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Meet The Custodian of Culture & Chief Idea Officer at Fiasco

How do small companies achieve CULT BRAND status?

Meet James. He's The Custodian of Culture and Chief Idea Officer of one of the fastest-growing private companies in Canada - Fiasco Gelato. And on this Uncommon exclusive, the boys dig into the secrets that have helped make his company one of the fastest growing in North America.

Check it out!


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Announcer: Hide your kids. Lock the doors. You're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts. Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark. Bubble up boys and girls. It's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Joel: It's pronounced Boettcher?

Chad: Boettcher. Yeah. Boettcher.

Joel: Boettcher. 'Cause if I do it wrong, I could get Canadian death threats or something.

Chad: It doesn't matter, 'cause we do it all of the time.

Joel: Just say, "Sorry" after.

Chad: Yeah, and this is, it's an explicit podcast, so say whatever you want.

Joel: All right. We're recording, right? Yeah? Okay. Hey, what's up, guys? This is Cheese from the Chad and Cheese podcast, HR's most dangerous. You know us, you love us. What's up? From the, I don't know, what are we calling this? The Banff series of podcasts, I guess?

Chad: I think you call it the Branff series, but yeah, it's the Banff.

Joel: It looks like a Bramff.

Chad: It's Banff.

Joel: You know when a girl is a Lisa, but she looks more like a Susan? Anyway, yeah, this place looks more like a Bramff to me.

Chad: The gathering, dude.

Joel: But anyway, we are honored to welcome to the show James Boettcher. Did I say that correctly?

James: You got it.

Chad: Damn. You never get that shit right.

Joel: James, no one on our show will know who you are, so you're a virgin. You're virgin territory for everybody here.

James: I love it. I love it.

Joel: James is the "Custodian of Culture and Chief Idea Officer" at a fairly well renowned Gelato shop here in Canada. Not in the US yet, right?

James: Not yet, and not so much a shop ... We're in about 3,000 retailers across the country. You can pick it up and take it home with you. We've got one shop. It's our gelato factory and coffee bar. It's like Willy Wonka meets Google.

Joel: Not to put the pressure on you, but I've been promised that you're the best interview here at the show.

James: Oh, shoot, sorry to disappoint already.

Chad: Oh, [crosstalk 00:03:36] expectations.

Joel: You have a really interesting story of how you got started. You're a Calgary guy, born and bred. Bleed this city to the bone. Give our audience a little bit about you, how you got started, and then, we'll go into the business and your employees, and whatnot.

James: Yeah, sounds good. Yeah, born and raised here in Calgary, Alberta. A huge Flames fan, and we didn't have too much growing up, so-

Joel: That's a hockey team, by the way.

James: Yeah, Calgary Flames, for all the-

Joel: For some of those down [crosstalk 00:04:03] down south of the border.

James: Yeah, there you go.

Chad: Stupid Americans, I swear.

James: Yeah, so my whole life, I've sort of had this innate desire to sort of go get what I want. At a young age, we didn't have too much cash, so digging through dumpsters for coke cans to take back to the bottle depot or shoveling walks was the real deal.

Joel: I'm glad you didn't say food.

James: Yeah, no.

Joel: At least you have cans to recycle.

James: Yeah, yeah.

Joel: I was like, "Man, this is a real sad story."

James: Yeah. It's not so sad. It's just about doing whatever it takes, right?

Joel: It's about hustling. You're a hustler, from what I've [crosstalk 00:04:37], up to this point.

James: There you go. There we go. Yeah, so always doing something on the side. I started this little design company called Paperback Design when I was in my high school days to help make some money. I'd moved out when I was 15, and kind of needed to pay rent, and one of my clients was this company called Fiasco Gelato. Fast forward to 2008, 2009, and the owner of the company was busy doing other things, and said you love this company a little bit more than I do. Why don't you take it over? The problem was, was I had $1,800 in my bank account, and-

Joel: By the way, we have a lot of hip, young kids that listen to the podcast, so something really bad happened around 2008 that maybe created opportunity for you.

James: Yeah, so I'm about to take over the shop, and the guy's name is Matt, and Matt says, "Hey, do you want to take it over?" I'm like, "I'm like $1,800." We did a handshake deal to repay $100,000 over three years.

Joel: Only in Canada.

James: Yeah, so I borrowed $5,000 from my aunts, and $5,000 from my good friend, Chris, and we were doing some light renovations to reopen Fiasco 2.0. Someone threw a brick through the front window of the store before I'd ever made five bucks in the shop. Matt came to me, and he still had the lease and insurance in his name, and he said-

Joel: So much for all Canadians being nice.

James: Yeah, exactly. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a Canadian, no.

Chad: One of those tourist Americans.

Joel: Yeah, yeah, fly through. "I hate gelato."

