Tapping Volunteer Energy

Zul’s makes and delivers its frozen lemonade treat, nonprofit volunteers scoop and sell it, and everyone wins.


Written by Pam Kasey
Photo courtesy of Robert Zuliani

 

When it comes to harnessing volunteer verve, Robert Zuliani has most entrepreneurs beat. His company, Zul’s, serves up its refreshing frozen lemonade to hordes of fans at some 80 outdoor warm-weather events statewide and a number of major venues year-round—all with a core staff of just eight part-timers. “Literally thousands of volunteers scoop a cup of Zul’s each year,” says Zuliani of his unusual business model. “It’s a great way to work. It just takes some trial and error.”

When the Connecticut native gave up his pizzeria in 1994 and moved over the mountains to Buckhannon to be near his future bride, he brought an ice cream machine with him. Zuliani quickly got started making frozen lemonade, a treat he’d seen draw long lines of beachgoers in Rhode Island. Although it’s now sold everywhere across the state, he still makes all of his product in Buckhannon, both for quality control and to minimize equipment costs. His challenge has been getting an intensely perishable product from there to thirsty event-goers all over, and making a little money doing it. His solution lets him centralize production and minimize payroll—while also supporting nonprofits’ good works.

The framework is simple. Zuliani coordinates upcoming events with nonprofit groups that need volunteer fundraising activities. Zul’s employees make the lemonade in Buckhannon and deliver it to events, with a quick volunteer training on scooping, cleaning, and how much to charge: $3 at high school events, $5 at college and civic venues. The local organizers keep volunteers on task, the company keeps the groups supplied, and each group gets a nice percentage at the end.

Around now you’re thinking, “This can’t work. Volunteers are notoriously unreliable.” But it does work, because nonprofits always need to raise good money, fast. By selling Zul’s, they can make anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars at a single event. It works on other levels, too. “When people see that a percentage goes to a local group, they’re more apt to give their money to that organization than to another out-ofcounty vendor.” It even gains Zul’s entrée to events that only take local vendors.

Zuliani’s business model allowed him to be home when his children were young and, at the same time, grow his business and feel great about it. “It’s instant gratification. The groups’ eyes light up when they get their checks and they made a lot more money than all the bake sales and car washes they could do. It’s a ball.”


 

Thinking of using volunteers? Consider these tips.

 

Identify Reliable Contacts.

“As anyone that’s worked with a nonprofit or booster club knows, even if the group has hundreds of members, it’s five people that do everything,” Zuliani says.

Communication is Key.

“I’m on the phone most of the day and until all hours of the night tying it all together because, during events, groups will call me at any time for deliveries.”

Trust, but Prepare.

“When a great person in charge of an organization moves on and the wrong person comes in, it can ruin an event. They may not be able to anticipate the busiest part of an event or when they’re going to need more product, and I can start counting the money I’m going to lose. I can usually see that coming, so I try to have more of a presence at an event or call more often to check in.”

Let Groups Prove Themselves.

Is a nonprofit you’re starting up with a fringe group, or is it well established? “You can kind of gauge. But you’re always taking a chance, starting out. I never use a new group at a big event if I can avoid it—I tend to have my own people work the huge-dollar events.”

Good Contacts Make Great Employees.

“A lot of our teachers work for booster clubs and DECA clubs, for example. They know the public, they’re great with volunteers, they already know how we work, and some retire and want to work part-time. I like to hire them. And then they inform me of other events that I might not know about.”

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