May 12 2010 12:00 AM

Iorio’s celebrates the sweetness of Italy




It’s commencement season, and with it comes the annual migration of homegrown talent to more hospitable moneymaking climes.

And who can really blame them? The first thing on the minds of university grads — after where to find the last kegger of the year, of course — is getting a J-O-B, and Michigan just ain’t exactly an economic hotspot, now, is it?

For Mary Lemmer, securing employment won’t be a problem. She started her own Italian ice business in 2004 when she was a sophomore at Lansing Catholic High School, and she’s planning on staying right here in the Mitten and watching her little start-up grow.

“I grew up going to the Jersey shore every summer, where there’s Italian ice on every corner,” says Lemmer, who graduated last weekend from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

“When we came home one year, I asked my dad Iorio’s where I could get it, and he told me they didn’t have it in Michigan. He told me if I wanted it, I’d have to bring it here. I saw a need that hadn’t been met yet, and it challenged me.”

So she did what any enterprising teenager would do: she launched a company. Lemmer is the founder of Iorio’s, which is located inside the new Lansing City Market. Iorio’s (pronounced ee-OH-ree- OHs) was formerly a summer-only business, situated in a pushcart at the old city market with special appearances at Lansing- and Ann Arbor-area social events. But when the City Market moved into its new location, all businesses were required to be open year-round.

“So we found a big cooler online, and we were in business,”says Alice Lemmer, Mary’s mother and Iorio’s day-to-day operations manager. “I really thought her interest in this would fade, but it’s only gotten stronger. She really has a vision for what Iorio’s can become.”

Italian ice (also known as water ice) dates back to ancient Rome, when snow would be brought back from the tops of nearby mountains and mixed with fresh fruit. Italian immigrants brought the frozen dessert with them during the great European exodus in the early 20th century, and in neighborhoods along the East Coast Italian ice became a summertime tradition.

“But I knew that it was going to have to go beyond Italian ice if this was going to be a really successful business, so I set my sights on gelato,” says Mary. Gelato is similar to ice cream, but has less air whipped into it and is made from a lower butterfat cream, making it smoother, denser and richer.

Lemmer says she was on the verge of going into the gelato production business until she discovered some stellar Michigan-made gelato at a store in Traverse City. She uses their brand in Iorio’s and has over 300 flavors to choose from including the instantly addictive Turkish Coffee, the Banana Mango (with like tender chunks of real, fresh mango with subtle hints of banana) and the supremely popular Pistachio, which has a tender, creamy sweetness to it and no “fake nutty” aftertaste. Both Italian ice and gelato come in two sizes: piccolo ($2 Italian ice/$2.50 gelato) and grandi ($3/$4). You can also get a Gelato Bowl, a glass waffle cone-looking dish, for $9. It fits more than a grandi and refills are only $1.50. Lemmer also recently added Italian-imported olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Using a separate gelato production company streamlined Mary’s delivery process and allowed her to focus on the bigger picture. Like, you know, dominating the frozen dessert market.

“The next step is taking this to the franchise level and follow the Starbucks model,” she says, with nary a hint of doubt. “In Europe, people meet in gelato shops the way they meet in coffee shops here. I can definitely see this concept working elsewhere.”

At 21, Lemmer is already well on her way to being Michigan’s answer to Gates, Jobs or Fields (as in Mrs.). She is the founding member of Net Impact, a student organization that promotes careers in social entrepreneurship, international development, nonprofit management and environmental sustainability. She participated in a statewide competition that challenged students to design a net-zero energy house.

As an intern with the Michigan E c o n o m i c Development, she helped raise more than $30 million to help Michigan manufacturers and auto suppliers diversify into new sectors. She also won the 2010 BBA Global Citizenship C o m m u n i t y Service Award.

“Starting Iorio’s triggered my decision to focus on entrepreneurship in college,” says Mary. “I thought I’d start by working for some small company, but I’ve already been offered a job with (an Ann Arbor-based venture capital company), working with companies that could be the next Google. But I’m definitely going to be staying in Michigan, and I’m going to be involved in the strategy and macro issues of growing Iorio’s.”

So, Ben & Jerry’s has Vermont, Starbucks has Seattle, and (you heard it here first), Lansing may soon have its own national franchise: Iorio’s. The line forms on the left.