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Sanibel Secrets: Tom and Donna Puma

February 7, 2014
By ROBBIE SPENCER ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

When Donna Puma and her husband, Tom, purchased a little 350 square-foot ice cream shop in 2007, Donna called her sister to share the news.

"I told my sister, 'Tom and I bought a quaint little ice cream shop on Sanibel Island,'" Donna said. "She laughed and told me, 'nothing you and Tom ever do is quaint!'"

What do a former Global Procurement Consultant for IBM and the former dentist of the crew of Air Force One have in common? A passion for good food, an intense love and loyalty to Sanibel, and they co-own the affectionately dubbed "little green store," Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream, a Sanibel Island staple of more than 33 years, and Geppetto's Beach Foodies, the Puma's newest creation.

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Donna Puma, owner of Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream and Geppetto's Beach Foodies.

Tom and Donna always knew they'd end up on Sanibel. They just didn't know it would be this soon.

They hoped their move to the islands would be to retire from their lives in New York. In 2006, this became a reality much quicker than expected when Tom's associate offered to buy out his dental practice of 25 years.

"Our daughter, Stephanie, had just graduated college. We figured why not," Tom said.

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"Tom was so involved in the dental society, he was up in Albany a lot, I never saw the man," Donna said, who was busy at the time working for IBM, traveling around the world to negotiate deals with various firms.

According to Donna, she had a global IBM team in France and various associates scattered throughout the US helping her negotiate contracts with a number of large firms.

"I was on the road all the time, but we used to make sure we had time down here," Donna said.

According to Tom, he read that the average baby boomer, by the time they retire, would have three careers under their belt. He was on two before owning an ice cream shop. He began his professional life as a dentist in the Air Force before his 25-year foray into private practice, hence the connection to the Air Force One crew.

"Tom was retired for one year," Donna said with a laugh.

"I was reading the paper one day and saw that Pinocchio's was for sale," Tom said. "We used to walk here from our timeshare on Sanibel every day for ice cream."

"I said 'I think we should buy it,' he said I think you're crazy," Donna recalled fondly. "I thought we'd have fun with it. We had our dental practice, we knew the pros and cons of having a small business. We figured, how big could it get? It was a little store."

In six years it's easily become one of the more prominent businesses on the island, as they've expanded their "little green shop" from the minuscule 350 square-foot room to a Sanibel Island destination featuring "Beach Foodies" along with their world-famous ice cream, gelato, and sorbet.

But the transformation didn't happen overnight.

According to Donna, the Pumas made a number of trips, both in the states and abroad, to perfect their crafts in ice cream and gelato making, as well as croissant baking, the hallmark for their new creation, Geppetto's.

"I've always been passionate about the food business," she said. "In the family there's always that person that does the big holiday parties. My family always said to us, 'boy, we could always see you guys doing something with food!'"

After they took over the little shop in June 2007, Tom and Donna traveled to the gelato capital of the world in Tuscany, Italy, to learn from the finest gelato artisans.

"The original [owners] went to Tuscany for several months a year and learned how to make gelato there. When another owner came in, she put a different spin on the brand," Donna said. "She made it more beachie, did the sign outside. We've tried to keep that up."

They kept it up when they expanded to the rest of the building in July of 2011, and, in January 2012, Geppetto's Beach Foodies was born, a self-proclaimed 'market for people who love good food.'

One of the staples of Geppetto's is their homemade, daily fresh-baked, sweet and savory croissants. The Pumas ventured to a technical baking school to become certified croissant bakers.

"We went to a school with a company we knew from New York," Donna said. "It was one week, but it was very intense. They came down to Sanibel and we knew, from the massive facility where we trained, we would have to improvise. How would we keep the quality of the dough? We developed different techniques to use that weren't necessarily taught in training."

Both Tom and Donna attribute their business success to a simple, three-word formula they applied to their dental practice: Availability, Visibility, Ability. Each word means a little something extra for Pinocchio's, Geppetto's, and the Puma family.

Availability refers to their hours, open 7 days a week, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. And they don't close until the last person is served. Sometimes the line snakes out to Periwinkle at 8 or 9 p.m.

"We're closed 7 days a year," Donna said.

Visibility attributes the successful branding of their "little green shop." Islanders who visit Greenwood, Indiana anytime soon should look for a Pinocchio's Original Italian Ice Cream, the first franchise the Pumas have allowed.

"We put a little sign on the register saying we were accepting franchise applications a couple years ago. We got over 90 leads," Donna said. "Tom and I don't want to sell fast, we want stability. Pinocchio's is a landmark, and it's a stable brand. We know the family that built our first franchise, and we are pleased they want to grow it in the same fashion."

Lastly, ability. Their entire staff is certified in food safety, they hold routine team meetings and role play various guest scenarios, ensuring all Pinocchio guests receive the same positive experience. Donna is also proud of the branded recipes they've created and were handed down through four previous owners, which now exceeds 270 different flavors. And there's the animal cracker on top of every ice cream serving.

"If your frozen dessert was not purchased at Pinocchio's in Sanibel or Greenwood, then it's not Pinocchio's. It's just ice cream with a cracker on top!" Donna said.

Also, there is someone at Geppetto's or Pinocchio's working at 4 or 5 a.m., every day.

"You have to love it to do what we do, it's a lot of work. Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade," she said with a laugh.

Donna Puma and her little green shop just might be one of Sanibel's worst-kept secrets.



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