As more American consumers become acquainted with gelato, bakers are implementing it as an upscale frozen treat. With eye-catching colors and comparative healthfulness, gelato sets itself apart from other cold desserts.
In December 2004, Donald Trump, in the hit NBC television show “The Apprentice,” challenged contestants to come up with the best gelato flavor, or risk being fired.
“For months after that, people were making the connection between what they saw on the show and our ad in the Yellow Pages,” says Aaron Atwood of Atwood's Bakery, Alexandria, La. “We had to phrase it as ‘Gelato Ice Cream’ in the ad because nobody knew what gelato was. But every time a Food Network show like ‘Good Eats’ features gelato, more people come into our shop knowing what it is, and we have an upswing in gelato business.”
The Atwoods introduced gelato to their bakery when they moved to a larger facility in 2004. One of the main goals of the move was to concentrate their energies on more upscale product lines to get more business from people with looser purse strings. They were already adding coffee, a full chocolate line and sandwiches to their full-line retail bakery, and wanted to get a foot in the door of the frozen dessert market. Traditional ice cream offerings, though, didn't fit with their decidedly upscale approach.
Gelato had been on owners Mark and Rhonda Atwood's radar for some time, thanks to trips to Europe. Also, close friends and fellow bakers, Larry and Christian Merritt of Merritt's Bakery in Tulsa, Okla., had a gelato program running at the time.
The Atwoods sent their son Aaron to Merritt's Bakery for a crash course in how to make gelato. They bought the requisite equipment and have been doing well with it ever since.
When consumers try gelato, they tend to be happily surprised. But the Italian treat used to be so foreign that bakeries needed to do quite a bit of marketing and sampling to get people to try it. The dessert is gaining momentum, making marketing easier, but merchandising techniques are still necessary to trigger that first purchase.
At Vince & Joe's Gourmet Market in Shelby Township, Mich., all gelato needed was a little push into the limelight. The owners, brothers Vince and Joe Vitale, owned and operated smaller Italian markets before opening the full-service grocery store and bakery. Gelato was a natural choice for them. They installed a small gelato case, but it was positioned at a 45-degree angle around the corner from the bakery, and gelato wasn't getting the attention the brothers had anticipated. So, they decided to expand the bakery to include the former gelato case and give gelato some exposure.
“Since we expanded our cases, everything has really boomed. The two departments under one roof really drive one another,” says Bob Blazinski, bakery manager. “With the two departments together, we have more people coming by, lots of foot traffic, because there is just so much to see. The gelato is so colorful, it draws people in.”
In the new layout, the gelato display springs out from the bakery in a 20-ft. case. A small cookie case serves as a joint or connecter between the gelato case and another 20-ft. pastry case. The result is one long, uninterrupted visual merchandising scheme. The gelato and bakery departments operate with separate staffs, but Blazinski expects the lines to blur as time passes. The gelato department currently produces gelato cakes in lieu of ice cream cakes, and the pastry chef in him wants to experiment with decorating in gelato.
“As people shop, they go through the produce department, the frozen foods, but when they get to the bakery, they get an impressive visual. That's where they find the sweets and that's where the fun starts,” Blazinski says.
Customize and compare
Christie Hauck, owner of Christie's Cookies and Bravo Gelato, Nashville, Tenn., is seeing promise in customizing gelato flavors for customers
“It's an artisan style dessert, and you're making small batches, so you can be creative,” Hauck says. “Because it's custom, people expect to pay a premium price. We've seen good success because we can push margins while the product doesn't cost anymore to make.”
For instance, Hauck encourages Nashville residents, who often vacation in Alabama and Florida, to bring fresh fruit from their trips. For a price, he'll turn the fresh fruit into a custom gelato.
Customers are visually drawn to the gelato case at Atwood's Bakery, which is placed near the cash register to encourage impulse sales. Employees are trained to launch into an educational spiel explaining the differences between gelato and ice cream, and the history of gelato, basically creating a retail theater.
Active sampling goes a long way. Temperatures prohibit leaving gelato samples out on the case. Employees actively engage customers with gelato samples, and are trained to insist that a consumer try at least three kinds.
Some gelato is made without milk, Atwood notes, and neither the base nor the fruit contain fat. But he likes to wait until after a customer has tasted the gelato before revealing its healthful properties.
“You don't want it to seem any less indulgent before they taste it,” Atwood says. “Besides, it's more fun to tell someone after they just enjoyed a sample that what they've just eaten had no fat. They look at you like you're crazy.”
Customers accustomed to heaping scoops of ice cream sometimes balk at the serving sizes. Atwood's employees are trained to clarify differences between traditional American ice cream and gelato. Ice cream uses heavy cream, which makes it creamier but dilutes the flavor. Also, ice cream has an overrun, or added air, of up to 100 percent compared to gelato's 30 to 40 percent overrun. This gives gelato its comparatively high flavor impact. At Atwood's, the number can be as low as 10 percent overrun, packing a lot of flavor into a small package. These distinctions are particularly important for a customer to understand when they see the price.
Atwood's offers gelato in 3- and 5-oz. cups, priced at $3.25 and $4.95, respectively. Those prices are up from $2.95 and $4.50, respectively, only nine months ago, but sales haven't slowed. The people who buy gelato are less concerned about price than the average person, as gelato pulls in more than $115 per gallon at Atwood's. Not every market is able to bear gelato's premium prices, though.
After having shown Atwood the ropes with the dessert, Christian Merritt has shuttered his own gelato line.
“For me, because it wasn't selling very well, the limited shelf life and product degredation were big problems,” Merritt says. “It was a very high-end product; we had to charge a premium price. Not enough people were willing to pay.”
Merritt's offered the product year-round for three years, and again during the summer of the fourth year before discontinuing the line. He sold the equipment, so Merritt's wont be revisiting gelato anytime soon.
Merritt notes Tulsa has an established local dairy that produces ice cream on top of the usual bevy of Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors and Dairy Queens, so his particular market is unique when it comes to frozen desserts.
Hauck agrees that the gelato business can be location-dependant.
“If you're on a boardwalk or on a beach, you're going to sell a lot of gelato. If you're not, then you need to do more merchandising,” Hauck says. “But the destination aspect of it is coming on. People are increasingly recognizing gelato and seeking it out.”