By Alex Galbinski
When at the home of some friends David Russell first tasted a version of the iced dessert that he was later to go on to sell, he was stunned. “After the traditional chicken Friday night dinner, they served a dessert and initially I thought they had made a mistake in serving a milchig one because it was just so creamy,” he explains.
When they advised him it really was dairy-free, he replied: “This is far and away the best dairy-free iced dessert I’ve tasted.”
Leeds-born Russell saw a huge opportunity. Talking it over with his hosts, he said: “There are ice cream lovers such as myself that would love to have great ice cream but can’t for dietary restrictions, and maybe there’s an opportunity in exploring that.” And so, at the end of 2011, Antonio Russo dairy-free iced desserts was born.
Russell is the company’s co-founder and director, in charge of strategy and finance.
Marton Braun, an art collector and friend, in whose Stamford Hill home Russell tried the original incarnation, is in charge of the creative side of the business, including design and product development, and Braun’s son, Dudy, an established photographer, oversees the production.
Yisrael Pashkes, who had made the original product at Braun’s home, dropped out of the project, and Russell and his partners instead found a friend, a dessert chef, to help with the production side before engaging the services of a production facility in Bermondsey.
The company, which says it makes iced desserts ‘with a social mission’, now produces three flavours for the retail market: Chocolato (Belgian dark chocolate with orange); Caribbato (Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee) and Vanillato (Madagascan vanilla bean).
It hopes to bring out two new flavours, wild strawberry and hand-picked apricot, in the summer and also produces many other flavours for events, including the opening of JW3. The pots, all certified kosher by the London Beth Din, cost £4.99 for 500ml and are stocked in all the major independent kosher retailers as well as kosher sections of select Tesco supermarkets. “Our positioning is that we are a premium dairy-free iced dessert,” Russell continues. “There are other iced desserts, but none that taste as good as ice cream. Ours do taste as good because of our ingredients, as well as the production process that we have developed.”
Antonio Russo – named after the Brauns’ red hair, a play on the name Russell and a nod to traditional Italian ‘gelato’ ice cream – is only one of Russell’s concerns. Having studied social and political science at Christ’s College, Cambridge, the 37-year-old landed a job with Shimon Cohen at global PR and communications group Bell Pottinger. Four years later, the pair decided to leave together to set up the PR Office in 2004 to “progress our work advising quite an eclectic mix of organisations”.
While there, Russell, who now lives in East Finchley and is a trustee of the Congregation of Jacob in Stepney, began specialising in advising third-sector organisations, including the Holocaust Educational Trust, on their communications. Through HET, he met and began advising Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, founder and director of Survivors Fund, or SURF, which supports survivors of the Rwandan genocide. He then made the decision to extend the work he was doing beyond pure public relations into broader consultancy, in terms of advising on advocacy and policy. He set up the Social Enterprise in 2007 and did a fellowship in social entrepreneurship at New York University to fulfil that role better. He later took on the directorship of SURF until the end of 2013 and still works on the Rwanda projects one or two days a week. “It’s been a long, hard struggle. There’s no immediate end in sight,” he says.
In 2012, he was accepted on to the Clore social leadership programme, during which he was seconded to Unilever to learn more about sustainability in business. He continues to work with the company as a consultant. “Part of the reason I wanted to work for them was not to steal their Ben and Jerry’s recipe,” he jokes, “but to see how they embed social values in their business. There is a huge amount for charities to learn from big business.”
Speaking of which, the Antonio Russo trio, who have no outside investment in the company, worked initially with a small kosher distributor but knew that to take their product to the next level they would have to find a distributor with a more extensive reach. So they agreed a one-year exclusive partnership with Osem, which manages the sales, marketing and distribution of their product. Russell says: “Osem is already distributing its own range of kosher products to Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, and we’re now working with the company to try to secure listings with big retailers. That’s the ambition for the year ahead.”
The friends’ other ambition is to take their product out into the mainstream ‘free from’ market. As Russell points out: “The dairy-free market is a lot less evolved, so that’s where the real opportunity lies; it’s a growing category.” The father-of-two, whose three-year-old son gives the seal of approval before any new flavour is launched, says it is not enough just to make a quality product. “We try to ensure we have the social values underlying the business. For me, business is not just about doing no harm, but finding opportunities to do good,” he says.
“To be authentic has to be played out in every decision through the business, from ensuring fair trade or sustainably sourced products, ensuring the packaging is recyclable, ensuring that where there are opportunities to partnership with organisations, that they pay a living wage. “That’s more challenging – it takes more effort, it’s more costly but, ultimately, for us that’s what good business should be.”
• For more details, log on to www.antoniorusso.co.uk