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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 5, 2019 1 week ago

Entrepreneurs with big ambitions to rock frozen dessert world grow sorbet business

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SorBabes began with sales at a single farmers market. Now it's sold in more than 6,000 stores.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

At first, Nicole Cardone wasn’t sure if she wanted to be labeled a “babe.”

She and her business partner, Deborah Gorman, had started a company based on the idea of creating indulgent flavors of sorbet. They were making their frozen treats at an ice cream shop when it was available — from midnight to 5 a.m. Cardone and Gorman soon earned the nickname “SorBabes” from the guys at the shop. “Babes,” Cardone thought, can have a negative connotation. But they made a choice, she says: “Let’s own this. Let’s be 21st century babes: strong and empowered.”

SorBabes started in 2013 and has now grown into a sorbet brand that’s stocked in more than 6,000 stores, including all of Publix’s 1,200 stores. Cardone and Gorman have grown the business step by step, from selling at a single farmers market to a distribution deal with a major U.S. co-packer.

To grow, the pair has put their own spin on a dessert that wasn’t getting much attention and has continued to develop new flavors with indulgent ingredients. They’re also maintaining control of the brand and ensuring the product they worked hard to get on grocery shelves now flies off those same shelves and into customers’ hands.

“We can’t celebrate yet. Getting it on the shelves is one thing. Getting it off the shelf is the next.” — Nicole Cardone, co-founder, SorBabes

Cardone, who used to work in finance for J.P. Morgan and Credit Suisse and now lives in Sarasota, was always a fan of homemade sorbet. Before starting the business, she would go to the farmers market, buy fresh ingredients and make some for herself.

Her mother-in-law connected her with Gorman, a professional chef now based in LA. Cardone told Gorman about her idea: “The sorbet market is so tiny, but let’s disrupt that.” They began experimenting with making different flavors of sorbet on a larger scale. “We started doing swirls of jams and chunks of chocolate,” Cardone says. “It took sorbets to a new level.”

Sorbet, based in water, doesn’t contain dairy like ice cream does. “My business partner and I joked that sorbet was the forgotten stepchild of the ice cream world,” Cardone says. “It was like all of the manufacturers gave all of the love to ice cream.”

Cardone and Gorman, then based in the New York City and Long Island area, started testing their sorbet concept by selling it at farmers markets. People liked it, and soon they went from selling their sorbet at one farmers market to two and then four markets. 

At first, Cardone says they couldn’t get a distributor, but once they received enough orders, they found a distributor that helped put SorBabes into specialty shops.

The pair bootstrapped the business and did every task related to the company themselves. “It was really intense,” Cardone says. The cherry on top of their challenges? Competing with big household names in the frozen dessert category, from Ben & Jerry’s to Häagen-Dazs. To stand out, they’ve focused on making sorbet with bold flavors, from pistachio and caramel to peanut butta luva.

Courtesy, Koscho Photography. Deborah Gorman and Nicole Cardone, co-founders of SorBabes, want to disrupt the sorbet market with their indulgent flavors.

A major win came when Blue Bunny Ice Cream approached SorBabes during a trend-spotting tour and offered Cardone and Gorman a deal to partner. Blue Bunny is the signature brand of Iowa-based Wells Enterprises, one of the largest ice cream and frozen dessert co-packers in the country. The licensing deal allowed Cardone and Gorman to

retain 100% ownership in SorBabes and control over marketing, flavors and more while Wells helps with manufacturing, packaging, distribution and sales. Cardone and Gorman still attend sales meetings, though. As Cardone says, “Nobody can sell it like we can.”

Grocery store freezer shelf space can be hard to come by, but Cardone says Wells helps SorBabes with those relationships. Making it onto Publix shelves was another key victory. This spring, Cardone participated in a health and wellness event with Publix in Miami to help build the SorBabes name. “We’re not a big corporate brand,” she says. “We’re not too proud to show up and get our hands dirty.”

Last year, there was a test of SorBabes products in parts of the country, including Chicago, Portland and California. Sales went well, and retailers saw the data, which led to more orders. “We can’t celebrate yet,” Cardone says. “Getting it on the shelves is one thing. Getting it off the shelf is the next.”

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