James: Let's get them. Let's get them.

Joel: Ice cream.

James: Yeah, so in this moment, I kind of had to decide if I was going to just let it go, or sail on, and said if not now, then when? Rebuilt the store, and was there for five months. Kicked ass, and then, the landlord came by and said, "Great job. You're going to pay double."

Joel: Oh, Jesus.

James: Being 25, and not great at math, I still knew double was bad. Shut her down, and put everything in storage.

Joel: It's one thing to take over a shop, and sell sugar, ice sugar.

James: Yeah, yeah.

Joel: I assume you had employees.

James: Yeah, we had a few.

Joel: Had you managed people before? Was this a nightmare? Talk about that.

James: Yeah. I kind of got thrown into managing people when I was in high school. I worked at this grocery store called DeBaggis, and I was the assistant store manager at 17 years old. I had to basically manage people that were always older than me. What I learned in those moments was clear communication being effective, but I also learned that I actually had an innate ability to lead people, and playing on sports teams when I was younger, and whatnot, I started to see this emergence. Fast-forward to running my own company, and we had to bring people in.

James: No one really knew what the company had, from an HR perspective, 'cause we didn't, we didn't have an HR person. We didn't have an HR manual. It was just like, "Do you want to come scoop ice cream? It's going to be a good time." I think a lot of people came to Fiasco in the early days because the brand had a bit of swagger to it. It was kind of sexy. No one really knew what gelato was, still, but they wanted to have the tasty ice cream, or the unique ice cream.

James: But as this whole thing happened, when the fire happened, and then, we had to close the store, it was a difficult time, and I think I learned a lot about how to let people down easy. I kind of made a promise I would never lay people off. Everyone that worked in the company at that time, we found them other opportunities when we basically closed it down in 2010, and then, three or four months later, when I reopened, I called all these people back, and said, "Hey, we're putting the band back together. Do you want to come join the cause again?" That loyalty, employee zero-zero, one of the first person that ever worked for me, Brittany Back, is still a part of the company today, which is a testament to kind of some special things.

Joel: Would you say there was more loyalty to Fiasco, the brand, or was there a newfound loyalty to you, the new owner? Or, both?

James: Maybe a hybrid of both, that the intersection is a grandiose vision that if we can dream it, we can do it kind of thing, so yeah.

Joel: Now, you take over a store. Then, something really bad happens, natural disaster style to Calgary. Talk about that.

James: Right. Yeah, so shop opens, shop closes. It's these peaks and valleys of emotion, all the time. I try to recall those moments of how hard it was, when I think things are hard now. But we're feeding a lot of our fans through restaurants and cafes, and in 2013, the Alberta floods happened up here. Half the province is under water. We lose 40% of our business overnight. Accidentally, we put it out to the community we want to help. Again, being born and raised here, we wanted to do something, and it's in our DNA. We ended up launching these two glass jars in the Calgary co-op that were called two by two, rebuild the zoo. Co-op was so ecstatic that A, we showed up for the community, and sold 12,00 jars that were all hand-filled, 10 liters at a time.

Joel: I saw what he did there, with the two by two save the zoo. That was our [crosstalk 00:09:23].

James: Yeah, yeah. I like that. It's good, right?

Joel: I'll say.

Chad: He's a good Catholic.

James: After that, co-op was like, "Great job. What's next?" I had this clear jar. I was obsessed with getting it right, and didn't want to launch a new grocery too soon, 'cause you sort of get one at bat, and when we did, people were ecstatic about the product. That was 24 stores. We were working around the clock. I think one of the things, too, on, from a people perspective, is I don't know that we would have achieved what we did if people didn't believe in what we stood for. So much of our community giveback and investment in something that was bigger than us was, I think, an integral part of why people would work 12, 14, 16 hour days, six, seven, eight days a week.

Chad: Did you realize that you were creating this cult brand, at this point?

James: I think that I would have agreed that it was possible. Somebody would say to me, "What's your dream?" I'm like, "To be bigger than Haagen-Dazs one day." That's an easy reference point. But as time went on, I realized that actually, it was less about scale of a brand, like Haagen-Dazs, in terms of reach or sales, and it was more about looking at brands like Starbucks and Virgin, and Netflix, and saying how can we actually create a company that changes the world from an employment perspective? Because undeniably, we spend more than a third of our lives working. When we go to these jobs, sometimes, they're real shitty, and people spend their whole lives with a third of it being really shitty all the time. I said well, what if we just change that, and it's really enjoyable and rewarding, and you learn how to be a better person in your personal life? You look after all those pieces. How does that now translate into changing the world in the communities that these people live in, and their families, and how they share the story with others, and then encourage others to make that same change.

Joel: Was there a time as you were growing where the number of applicants that was coming in started increasing to the point where you said, "Holy shit, people really want to work here?" Talk about that.

