Forthcoming Gelateria Packs in Southern Flavor
Throughout her career, Meridith Ford has worn a number of different hats. Food writer. Pastry chef. Mom. PR rep and marketer. She recently added business owner to the list.
Ford’s gelateria, Cremalosa, is set to open by the end of the year in Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. She admits the process to get the shop open has been a long one, but it’s something she’s wanted to do for a long time.
Unlike ice cream and sorbet, the gelato-making process is very precise and scientific. Ford didn’t wake up one day and decide to start making gelato.
“I don't know how somebody who just wakes up one day, and says ‘I think I'll just open a gelateria,’” she says. “Because of my background I already understood sucrose, dextrose, and what those things do in a product. I already understood the freezing method of things and temperatures. I can't imagine having to learn all of that and then learn everything about gelato, too.”
A few years ago, Ford stepped away from public relations to work as both a pastry chef and in-house marketer for Atlanta restaurateur Riccardo Ullio. Ullio, a native of Milan who moved to the U.S. as a teenager, owns and operates Sotto Sotto, Fritti, Escorpion, and Novo Cucina in Atlanta.
He wanted Ford to develop the gelato program at Novo Cucina.
“He took a big chance on me, but once I got back in the kitchen, I didn't really realize how much I missed it until I was in it again,” she says.
At Novo, Ullio brought in Italian masters to train Ford in the art of making gelato. From flavor and the freezing process to machinery, she learned everything about gelato. Ford also took a few trips to Italy to do research at the best gelaterias.
Even though it’s a male-dominated field, Ford felt honored to be working with masters of the craft. The dedication the makers show isn’t something you see a lot in the U.S., she says.
“They take it very, very seriously,” she says. “It's part of their national pride in the way we would in the Southeast look at bourbon makers. I wish the culture here were as renowned as it is over there. I mean, people just have entire careers just basically making gelato or teaching people how to make gelato.”
After a few years working with Ullio, Ford wanted to spend more time with family and have more time to write. Ford’s writing earned her a James Beard Award nomination for food criticism in 2006 and she regularly contributes to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications.
Ullio gave marketing responsibilities to someone else, freeing up Ford to run the gelato program and have more time outside of the restaurant.
With Ford’s extensive knowledge of food, ingredients, and the restaurant industry, her initial business focused on spices. However, a few of her closest friends and family members told her that wasn’t the way to go.
“Everybody told me, ‘Why are you doing that? You should do gelato,” she says. “ So I said, ‘Maybe they're right.’ And I went to the bank and got a loan and here I am.”
Experimenting with the menu
“Gelato is extremely precise,” Ford says. “When you do it with the Italian method, it's extremely precise.”
The precision doesn’t scare Ford. She loves the science of baking and is fascinated with “anything to do with making something hot or making something cold.”
Ford took her training seriously. Even though she calls her gelato “American gelato,” she wants to make sure she’s honoring the process and the end product. At Cremalosa, she uses local ingredients and Italian machinery to make the gelato.
Classic gelato flavors like pistachio, hazelnut, and stracciatella are on the menu, but that’s where the normal flavors end. Drawing from her Southern upbringing and travels around the world, the gelato flavors range from banana pudding to strawberries and cream. “I really go kind of out of the box for my flavors,” she says.
Ford is particularly interested in Southern cakes, like Hummingbird cake, Lane cake, and Lady Baltimore cake. Flavors inspired by those cakes and other Southern desserts, like peach cobbler, have all found their way into the gelato case. “The history of sweets in the South is very fascinating to me,” she says.
The gelato flavors are also inspired by Ford’s love of old fashioned penny candy, like malted milk balls, which is a best-selling flavor.
“I draw my flavor profiles from me from things that I know and love and things that my family knew and loved,” she says. “And things that inspired me to write are the same things that pretty much inspired me to make the flavors that I make.”
Cremalosa’s menu will be seasonal and Ford plans on using local produce to create new flavors. During strawberry season she plans on using them in three different flavors—strawberries and cream, strawberry sorbetto, and strawberry cheesecake. But don’t expect to see strawberries on the menu when it’s not strawberry season, she says.
Ford decided not to take any shortcuts when she develops new flavors. Take banana pudding. She could easily make a vanilla gelato and mix in bananas and vanilla wafers and call it banana pudding, but that’s not her style.
“I want that actual gelato to taste like what banana pudding tastes like,” she says.
So far her flavor development has been successful. The only tricky flavor she’s yet to figure out is a snickerdoodle, which always ends up tasting like spiced-up vanilla, she says.
As a small business owner, the cost of ingredients and profit margin is always on Ford’s mind. There are numerous variegates that are on the market to give gelato almost any flavor. Ford’s problem is they’re just too expensive.
“Gelato is the only area of restaurants that I have ever found out that you can actually spend more on an ingredient than on labor and where labor is actually cheaper than something you can buy,” she says.
So, the solution is to make her variegates in-house. From cookies to cheesecake, she bakes everything that’s added into the gelato.
The one exception is nut paste, which is still expensive, she says. It takes $7 to make a cup of pistachio gelato, but Ford can only sell it for $4. But you can’t not have pistachio gelato at a gelateria.
“They are not worth the money. I would love to not have to have pistachio in the case, but people love it,” she says. “And it's very Italian and a gelato case should have pistachio it just should.”
Not your average gelateria
Ford wants people to think of Cremalosa as a desserteria instead of just a gelateria. Boozy milkshakes, popsicles, and gelato cakes join gelato on the menu.
And unlike other gelaterias, alcohol plays a big role on the menu. The decision to obtain a liquor license was simple, Ford says. “I wanted to up my check average,” she says.
Instead of a couple ordering two scoops for $8, they have the option to order a scoop of gelato and a boozy milkshake, which comes to a total of around $22. Ford’s take on an affogato will also have a boozy twist. She can offer customers a chance to top their scoop of gelato with a shot of bourbon. She recommends topping the banana pudding gelato with a shot of bourbon.
“Is the liquor license expensive? Yes, it is,” she says. “I think it'll pay for itself within the first year of business, quite frankly.”
Ford is catering to the older Gen Xers and Millennials with these boozy options on the menu. She sees the shop as a place for moms to bring their kids for an after school snack. But not every mom wants a scoop of gelato, sometimes they want that glass of red wine, Ford says. She is working with a local wine expert to curate a list of Italian wines that are high-quality, but at a reasonable price.
Gelato cakes are also on Cremalosa’s menu. Ford’s version of the classic frozen treat will be decorated with whimsical designs, like butterflies and bees, she says. The cakes feed two to four people and are meant to replace dessert for the evening. “The idea would be instead of buying four cupcakes, you would just buy one of my little cakes,” she says.
When Cremalosa opens, Ford plans on hiring a few gelato scoopers to help when she can’t be there. “I'm a big, senior citizen person and I really like to work with seniors if they're, you know, willing and able,” she says.
Ford continues to juggle multiple roles. She’s working in the front-of-house of a restaurant while getting the business up and running. She hopes that will slow down, but not too much, when Cremalosa opens up at the end of the year.
“I'm a lot older,” Ford says. “Some people in my life are like ‘Why are you doing this at your age? You should be retiring,’ but I'm just not a retirement kind of person.”
“I don't sit around well, it's just not something I'm very good at. So sooner or later, after about a week or so, you know, like a typical vacation. I'm ready to get back and ready for a challenge.”