Tuesday, April 24, 2012
How Dallas-based Talenti Gelato went from gelato stand to national brand
Company just added five new flavors to its lineup.
DALLAS Talenti Gelato e Sorbetto had modest beginnings in 2003: just a single gelato stand on Knox Street in Dallas. But somewhere between then and now, it grew into a major gelato manufacturer whose lineup of 19 flavors is sold at groceries across the U.S.
The company just introduced five new flavors: Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, Banana Chocolate Swirl, Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Chip-Stracciatella, and Simply Strawberry. Previously available in pints only, Talenti has also begun selling gelato in quart containers.
How Talenti got from there to here is the result of elbow grease on the part of its founder Josh Hochschuler, coupled with the inexorable increase in popularity of gelato, the Italian-style ice cream. It has a fine, dense texture that's similar to super-premium ice creams such as Ben & Jerry's. But where super-premium ice creams use cream, true gelato uses milk and has less air whipped in. The result: creamier texture, cleaner more intense flavor -- and less fat.
Most of Talenti's gelatos include cream as well as milk. Its new black-raspberry chocolate chip (similar to a Haagen-Dazs flavor that was first originated by the now-defunct Dreamery) has milk, cream, sugar, black raspberries, chocolate oil, dextrose, vanilla, carob bean gum, and soy lecithin.
Paciugo Gelato did the hard work up front, introducing Dallas to gelato in 2000. At the time, Talenti seemed to be nothing more than a me-too, though a worthy one with good gelato. Hochschuler had tried gelato while living in Argentina and wanted to duplicate the experience when he opened Talenti on Knox Street in 2003. Located in the space that is now Toulouse (in fact, Hochschuler had to haggle with Alberto Lombardi to be able to take his little freezer with him, and Lombardi kept the store's stereo and furniture), it was a pristine Euro-style space with flawless white marble and cozy little tables, and there was always a line.
One area in which Talenti was a pioneer was its use of caramel as a flavor, combined with vanilla -- back then dubbed "Argentinian caramel" and one of its most popular scoop flavors. Caramel, dulce de leche, sea salt caramel, all those flavors are ubiquitous today, but when Talenti opened, its Argentian caramel was unique.
Owning an ice cream stand meant that Hochschuler worked 16-hour days scooping cones. No wonder he responded so readily to a request from Nick & Sam's chef Samir Dhurandhar.
"Samir asked me to put the gelato in bigger containers so he could sell it at Nick & Sam’s," Hochschuler says. "It was an 'a-ha moment', that maybe I should try to sign on other restaurants and do bulk gelato to restaurants. Samir introduced me to [Eatzi's owner] Phil Romano, and then I put in a little freezer of Talenti at Eatzi's."
When Eatzi's grew into five stores, Hochschuler provided all the branches with Talenti. He remembers going to Walgreen's and Tom Thumb to buy milk, making the gelato, and Fed-Exing gelato to Eatzi's in New York, Houston, and Washington, D.C. By 2006, he added CostCo and Market Street to his customer list. He hit a stumbling block at the end of 2006 when Eatzi's closed down four stores, but by 2007, Whole Foods Market had signed on.
In 2008, unable to handle the business on his own, he partnered with Steve Gill and Eddie Phillips (now deceased), who'd marketed Belvedere vodka and knew about luxury branding. They scored financing and made connections with distributors, landing Talenti in the Publix supermarket chain in Florida in 2009. Although the company won't reveal sales figures, they're in most grocery chains -- more than 20,000 stores, including California.
One thing that makes them stand out -- not necessarily in a good way -- is their packaging. Their distinctive clear plastic container with black lid is less environmentally friendly than the paper cartons used by other ice cream makers.
"I knew I wanted to do something transparent," Hochschuler says. "Initially, I was using a stock item made of polystyrene, with a polypropylene lid. But Whole Foods wanted me to be more environmentally friendly. We had to build molds in Japan to make our own jars and lids. It allowed us to get away from polystyrene, which is a #5 level, to PET #1, which is easier to recycle. And we changed the lid to high-density polyethylene so that the entire pack could be recyclable."
They've run "re-use" ad campaigns in some cities and a Facebook contest on how customers re-use their jars. Hochschuler says they've made other environmental overtures including recirculating their water at their manufacturing plant west of Love Field.
"We are looking at the research Coca-Cola has done on plant resin that biodegrades more quickly, but we're not just going to scrap it and go to paper," Hochschuler says. "We're going to find the best solution to be responsible within what would allow us to continue to have success."
Other plans include rotational flavors and seasonal flavors during the holidays.
"With five new releases this year, that's a big year," he says. "Two or three per year would be good. It's a big year for us on innovation."