People kept emailing Kilwins confectionary shop owner Kate LaBonte, saying they couldn't wait until the shop opened at the new Lakewood Ranch entertainment hub of Waterside Place.
Now LaBonte, who opened Kilwins Dec. 18, is waiting for the rest of the Waterside Place shops to finish their build outs and open as well. For now, she depends on the farmers market on Sundays and the Ranch Night on Wednesdays for much of her business.
“I think Waterside is going to be one of the best entertainment districts for this whole area,” she said. “It’s going to be very exciting, seeing all the other stores pop up around here. The people are very welcoming. Everyone is just so happy that we're here."
In opening two other Kilwins' locations, LaBonte said she never has so many people contact her about being excited with the opening.
She said the business will fill the role of the neighborhood ice cream shop, and that people will feel welcome.
LaBonte co-owns the business with her husband, Todd LaBonte, and the couple has managed Kilwins stores for 15 years.
It started when they were living in Michigan, where Kate LaBonte was a court stenographer and Todd LaBonte a corrections officer. After 20 years in their respective careers, they were looking for a change of atmosphere.
“You know, 99% of the time, when you come in here, people are happy,” said Kate LaBonte.
She also said she was impressed with the quality of the products and the warm and family-like way the company's management treated the couple during the interview process. Shortly afterward, she opened her first store in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
Eventually, the couple began to explore Florida's east coast during visits to Kate LaBonte’s sister, Liz Koharski. They opened a location in Clearwater before turning to Waterside Place.
The LaBontes currently live in Palm Harbor with their 17-year-old twin daughters, Emma and Emily, but once they’re off to college, she hopes to move to Waterside.
To juggle the three different stores, the LaBontes needed a manager for Waterside Place, and the turned to another person looking to escape a conventional career.
Tricia Farrington was a bank manager for 30 years, and her husband Jerry Farrington was a corrections officer for 20 years who had worked with Todd LaBonte in Michigan. When Jerry Farrington retired, he wanted to go south, and his wife agreed to the plan.
“Getting ice cream is happy,” Tricia Farrington said. “Banking can be happy, but it can also be stressful.”
Kate LaBonte said the Waterside Place opening was not without hurdles. Construction of the interior space was delayed by supply issues.
“Construction right now is just like housing,” she said. “That’s what a lot of people that come in here have been telling me. 'We broke ground, but we’re not going to get it for, like, another year.”
She also had trouble hiring.
“We have a lot of great kids we hired, though,” she said.
The LaBontes definitely are hands-on owners early in the business.
Once a store is open, she said, running it is challenging. While the chocolates and the super-premium ice cream are shipped from Michigan, other items, such as fudge and caramel apples, are made by hand, in-store.
“It’s not just like you take the caramel out of the wrapper and wrap in on the apple," she said. "It's a lot of work."
To learn how to make Kilwins items, employees train for two weeks in Petoskey, Michigan, where the company is headquartered.
“The fudge is probably the hardest to master,” Tricia Farrington said. “I don’t know that you ever master it, but it gets easier. It’s getting a technique right. It’s multiple processes — it’s cooking, then it’s paddling, then it’s loafing. It’s a moving process. You have to get the hang of when to stop doing one thing and then go to the next step.”