La Gelateria

Ciao! Let’s hear a bit about yourself.

My name is Francesco, I’m Italian and I come from Montebelluna, a small city not far from Venice. I’m 35 years old now, and I moved to Finland in 2016 because I wanted to open an ice-cream shop.

Usually it’s women who bring us here, not ice-cream.

That’s true! All the Italians I’ve met here have come because of the women! (laughs) But for me it’s been work. I had a Finnish friend here, we became business partners.

How did you guys meet?

We met on a basketball tournament. My previous job, which I did in Italy for fourteen years, was basketball coach. I came to Finland as a tourist several times, and since I’m a huge fan of gelato I tried the local ice-cream and I thought “why is this thing so poor in quality and so expensive?”

How was the transition from basketball to gelato?

You know when you love something, but you get too much of it? You need to take some distance. That’s what happened to me and basketball. I had been doing it for a long time, always full-time, always a passion. But when you transform your passion into your work, if the passion goes away, then the work doesn’t work anymore. I needed to take a break from it, or at least do it part-time. And that’s why I needed something else. Now I like being on the other side now, watching the match as the audience. I’m less critic of things, I enjoy it more. I’m planning to go to Lithuania, whenever it’s possible under the current situation, to watch an Euro-league match there.

When you came here, were you still looking for a coaching job?

I was. In fact last year I coached Tapiolan Honka in my free time. Lately I’ve been really busy with the ice-cream shop so I couldn’t do it, but in the future I’d like to continue. But anyway, I was coming to Helsinki during the summer, eating ice-cream, thinking how boring and industrial it was, and pondering things in my mind.

So I went to the best ice-cream shop in Treviso, near my city, and I asked them if I could work for free. I explained my project, and in exchange for my work they helped me and taught me the techniques and the procedures. I worked there for several months, because there’s so much to learn. For example, a single drop of water within the ice-cream will become a crystal in the mouth, which ruins the experience. You must be very careful in so many ways! So with all that knowledge I came here, still unsure on how to open a shop, a market, a food truck. So we started with a small kitchen and a basic machine to make the ice-cream, and the truck. That’s how the first season went, summer of 2017. In 2018, we got the chance to open a stall in Vanha Kauppahalli, thanks to the Spanish guy who sells jamón there, he helped us contact the right people. Then we opened a kiosk in Haukilahti, but unfortunately some days before the arrival of the kiosk to the spot, someone set fire to the old food truck we had parked there.

Wow. Was it random vandalism or something personal?

According to the police, gasoline was poured on the left front tire and lit. They were sure the fire didn’t start inside the truck. We were insured in any case, so we managed, but it was the first thing we had started with, it was painful to see it go like that. So this year we decided to invest again and get it back. It’s both similar and different from the previous one, and it’s located in Hakaniemi by the beach/park. And we have another vehicle that just arrived, it has been delayed due to the pandemic. So that’s how we started. And after that we’ve been perfecting procedures, and looking for a more direct connection with the producers.

Where does the raw stuff come from?

The pistachio paste comes from Azienda Agricola Fernandez, a farm in a small town in Bronte (Sicily). Our citrus also comes from Sicily. Strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, are all Finnish. The rest of our fruit comes from Brazil, like the mango. Once a Brazilian guy was here buying ice-cream from me, and he asks “your mango comes from Brazil, yeah?” and I say yes, want to try it? “No,” he laughs, “I have mangoes at home, and for me, it’s food for the pigs!” They have it everywhere, so it’s used as food for farm animals. Still, one of my favorite and one of our top sellers.

About a month ago we closed a deal with a farm for fresh milk. It was one of our hardest deals so far, in the sense that it’s not economically convenient for us, but it increases the overall quality of the milk a lot. It’s from an all-Finnish breed of cows (called Suomen Karja I think) which is not popular anymore, and about to become extinct—the government is helping finance the farm to keep the breed alive. This type of cow produces half the milk normal cows produce, but the milk is way more tastier, and a bit more fat (normally it’s about 3,5%, and this one is 4,3%). It’s not the same color as the one you get from the store, and the fat floats to the top. It comes already pasteurized, because the regulations say so, but we pasteurize it again anyway. It comes straight from the farm near Tampere after one day, and after two or three days it becomes gelato. We’re trying to skip supermarket distribution and get a direct connection with the suppliers. I’ve been visiting South America for this purpose. I’ve been in Bahía, Salvador, looking for some cacao and chocolate.

Is it difficult to import stuff from abroad?

Some companies offer what they call “from bean to bar” which is the process of growing and harvesting chocolate, and transforming the cacao beans into chocolate bars that you can buy. I found a Peruvian company that offers this and distributes in Milan, so the importing process has already been taken care by them. We are able to map our products, where they’re coming from, how they are transformed into the final product. So it’s not fully Italian ice-cream anymore! (laughs) It’s a mixture: the recipes and the way we make it are Italian, but the products come from all around the world.

How are Finnish customers different from Italian ones?

