This month we talk with Jackson Smith, founder of Honeysuckle Gelato. What started as a food truck has morphed into a brick and mortar location at Ponce City Market in the Old Fourth Ward.
What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream? Why were you called to make gelato, instead of ice cream, sorbet or popsicles?
Gelato has a lower fat content and less air whipped into it, so it has a smoother texture and bigger, brighter flavors. Although I can’t imagine my life away from gelato, my introduction to it was not as purposeful as you’d imagine. At the time, I had chased my high school sweetheart to NYC to try to work things out, and found myself in need of work of the paying variety. Out of the hundreds of resumés I sent out, Jon Snyder at Il Laboratorio Del Gelato was literally the only one to write back. I talked him into hiring me, fell in love with the process, and then married that young lady.
You learned from the best—Jon Snyder was the original founder of Ciao Bella in New York City, which most of us have seen at the grocery store. How does Honeysuckle stay true to what you learned, and how does your operation differ from the one that raised you?
He was a stickler for doing everything the right way, and letting the individual flavors shine. The Lab was a bit of a different setup in that most of our gelato ended up being scooped back of house by some of the best chefs in NYC. As such, most of our creations were single-note flavors that the chefs could dress up as they saw fit. With no other flavors or inclusions to hide behind, every ounce of gelato had to represent exactly what was on the label or it wouldn’t leave the shop. I honestly greatly appreciate his approach, but it is a little more buttoned-up than I am by nature. It’s taken me nearly a decade to deprogram a bit, and my approach now is to have the same expectation of quality, but I have to keep telling myself, “This is gelato. Let’s go have some fun with it.”
How long can I truly keep a pint of gelato in my freezer before it needs to go in the trash?
FDA says 12 months, but keep it sealed and frozen and you’re good to go for 18 months. The better question is, why would you keep something so delicious hidden away for so long?
After two years as a food truck, you got a brick and mortar location. Is there anything you miss about the food truck life, or is it as hard to manage as everyone says?
There was a period of time when we had taken the truck off the street, and Ponce City Market hadn’t opened up that I really missed the face-to-face interactions with customers. But food trucking is a hard life. You spend more of your time trying to figure out how to get in front of customers than you do on making something delicious for them. If you can use it as a stepping stone to something bigger, it can work, but my advice is to go work on one for a few months before you start shopping for a truck.
You won DailyCandy’s “Start Small, Go Big” entrepreneurship competition with a plan to grow from food truck and local catering into a national wholesale and retail operation. What’s been the impact of DailyCandy’s mentorship and how are the national plans coming along?
When we won “Start Small, Go Big” I think the three of us were like, “whew, we made it.” Then about a year later, Daily Candy folded. I won’t say that winning didn’t have any material benefits to us. It was a huge shot in the arm at the time, and I think it did open some doors for us, but the most important lesson I took from it was that there’s no finish line when you’re building a business.
A lot of folks don’t know that five percent of Honeysuckles profits are donated to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. How did you settle on ACFB for your mission to give back?
It’s shameful that so many people, particularly children and the elderly, go hungry in this country. Our contribution is a drop in a bucket, but one we feel compelled to make. To date we’ve helped to provide close to 200,000 meals to those in need through ACFB. We’re honored to be partnered with an organization that does such thankless work so well, and grateful to every single customer of ours for their support.
Are you personally a scoop guy or a sandwich guy?
Sandwich. Because gelato has been my focus for so long, I enjoy and appreciate it, but I don’t crave it, if that makes sense. Now, if you take that same gelato and slap a brownie on either side, it becomes hard to say no. We’re just starting to roll the sandwiches out in stores, so I know they’re not as easy to find as our pints, but if there’s anything you take away from this interview, you need to get your hands on our Salted Caramel Brownie gelato sandwich.
Kitchens are an intense atmosphere. What does your kitchen sound like? Is it deadly silent, does somebody pick a radio station or playlist, or do you just fling witty banter?
Our equipment is fairly loud, so radios are not really doable. Most of our kitchen staff works with one headphone in, one out, and I think most of us are listening to podcasts at this point. We do have a little game of trying to implant ridiculous songs in each other’s heads. If I were to, say, whistle the first four notes of the Sanford and Son theme song, it would probably be in your head all day.
What’s the difference between how you make gelato at home versus at work? Are there flavors you make for yourself at home? Do you use your own kitchen as a lab, or save experiments for the Honeysuckle kitchen?
There was a time when I would experiment at home all the time. My wife and I just had our third child, though, so these days I am only permitted to bring gelato home in its physical form, not conceptual.
Where do you get flavor inspiration? Do you continue to study Ciao Bella, check out Instagram, certain books or magazines?
I try to stay away from looking at what other gelato/ice cream outfits are doing. A lot of the new flavor inspiration comes from working with local chefs to create a gelato flavor for their menu. We’ve made hundreds of individual flavors at this point, so our real work is trying to find the ideal pairing for each.