugelato in Newcastle meant that Michael was able to begin expanding.
The obvious choice was Newry and he opened a shop there in 2016.
He said: "We had people coming from Newry asking when we were going to open there, they were even talking about starting up a petition.
"I have always wanted to have a chain so opening up there was something I really wanted to do."
As the business has grown, Nugelato has gone from selling just over one tonne of ice cream a week when it first opened, to making six tonnes a week.
As a result, Michael was forced to invest in more equipment before he was able to continue with his expansion plans.
However, just a matter of weeks ago, a Nugelato franchise opened in Bangor.
Equally, the firm has gone from employing five people when it was first set up, to 70 people across the three shops.
Michael remains committed to building the business.
"With my engineering background, I decided to do a Masters in marketing to help me along and that really changed my way of thinking," he said.
"I learned that some people are better at things than I am and delegation is important.
"There's no point in me trying to do something if someone else can do it better, I have to trust them to do it.
"I have three shops now and that has been a really important lesson because I can't be in three places at once.
"I'm going to keep working to build the business.
"We are looking at moving into the Republic of Ireland, but I'm not going to stop there," he added.
"I see no reason why we can't go global, although we might need help from someone to get us there, but it is possible - just watch this space."