Ah! This culture is nothing like the Latin culture, so I had to adapt in many ways. In general, I see two types of customer. The majority are curious and interested in details, they want to know the story behind what they’re eating. And that’s doesn’t happen a lot in Italy, because it’s such a universal product. Here, many times I’ve been asked “is this compostable? what type of packaging is this? where is it produced, and how many times per week?” Questions I never heard in Italy. Curious customers are great because they want to hear the story behind our product, and our goal.

The other group is more… reluctant. They think Italian gelato is something that comes from abroad, like a Chinese restaurant, and doesn’t belong to their culture. And even though it might be superior to what they are used to, they don’t have the initiative to try. As an example, during Johannus we’ve always been closed, but this year we kept the kiosk open, and there are three other kiosks that sell ice-cream there. Axel, my business partner, said a lot of people told him “I’ve always been passing by and buying from the other guys, but never from you. This is great!” Another aspect is that they’re fixed to a particular flavor, and don’t want to try any other. They come for licorice, for example, and if you don’t have it they will walk away. That’s something really different from my country. So you need to learn the culture here, which can take a while.

What about local health rules and inspections?

The rules are not as strict as in Italy, not even close. I’ve worked there, and as far as I know, they’re the strictest in Europe. Until now, we’ve had a yearly inspection for every shop, and we always get the top rate. We also pay a lot of attention in the kitchen for gluten contamination. It’s a small kitchen, so we don’t promise anything, but we keep every ingredient separate from each other. And we offer options for intolerances and allergies.

Was it difficult to start a small business in Helsinki?

At the beginning, every small problem is a big problem. If we need to call a plumber for what I would pay 100 euros in Italy, here it’s at least 5-6 times more. And most of the people we need to call don’t even have the knowledge to repair specialized equipment, so it’s difficult to find the right person who can fix it for a reasonable price. Step by step we’re building a network, just the same as with the local suppliers. Like we do not wanna buy frozen fruit from a store.

Well, you could.

Yes, we don’t have anything against it. But when you make sorbet out of fresh strawberries… it has another taste. It’s been taking us a year and a half to find the right supplier. Since we’re so small, we needed the right connections.

Do people appreciate how difficult it is to make gourmet gelato?

Often I am asked “how much is a liter of your ice-cream?” When I reply it’s 9,50 eu (the same price it’s sold in Italy, and a pretty fair price) sometimes I hear them complain: “why so expensive?! I can get ice-cream for 1,50 at the store!” Then I need to take a moment and breathe. People in Finland are not used to real Italian gelato. They don’t understand this is not the frozen, industrial stuff they buy at the store. It’s like comparing a frozen pizza from the supermarket with one that’s made in front of you at a well-known pizzeria. Besides the high quality of the raw ingredients, the percentage of air within is very important (our gelato can contain up to 20%/25% of air). It needs to be really fat. It needs to be preserved at a constant -22, -24 C and served at -13, -14 C. All of this we need to explain, so they can learn to appreciate what quality they’re getting.

Another peculiar thing is that every area has different requirements. In Hakaniemi, for example, I need to have out of twelve flavors, at least six vegan. At the kiosk in Haukilahti, they ask for lactose-free. If I tell them that it’s sorbet, it’s vegan, they don’t want it. They want to have not a vegan ice-cream but a lactose-free one. At Vanha Kauppahalli they don’t care about either, they want normal, creamy, milky ice-cream… We get a bit crazy sometimes, but we want to satisfy our customers by serving them the way they like.

How’s competition?

There’s not much competition in Helsinki for this at the moment. In general, in the food industry, there aren’t many small producers because it’s difficult to start, to get people to know you. Once they understand what you’re trying to do, and how you’re doing it, it’s different. For example, the color of our pistachio is not green. So the first days I was asked “why is your pistachio not green? That can’t be good pistachio, right?” When I explained why, they searched online, they understood, and then told their friends “this gelateria has the REAL pistachio!” So it may be difficult to start, but then the publicity is made by the customers themselves.

Do you know Jadelino, in Teurastamo? Really good gelato.

We got to know each other six, seven months ago, he’s a friend of mine and we chat almost every day. We respect each other because we’re the only one of the fews working on this kind of product, no point in fighting. The pandemic might have damaged him more than me, because Teurastamo is an event place, and when they shut down all the events, people stopped coming. But we’ve been cooperating. When we have shipments coming from Sicily, we do it together to save money, and we’re both happy. He makes a seriously good ice-cream.

Are you surviving economically?

Yes. But if all we had was the Kauppahalli shop, we’d have had to close down already. Luckily we have the other kiosks, and those have been compensating for that. We’ve invested heavily, because all the vehicles and equipment aren’t cheap. We also hired qualified people from Italy, to increase quality as much as possible. We have plans for the future, focused on selling outside.

What parts do you enjoy the least and the most?

The not-so-good part is that everything is so expensive here; to survive you have to make yourself a lot of things that you’d normally pay someone to do. For example, everyday I carry two, three times per day 80 kg of ice-cream around town. I try to think of it as free gym! (laughs) And the best part is the feedback. The curiosity of people about the product, how they themselves share the story, that’s the best part. It motivates me to improve the quality, find new things, get better.

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