James: Yeah, we get a lot of people reaching out directly that are, "I'll come do whatever," kind of thing. When we put up, post-up the specific, yeah, in the early days, it was impossible to get a resume in the door. You kind of had to convince people just to come check it out. You know?

Chad: Yeah. What's this gelato stuff?

James: Yeah. One of the most rewarding things now is we are sharing this. We just hired somebody new in the position we were hiring for. We had hundreds of applicants come in, and then, we narrowed it down to 60 phone screenings. Then, we got down to 20 in person. Then, we had a final four. When you share with those final four people how far they've come, 'cause they realize, through the interview process, it's not like they came in one day, and we said yes or no. We have a six to eight step interview process. They were like, "This has actually taught."

James: I had one of them reach out to me this week and say, "That was the most fascinating, and I learned so much. I can't stop talking about your interview process." She didn't even get the job. She's like, "I just want to stay warm, meet you for coffee. I'll take any job you got," which is pretty magical, when you think about it, that people are willing to leave the careers they already have, or look towards a brand that maybe can't pay as much as, you know, in Calgary, it's an oil and gas business, right? The reality is is that we can't pay as much as those companies. But so often now, people are saying, "I actually want to be a part of building something that matters." They'll leaven an organization like that. Or, they'll take a pay cut. Or, they'll find a way to make it work, if the opportunity's there.

Joel: Did you find that, as you were doing good in the community, that the appeal to a potential candidate also sort of moved in lockstep with as you were doing good for the community, more and more people said I want to work for these guys?

James: Yeah. I think that there definitely would be some correlation there. The hardest part about all of that is generally when you're giving back to the community, you're activating resource, or depleting resource financially that you can't pay people. I always say people are really attracted to the funness, or the excitingness, or the community driven aspect of our brand. But then, when you're-

Joel: The excitingness. I like that word.

James: Excitingness. There's actually, there's a book at Fiasco of words I've made up, so we'll just add it. There's also a cry count, but we won't, we'll save that for another podcast. But all of those pieces, ultimately, attract them, but then, there's sort of that cold, hard moment where it's like, "Hey, this is really all we can afford," and we're very transparent about our finances. People ultimately have to decide. I feel like we pay well. We pay a living wage. We don't talk about minimum wage at Fiasco, 'cause it's literally not enough for people to survive. But we're not paying $250,000 to-

Chad: Right. You didn't go into this to create separate brands. It's like the brand is this cult brand of wonderful gelato and we help the community, and it's just like everything kind of flows. If you want to be a part of this, right, if you want to be a part of this-

James: Yeah, you're either in, or you're out.

Chad: Right, so it's more of a holistic kind of angle, as opposed to, as opposed to trying to create these little kind of fissures of brand.

James: Yes, yeah, yes.

Joel: Part of the question would be do you work to create an employment brand, or does it just happen?

James: It's funny. Shannon and I were just talking about this right before the podcast. I think accidentally, that is something we've created in a big way. A few folks have come up and said your talk last year was the most moving talk, because not only was it relatable, but it now activated me to go out and say to my employer that we need to do these things. I think that the work that we've done on that in the company was sort of intentionally, but by accident, and what I mean by that is we weren't, there was no strategy around it.

James: It was just this is the right thing to do, so we're just going to do it. If it doesn't work out, we'll probably find out. But fortunately, if you do the right thing, it's pretty cliché, but if you do the right thing, the money's going to come. If you do the right thing, then, you can sleep at night. If you do the right thing, then your people are going to look after everything. I think Chris or Ryan, one of them, was talking, "Take care of your people, then, they'll take care of the customer." For sure. Employees first, 100% of the time.

Joel: For those who weren't at that talk, last year, and I'm sure everyone listening to this has that-

Chad: Was not, yeah.

James: It's sort of a gathering.

Joel: Give us sort of a snapshot of what you talked about that was so impactful.

James: Yeah, so I shared the origin story of Fiasco. I think it was relatable for people in the room that have their own businesses, or work in smaller businesses. I think our conferences like this, the message that a giant brand might share, I was in the M&Ms talk this morning. It's great. It's inspiring, but I don't know how relatable it is, because you don't have a billion dollar budget to shoot a movie, kind of thing.

Joel: Yeah, and 85% of companies don't.

James: Yes, exactly.

Chad: CGI, some M&Ms, or something. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

James: Yeah, exactly. I think that's why there was, I was a deeper connection. I kind of brought it back to this pretty important piece that's become part of my journey. When I was younger, as I shared before, we didn't have much, rowing up. My dad was in these job placement things. But he'd often come home either overworked, or underpaid, or not cared for, or whatever it might be. As I started to build this company, I realized that there was accidentally, again, this thing occurring where every decision I had to make around the people in the organization, there was a simple governor. It was this idea of building the company that I would want my dad to work for. For anyone listening, it could be your mom, your dad, your aunt, your uncle. It doesn't matter.

