NARRAGANSETT – Nana’s Ice Cream and Gelato owner, Dianne Mann, who operates shops at two coastal locations throughout town, has always worried about super storms or other weather-related events that could affect the future of her business. She never expected a pandemic, however, to be the motivator of such anxieties.
“I was always nervous about hurricanes and power outages due to having eight chest freezers plugged in and all my dipping cabinets and soft serve machine,” said Mann, who has owned and operated Nana’s Ice Cream and Gelato in the Pier Marketplace and next to Salty Brine State Beach off Sand Hill Cove Road for nearly 20 years. “I guess that is now my least worry. This pandemic is the worst-case scenario and I am happy to say we survived it.”
When the pandemic reached the United States in mid-March, Mann was glued to the television, hoping to get clarity. Thirty part-time employees depended on the business, and Mann had just spent thousands of dollars on inventory in order to stock up for the season, which typically begins April 1.
“My freezers were full of ice cream and every bin in my candy shop was filled up,” she said. “Every day we hoped the virus cases would slow down but it just got worse. Gina Raimondo closed the beaches and we were all in quarantine watching Netflix.”
“As a seasonal business, the timing of the pandemic was exactly at the start of our season, making it even scarier, as we only have six months to earn income,” Mann added.
A traditional visit after spending a day at Narragansett Town Beach or the nearby sea wall, Nana’s Ice Cream and Gelato boasts over 50 flavors and toppings, serving premium hard ice cream, frozen yogurts, soft serve and Italian gelato.
As Raimondo and the state continued making difficult decisions around social distancing and business closures in those opening months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mann said she simply watched and waited. Eventually, as the state began to allow restaurants to reopen, Nana’s Ice Cream and Gelato could return to business. Despite opening her shops a month late, Mann said the state was extremely helpful in assisting the business to reopen safely. Customers came in one at a time, mask and gloves were a requirement, and dining in was no longer an option.
“We are used to our customers eating on the benches, trying different flavors, bringing their entire family in and reading the Nana’s wall of fame, but this year they just ate their cones in the car,” she said.
Positioned perfectly between customers and staff, the gelato cases that house the near-20 flavors of the Italian treat served as a natural six-foot barrier. Mann also states she “became a bouncer,” standing outside the Pier Marketplace location to make sure the line from the door maintained social distance as denoted by chalk marks on the sidewalk.
“I was a tough bouncer but our customers were appreciative of the (virtual) hand holding,” she said. “I also had plenty of time to chat with my customers and was able to prep them on the flavor selections so they were ready to order when they walked in. It was enjoyable to converse with them all yet disheartening that we all had face masks on and I probably won’t remember them next season.”
Back in March, anticipating the strenuous effort that was to come if the shops would even open at all, Mann was conversing with her daughter, Crissi Cole, and her husband, who immediately left New York City and moved in with the ice cream and gelato store owner to offer their assistance.
“When the pandemic hit, my husband and I moved in with mom (something I would have never imagined as newlyweds) and I worked my ‘real job’ via Zoom and conference calls at Goldman Sachs and then at 7 p.m., put my Nana’s shirt on and scooped all night double teaming with the Nana’s girls,” said Cole. ”I took the lead on completing the PPP loan application and figured out the most ‘touch-less’ model for Nana’s.”
“July and August became very busy and that’s when I told mom to stand at the front door and be ‘the bouncer’ so customers knew what the drill was upon entering the shop,” she continued. “It was all hands on deck with a family business.”
And, according to Mann, customers were not a problem. The vast, vast majority of patrons, from long-standing ice cream and gelato lovers to new ones, abided the shops’ rules and maintained masks and social distancing protocol.
“We learned that ice cream truly makes people happy,” she said. “And during the pandemic everyone was looking for some happiness. Our customers were especially resilient with the unexpected coin shortage. Can you believe it, COVID impacted literally everything so much so the banks ran out of coins. We couldn’t always make the right change.”
With larger outcomes around the pandemic still uncertain, Mann spoke to her appreciation of the state’s early clarity when it came to health and safety rules, as well as severity of enforcement.
“We appreciated that,” she said. “We just wanted to be told what to do.”
Nana’s Ice Cream and Gelato also benefited from a PPP loan in which the state supplied businesses with essential items such as masks, gloves and sanitizer, along with various grants to the state which were “a big relief.” Mann also praised the efforts of Raimondo.
“Gina Raimondo is a saint,” she said. “Her press interviews were stern but yet had a calming effect on me knowing we were in good hands with her as our leader.”
Despite the challenges, and only two people at a time serving ice cream and gelato, Mann was still able to give seasonal jobs to her 30 part-time employees, nearly all of whom hail from nearby high schools and colleges. Additionally, when the summer ended and the time came for Cole and her husband to return to New York, they opted instead to stay behind and continue helping out the family business.
“I picked the family business over the big finance job,” said Cole. “What’s more fun, malted milkshakes or finance? And what better place to be than Narragansett Beach. My husband and I are obsessed.”
Now, as the shop plans to close until next spring, Mann is reflecting on the most challenging season she’s seen since first purchasing Nana’s Ice Cream and Gelato in 2006.
“We are exhausted,” she said. “Yes, we were successful in that we were able to be open for our beach going customers for the quintessential ‘summer’ from Memorial Day to Labor Day with limited interruption to their normal Nana’s experience. Our number one priority. But no, we were not successful when it comes to work life balance and operating efficiency. We had to over-staff and I was at the shop 15 hours a day for seven days a week to make sure it all ran smoothly with new rules and restrictions. But that’s what a small business does – you make it work!”
“Even though we are breathing a sigh of relief that we made it through the summer, we are not in the clear,” she added. “We lost revenue. COVID isn’t over and it’s unclear when it will be over. We hope that the local and federal governments continue to prioritize small businesses and pave a way into another uncertain year.”
Mann is now looking forward to opening next season, on time, and with her daughter at her side. Along with new vegan-inspired ice cream and Gelato offerings, the shop is also looking to adjust to the unprecedented pandemic with innovations such as digital ordering and paying. While the duo considered delivery, Mann noted the only problem with ice cream and gelato is that it melts.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from this year is to embrace change and quickly jump into your disaster scenario plan,” she concluded.