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Three decades of dedicated service spells success for Pinocchio’s Original Ice Cream

By Staff | Apr 14, 2011

A familiar scene at Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream, located on Sanibel's eastern end, is a long line of customers in front of the shop.

The hours of operation on the front window of Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream may read 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but the truth is that as long as there’s a customer in line, they’ll never close.

“Whenever anybody calls to ask about our hours, we’ll tell them 9 to 9,” said Donna Puma, who along with her husband Tom bought the Sanibel ice cream parlor in June 2007. “In reality, we will never close our doors until the last customer is served.”

In most cases during the island’s busiest tourist season, that usually means sometime between 10 and 11 p.m.

“If somebody pulls into our parking lot and our staff is still inside the store, we’ll open up for them,” added Puma. “It’s all about customer satisfaction.”

The family owned and operated business, whose history spans over three decades, Pinocchio’s offers more than 130 flavors, regularly displaying 22 of them at their store on the east end of the island. Among their signature flavors is Sanibel Krunch, a vanilla-based ice cream with chocolate enrobed toasted coconut, mixed nuts and special ingredients, and the Dirty Sand Dollar, a blending of caramel, malt, malted milk balls and chocolate chips.

Ella PIeracci doesn’t have to say anything about how she liked her ice cream – it shows in her smile and all over her face.

In some instances, the couple explained, customers will call the store before coming down to Sanibel just to make sure that their favorite flavors will be on the menu while they’re in town.

Of course, Pinocchio’s will make sure that they have it.

Other popular regular flavors are Black Raspberry Purple Cow, Mocha Java and Gator Stew, a combination of a vanilla-based ice cream, blended with pistachios, chunky peanut butter and chocolate chunks.

“Gator Stew is a huge hit, especially around the Super Bowl,” said Puma. “We’ll make between eight and 10 buckets of that. It’s very labor intensive… and we can’t keep enough of it in the house!”

Also featured at the eatery are Italian gelatos, with at least two flavors featured every day. In some cases, they’ll offer three or four flavors.

Regulars to Pinocchio’s, these repeat customers make it a family affair. Pictured are Gary VanZandt, Matt Ruge, Brandon Ruge, Debie VanZandt, Tracy Ruge and Jon Ruge.

Some folks may ask why the relatively small — but quite popular — ice cream shop will take such extreme steps in order to accommodate a few very particular requests. The answer, Puma said with a smile, is simple.

“Our number one thing is customer satisfaction,” Donna noted. “We’ll stage our own internal pep rallies with our staff to make sure that everybody gets excited about what we do. We get to sell ice cream, on the most beautiful island in the world… who wouldn’t love to do that?”

Among the other subtle “bonus” traditions at the store is handing out animal crackers to small kids waiting in line and offering free puppy cups to dog owners who bring their four-legged friends along with them.

“We feel like we’re offering our customers the best product out there,” said Tom. “We don’t cut any corners and we use the finest ingredients in all of our products. Plus, we have the most unique flavors of ice cream anywhere, on the island or off.”

Since taking over at Pinocchio’s, the Puma family and staff have enjoyed great success, winning Best of the Island Awards in 2008, 2009 and 2010 as well as being selected by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Best Ice Cream spots in Gulf Coast America in the 2009 guide National Geographic — The 10 Best of Everything Families: An Ultimate Guide for Travelers.

Sanibel resident Sophie Palermo, with her mom Ashley, is so full of anticipation for her ice cream that she can hardly wait.

So it’s not unusual to see a line of customers stretching from the front door all the way out and around the corner to the parking lot along Periwinkle Way, sometimes waiting 45 minutes or more for the delicious frozen creations offered by Pinocchio’s.

“As our regular customers will tell you, coming here is part of the Sanibel vacation experience,” added Donna, who also reported that the first franchise of their business — with a store coming soon to Indiana — has been approved.

Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream is located at 362 Periwinkle Way on Sanibel. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., call 472-6566 or visit their website at www.pinocchiosicecream.com for more information.