Chad: Yeah, yeah.

James: But we can all relate to that. We can all look back to our childhood, and say, "What was it like when my dad or mom came home from work, and what did they share with me about their boss or their job, or the work they did, and how meaningful it was, or how shitty it was?" Or, whatever it was. Now, my dad just celebrated five years at Fiasco.

Chad: No, that's awesome.

James: It's the real deal. He left the company he worked at for 18 years.

Chad: Fuck. That is fucking awesome.

James: He came to me one day and said, "The work that I do doesn't light me up anymore, and I can be your janitor." I said, "I don't need a janitor, dad. But I need a receiver." He literally accepted. Not a lot of pay, and a job that, he's 60 years old at the time. Probably physically can't do at the level he would like to. But it's black and white, every single day. Every decision is literally does this decision agree with a company that my dad would want to work for? That's, it's magic in itself. There's a lot of empathy and humility and understanding, within the organization, when it comes to people, because I just think of Shannon, she's my, I call her my boss, but she's my assistant, and when she has something in her life occur with her kids, or that's real life, you just treat it like she's your parent, and what you'd want to do. It makes it so easy. So easy.

Chad: Just about every cult brand we've heard, right, they've said if you're thinking about people, not investors, right, not the agent, not the noise that's out there, but you're focused, you're not distracted, and you understand that your people are the ones who actually service, right, they're the ones who provide, you know, those are the ones who have become the cult brands.

James: 100%, yeah.

Chad: Right? Can you speak to that for startups, right? We've got a ton of startups that we talk to.

Joel: And small businesses.

Chad: Yeah, small businesses, and they have these investors that are coming to them with tons of cash, and that's all well and good. But what would you say to them about how to actually get a huskiness, and have the grit and the determination that you've had to be able to make it to being a cult brand?

James: Yeah, I think that there's often a juxtaposition between investors and shareholders, and what people think the accountability needs to be, which is generally driven by the bottom line. Actually looking at it through a lens of if we simply just do the right thing by our people, and then do not accept money, or do not work with the bank, or do not have shareholders that do not align with those values, then, it's really easy when you say, "Hey, sorry, we lost money, but we didn't lose any employees," or, "Hey, sorry, we pay people a living wage and actually change the fabric of our community, but we didn't make 20% EBITA."

Chad: Amen, yes.

James: Those, that's the best advice I can give. The challenge I have is inherently, people want to do the right thing. There's, sure, there's some shitty people in the world. But the reality is is 99.9 just want to do the right thing. But then, in business, they sort of lose sight of that very easily. I don't understand it.

Chad: Pressure. Weakness, and pressure. Not, and discipline.

James: Yeah, it's not, it's so broken. The way some COs or leaders or whatever treat their people, it's disgusting. My frustration is is that it's like they walk in the door of business, and all of a sudden, turn into this monster. I'm like what if you just created everyone in your company like your kids, or your brother and sister, or your dad. Then, it's like holy shit. That's, it's just easy. The hardest thing to do for sure for anybody is fire somebody. But then, you get into business, and they're like, "Oh, blah blah blah," and they're like really cruel about it. For us, it's if we have to let somebody go, it's never a surprise. Never a surprise. When people, when it comes to that, when we get to that point, they're like, "I understand."

Chad: Expectations, dude. I mean, transparency and expectations.

James: Yeah, 100%.

Joel: Well, James, I'm being told that we're out of time.

James: Oh, my God.

Joel: But I want to say we really appreciate you sitting down. For anyone who wants to know about you, when you're coming to the US, where could they go find that out?

James: Yeah. is the website. The handle on any social media is Fiasco Gelato. Don't get us confused in the US with Gelato Fiasco. That's for another podcast. Fiasco Gelato, it's crazy. Then, personally, just James Boettcher on all platforms. If you want to see the talk from last year, head over to the cult gathering website, and it's on there. Feel free to let me know how it moved you.

Joel: My only regret is we didn't get to talk about why an ice cream company in Canada was a good idea. We'll save that for another show, maybe.

Chad: Yes, I love it. We'll pull him back in for another show, because that, I think that could be an entire segment.

Joel: Yeah. How much therapy did you have, or have you had a psychological review?

James: Here's the trick. It's not about gelato.

Joel: Oh, well, thanks, James.

Chad: We're going to leave that out there.

James: All right.

Chad: Later, man.

Ema: Hi. I'm Ema. Thanks for listening to my dad, the Chad, and his buddy, Cheese. This has been the Chad and Cheese podcast. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts, so you don't miss a single show. Be sure to check out our sponsors, because their money goes to my college fund. For more, visit Chad

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