A taste of Italy

A business built to provide employment for family, but the real winner is the entire Jewish community

By Chandrea Serebro

Chani Lavine is Italian, and, like all good Italians, she loves a good ice cream. Not just any ice cream, mind you, but authentic gelato straight out of Italy. So when Chani went in the search of a business that she could build for her sons, Dovi and Reuven, to take over one day, it was natural that her first port of call was Italy, where Chani went in pursuit of a way to bring something of the life and character of her hometown back to South Africa. “Italians are very proud to be Italian. It’s the culture and the personality of the place and the people. Italians are warm, passionate people. That’s how I grew up, and that is something I wanted to share.”

Chani grew up in Milano, and at the age of 23 she lost her first husband, father to her three young children, in a car crash. Chani found herself alone, relying on the support of her family and friends in Italy to get through this difficult time. “People were amazing, and generous, and as appreciative as I was for the life-saving financial support, I felt like a taker. Then my father told me an important thing. He told me that people are giving out of love. And that if I didn’t receive with love then I was taking away from their mitzvah. Because we can never know why Hashem puts a person in a situation, why He decides when one has to take from others, but that we have to trust that it is for the good. And that, one day, my father said to me, Hashem would decide that it is time for me to become the giver.”

Three years later, Chani married a South African and came to South Africa, having three more children and building a career as a nursery school teacher, which she absolutely loved and was passionate about. But, when Chani’s first-born son Dovi reached his 20s, Chani realised that the time to become the giver had come, and that she had to do something to help her son succeed and thrive in the world, to facilitate a successful future for him. “Since I would have to be driving it, I realised that it would have to be something that I enjoyed as well.” And what is more, her younger son Reuven would also be able to benefit by working within the sheltered environment of the shop, and working in a shop that he can call his own is something that he could also be proud of.

Chani went to visit her family in Italy, and, while there, she realised that she wanted to bring something of the personality and life of her home back to South Africa. And like a ton of Italian bricks falling on her head, she realised that there was no kosher gelato in South Africa, in contrast to Italy where you find gourmet gelato on every corner, a favourite Italian specialty. Chani spent months doing the research and learning as much as she could, often finding herself in a place of deep discomfort with so much to learn.

Chani joined ORT Jet and slowly she began to learn the ways of the business world. “So many people told me I would fail. Investors turned me down. My mentor at ORT Jet described me as ‘clueless, but with a willingness to learn’. I had the passion to succeed,” something she believes is a fundamental ingredient for success. Chani shadowed a friend of hers who was in the kosher gelato business for two weeks from early in the morning until closing time in the evening to see the workings of the business. “Despite his cautioning that doing the same thing over and over again each and every day could get quite boring, I welcomed the challenge and I could see myself making a go of it back home in South Africa.”

Three busy, challenging years from inception, Chani opened up Gelatissimo, the gourmet Chalav Yisrael Italian Gelateria in the middle of Glenhazel. “I’m happy to say that, now, two and a half years later, I’m not bored at all and I’m still excited every day on the job.” Chani loves food, loves making food, and loves the interaction with people. But it wasn’t always this fun, says Chani. Passion is nothing without the money to back it up, and without a penny to her name (“I didn’t even have a bank account until a few weeks after I opened the business!”), Chani set out to find it.

“My siblings (Chani is one of 17! bli ayin harah) were amazing, chipping in from all over the world. My father lent me his retirement money. And even non-Jewish suppliers helped me pay my machines off over time. I found kindness and a faith in my vision at many turns, all stemming from Hashem and His kindness. I didn’t have a penny. I had no expertise. I never went to university, I had no business experience. Yet the place is blessed, I can see it, and the only way I could have done it was with the help of Hashem.”

True to her father’s words, Chani is now the giver. “Dovi has found a purpose, he is a hard worker and he gives it his all,” says Chani. It is a blessing for Chani to have been able to give him that. “The shop has taught me a great deal about getting along with people despite the differences that we all have. Working with my mother, a strong-willed woman who deserves so much credit for what we have built, out of her care and devotion, has been interesting.” Having been thrown into the deep end and having to interact with people was a great challenge for Dovi. “Now I think about how I can put in more effort and involvement to grow, making sure we are always progressing not regressing. And if load shedding doesn’t get the better of us all, it should only be upwards from here.”

And upwards it is. Gelatissimo is now expanding a bit, developing a new and bigger gelato lab, because they can’t meet the demand of their loyal customers. “My whole thing was that I was going to make authentic Italian gelato that just happened to be kosher. I wanted to show that just because a place is kosher it doesn’t have to be sticky and oily and old. So I made the shop beautiful and homely. And once I was going to make it kosher, it had to be the highest level of kosher – Chalav Yisrael – which often gets a bad rap. I feel that Gelatissimo is a Kiddush Hashem for Chalav Yisrael, showing the world how great it can be.” Yet Chani is insistent that Gelatissimo will remain a boutique gelateria rather than becoming a franchise, but she does hope to increase its offerings by bringing some of the wonderful Italian delicacies that the country is so famous for to the kosher community in South Africa.

Still, there is much room to grow: new and different flavours, sugar-free options for diabetics, and more. Finding the perfect parev vanilla is the major challenge on Chani’s agenda, and the search will continue until she finds one that can live up to the high standards she has set – both in taste and in kosher certifications. Chani’s favourite gelato, stracciatella, a plain vanilla base with drizzles of chocolate, is how she operates her business. She is a down-to-earth, practical businesswoman who has built something that is surprisingly decadent to share with the Jewish community. Dovi just loves gelato, period. He’ll take whatever flavour is on offer, and so too he has learned to be open to learning new and sometimes uncomfortable lessons that he needs to operate in the gelateria. Reuven loves cotton candy, which gives him the chance to indulge in his youthfulness as he learns the ropes of the business. The customers love hazelnut and cocoa, the rich and creamy taste of Italy, and, if you haven’t tried it, you are missing out on the authentic gelato experience that only Gelatissimo can offer.

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