By Papa Osei and Sage Um
Nine months after saying goodbye to Joyful Spirit Café, Lexington welcomed a new dessert café last month.
Called Pronto, the Italian for “ready,” the café boasts authentic Italian coffee, gelato and other ready-made food. It is in the space that Joyful Spirit vacated on the ground floor of the R.E. Lee Building on S. Main Street.
Owner Franky Benincasa, who was formerly a chef at the Sheridan Livery, said selling gelato is something he has always wanted to do.
“I wanted to make something new, with a new flavor,” said Benincasa, who prepares most of the food. “I love gelato and I think it’s something everyone will like.”
Benincasa, a first generation Italian-American, said the key to the café’s real Italian taste is in the highly specialized equipment, coffee beans and gelato flavoring, all imported directly from Italy.
“We have a lot of confidence because we make it the right way,” said Benincasa.
However, because of the quality of goods Benincasa wanted, he said the café has been quite capital-intensive.
“Average high-quality espresso machines are over $15,000,” said Benincasa. “And all the gelato equipments combined cost about $70,000.”
Benincasa said he paid for most of the start-up costs with his own money and one loan. And after four to five months of construction, during which Benincasa and his wife completely rebuilt the space, the café opened Oct. 10 with a staff of seven.
“So far, business has been good, especially during lunch hours,” said Meridith Benincasa, Franky’s wife and co-owner of Pronto.
“We get all kinds of people here – students, business people,” said Franky Benincasa. “I think there’s something here for everyone.”
Benincasa said he is and will be in good financial shape for a few months, based on the brisk sales since the opening. However, he expressed a slight concern for the coming season.
“It wasn’t really an ideal time to open up a gelato place with the weather, especially with Christmas break in Lexington when the town empties,” said Benincasa. “But we’re looking to add soup to the menu to help.”
Pronto joins Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe, Ice Cream Factory, Dairy Queen and Sweet Frog Premium Frozen Yogurt in the growing frozen desserts business in Lexington.
Sweet Things, on Washington Street, has been open 30 years and benefits from its proximity to the campuses and downtown. Sweet Things-owner Chris Williams said Sweet Frog, which opened in January on North Lee Highway, has changed the dynamics of the dessert industry in Lexington.
“New business is good,” said Williams. “Of course you don’t like competition; we’ve basically had a monopoly since 1982.”
But Williams isn’t too worried about competition from nearby Pronto because of the distinguishable differences between ice cream and gelato.
“Gelato is different from ice cream,” said Williams. “It’s kind of like a cross between ice cream and sherbet.”
According to a brochure from Pronto, gelato is made in much smaller quantities than ice cream. And unlike ice cream, which is made from heavy cream, gelato is made from whole and skim milk.
Williams said these differences put Sweet Things and Pronto in different categories and that they have different markets.
Benincasa said Pronto also distinguishes itself from potential competition by providing a wine service in addition to coffee, sandwiches and gelato.
“There’s something for everyone,” from older crowds to younger ones, said Benincasa.
The Gem of Main Street
Sammy Moore, executive director of Lexington’s Chamber of Commerce, said the opening of Pronto is a boon to downtown, which has had a number of store closings recently. “[Pronto] is another enhancement for downtown dining,” said Moore. “It hits a void in restaurants.”
With niche businesses such as Pronto, Lexington’s dining scene will be diversified with more options to market to tourists and locals.
“People no longer have to go to Staunton or Charlottesville for gelato,” said Benincasa. “This is a new space offering new things. I think it will be good for town.”
The development of the adjacent R.E. Lee Hotel building will also play a major role in Lexington’s rejuvenation. Benincasa’s father, Ugo Benincasa, owns the building. He also co-owns the Sheridan Livery with his son and daughter-in-law.
The R.E. Lee Hotel was once the gem of Main Street. But until February, the six-story red brick building had served as low-income housing for Lexington’s disabled, elderly and poor for 30 years. Ugo Benincasa plans to recapture some of the hotel’s former grandeur with its reconstruction, which began in April.
In a previous interview with the Rockbridge Report, he said the hotel will have 39 guest rooms, a swimming pool, and an on-site upscale restaurant. The top floor of the building is designated for luxury apartments.
Pronto hopes to capitalize off the renovated hotel. Franky Benincasa said he wanted it to be the “cornerstone” of the revived hotel.