Gelato shop aims for sweet success

Family-run business brings a taste of Italy to Highlands Ranch


The Barsness family has always loved a cup of gelato.

From their trips to Italy to vacations in the Cayman Islands, the four-member family frequently finds themselves at the counter of a shop selling the creamy, Italian treat. That's why a few years ago, the Douglas County family began working on a plan to open their own gelato shop in the community.

Now, after months of work and a grand opening delayed by COVID-19, the family has finally started serving at their Gelato & Co franchise in Highlands Ranch.

"People just flocked in," owner Dean Barsness said. "We were blown away."

The gelato shop, which also serves handmade pastries and coffee, officially opened its doors in the Central Park area of Highlands Ranch — near Lucent Boulevard and Plaza Drive — on Oct. 12.

The shop, focusing on fresh, artisanal desserts, also has locations in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, Panama, Aruba and the Cayman Islands.

Dean Barsness, 58, and his family moved to Douglas County about three years ago from Chicago, where Barsness owned an insurance company. After selling his company, he considered retiring.

“I still wanted to do something but didn’t know what that was,” Barsness said. “But I wanted to do something very different from the insurance business.”

The Barsness family first fell in love with gelato during their frequent trips to Italy, where Dean’s wife Susan’s father is from. Gelato has similar ingredients to ice cream but uses different ratios, such as more milk, less cream and less fat. It's also denser and served at a warmer temperature than ice cream.

“We would come home and miss that daily gelato,” Dean said.

Then, while visiting the Cayman Islands, the Barsness family — including Dean and Susan's son Jonathan, 26, and daughter, Sarah, 23 — tried a Gelato & Co shop for the first time.

“We went there almost every day,” Dean said, “It was such a happy place all the time.”

After moving to unincorporated Douglas County near Roxborough Park, the family began toying with the idea of opening their own Gelato & Co. Through working with the company’s owners and finding a location for the shop, they were able to move forward with the franchise.

In late February, they began preparing their store with a mid-June opening date in mind. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Italy and then the United States, the process became much more complicated. Almost everything in the store, including wall art, chairs and cups, needed to be shipped from Italy.

While they waited, Dean focused on hiring their five pastry chefs and other staff through video chat interviews. When they met their head pastry chef, Mariana Ramirez, they found what Susan Barsness called their “silver lining.”

“Hearing the passion come out when (Mariana) was talking about her business, that’s where I was like ‘she’s got to be in,’” Susan said.

When the Barsness family finally received their materials from Italy in September, they were able to get to work building the store and training their staff.

Community members, many of whom had seen the Gelato & Co sign for months, started knocking on their door when they noticed people inside working, Dean said. Finally, after telling multiple people they weren’t open yet, Dean decided he couldn’t do it anymore.

“I said ‘I’m not turning another person away,’ so we just started letting people in,” Dean said.

Since then, the shop has seen lots of support from the community, with customers coming in even after a snowstorm, Dean said. An artificial fireplace in a corner of the shop provides a warm place for customers to eat their gelato.

Each day, Ramirez and her staff arrive at the shop at 7 a.m. to begin working on the day’s gelato and pastries, which both rotate based on the season and customer input. All of the non-perishable ingredients for these items, such as pistachios, caramel and chocolate, come from Italy. The rest of the materials, like dairy and fruit, comes from local vendors, Ramirez said.

Gelato flavors in late October included pumpkin pie, cookies and cream, coffee, berry cheesecake and pistachio. The shop also offers gelato sandwiches, cakes and gelato bars.

“We’re trying to bring a little bit of Italy to Highlands Ranch,” Susan said.


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