Baltimore’s Pitango Gelato goes to the source—an organic, grass-fed dairy farm—to produce its wholesome, artisanal gelato and sorbet.
While gelato is experiencing a surge in popularity in the U.S., few retailers make their product from scratch using organic ingredients and fresh fruit. That is what makes Pitango Gelato so unique. Pitango sources all of its raw milk and cream and creates its product in the company’s own mini-dairy on an organic farm in Pennsylvania. Its products contain no chemicals, preservatives, coloring, artificial stabilizers or flavorings of any kind.
In its second year of operation, Pitango’s retail shop in Baltimore’s bustling Fells Point neighborhood attracts a steady stream of regular customers and tourists. They come for the fabulous flavors of gelato (which include Pistachio, Hazelnut, Bourbon Vanilla, Espresso and Gianduja) and the fresh fruit sorbets (such as Mojito, Mango, Strawberry and Rhubarb, to name a few). But they also appreciate that Pitango’s products are an organic, lower-fat alternative to premium ice cream and that the company supports local farms in its business practices.
Back to the Roots
As a child, Pitango Gelato founder and CEO Noah Dan spent every summer with his grandparents in Trieste, Italy. “A visit to the best gelateria in town was the highlight of every day,” he recalls. “That was my introduction to gelato.”
In 2006, the former technology executive decided to switch gears and explore the soft spot he had for the decidedly low-tech gelato business. First, he embarked on months of research, visiting family friends in Italy to learn traditional gelato-making methods in their established artisanal laboratories.
Back in the States, he turned to the ingredients. “I started what I call the ‘gelato genome project,’” he says. “I basically wanted to simplify the product and reach the pure, simple flavor of the gelato I remember from my childhood. I decided to go back to the roots of it, bringing methods of production back half a century.”
Dan traveled from southern Virginia to New Jersey in search of the highest quality dairy farm he could find. The search ended when he discovered Springwood Organic Farm, run by Roman and Lucy Stolzfoos and their 11 children in nearby Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. “It’s one of the first organic farms in Pennsylvania. It’s a good size, grass-fed herd. I just love the Stoltzfooses and their operation, and the milk is the best milk I’ve ever tasted,” says Dan. “We ended up building our plant right next to the dairy parlor so we get milk from the cows about 15 minutes after they’re milked. Pasteurizing the raw milk directly with the gelato ingredients makes all the difference; it creates that basic goodness that is impossible to imitate.”
The Pitango Process
It all starts with raw milk in Pitango’s own minidairy, pasteurizing in small batches, one flavor at a time. Sorbets are hand made using fresh fruit—no frozen products or purées—selected at peak flavor.
When finished, batches of the liquid mix are flashfrozen in special packaging, then delivered on demand to Pitango’s Baltimore retail location, where batch-freezing takes place. “This setup allows us to specialize in the flavor and the quality control on the farm so the retail location can be focused on serving the product,” explains Dan.
When it comes to selecting ingredients, Pitango has been called “obsessive.” If Dan can find a high-quality ingredient locally—such as the organic strawberries, wineberries, Concord grapes, peaches and Granny Smith apples that go into his gelato and sorbet— he will buy it. But if he finds local ingredients can’t compare to the gold standard, he will search the globe for better ones. Such is the case with hazelnuts from Italy’s Piedmont region, the Bronte pistachios from Sicily and Bourbon vanilla beans from Papua New Guinea. “I end up paying an insane price for DOC pistachios from Bronte,” says Dan, “but it’s a flagship product. Customers immediately taste the difference—the pure essence of the nuts—and that’s what our product is about.”
Back to Basics
Pitango strikes a chord among health-conscious customers, who like the fact that its gelato contains about a third of the fat of premium ice cream and its fruit sorbets are fat-free. Pitango’s products not only provide a much healthier snack than their industrial counterparts, but they also promote sustainability by putting an emphasis on organic practices and small, locally owned farms
Manager Christopher Novashinski joined Pitango Gelato after more than 11 years managing large restaurants. “The first thing that attracted me is that Pitango is a green operation and it’s also organic. I’ve been interested in doing something like this for a few years but it’s hard to transition a restaurant to go organic,” he says.
Since the Baltimore location opened in June 2007, Novashinski says that customer reaction has exceeded all expectations. “It’s not just coming from a warehouse on the back of a truck. It’s a very natural, wholesome product that I think people want to revert back to.”
A Fair Price Point
Though Pitango may spend more on ingredients than other companies, costs are kept down by dealing directly with the source. “I think you can say our cost is pretty competitive with anything else out there—industrialized or handcrafted—just because we go to the source to get the product,” says Novashinski. “There’s no middle man. It keeps our quality up and costs down.”
Pitango Gelato charges $4.50 for a regular portion and $6 for a large; pints sell for $9. “Consumers say, ‘It’s a little bit more expensive than other brands, but it’s worth it because we know what we’re eating,’” says Novashinski.
The Pitango Experience
Pitango serves 20 flavors of gelato and sorbet on a given day (out of a selection of more than 60). Flavors range from classic Italian favorites such as Nocciola (hazelnut), Gianduja (chocolate hazelnut) and Caffé Espresso made with countless shots of real espresso, to local specialties such as Rhubarb and Concord Grape sorbet. A special display case, or bancone, custom-made in Italy establishes an air of authenticity in the shop. Designed to maintain gelato at the ideal temperature to ensure a smooth and creamy consistency, the bancone employs liquid coolant to keep the individual closed bins at a very stable temperature and prevents one flavor from taking on the aroma or taste of another.
In addition to its frozen delights, Pitango serves a variety of authentic Italian coffee beverages, using beans from Illy Caffè and organic coffee from Zeke’s, a Baltimore micro-roaster. Other top-selling beverages include Pitango’s award-winning Italian sipping chocolate and affogato, which combines gelato with a shot of espresso.
Expansion on the horizon
Pitango’s first shop is a success, with sales increasing at a steady six percent a month since its opening. “We’re in the second year of operation and we see key-day sales at about four times what we did last year. Considering that it is based strictly on word of mouth, we see a strong loyalty taking shape,” says Dan.
Pitango will open two new locations in the fourth quarter of 2008, one in Washington, DC’s trendy Logan Circle area and a second in Virginia’s Reston Town Center, a busy hi-tech hub with dozens of restaurants and a movie theater. In choosing locations, Dan seeks areas with a high concentration of foot traffic and affluent clientele who are not phased by a higher price tag. With its DC location across the street from a bustling Whole Foods market and the Reston location on the ground level of Google’s new Washington headquarters building, it would seem that Pitango has all the bases covered.
Looking ahead to future expansion, Dan plans to remain true to his vertical business model. “Organic grass fed milk is a precious and finite resource. My plan is to expand to 10 stores that rely on our existing farm capacity and keep things tightly controlled in such a way that we consume all the milk that we can produce. We will develop future regions in a similar way, with a local organic dairy farm that serves local stores with local products. It’s not about scaling up or becoming rich quickly; it’s about getting it done right for the long run.
“We receive inquiries about franchising on a daily basis, but we decided that for the foreseeable future we’ll keep developing the concept on our own,” says Dan, With sights set on other large metropolitan areas, he doesn’t stray far from the key to Pitango’s early success: the single, grass-fed herd of cows that produces the best milk he’s ever tasted. “When a consumer eats our gelato,” Dan says, “it’s probably the closest he’s been to a real cow—and real milk—ever.”
Hiring the right staff is crucial to a shop’s success, according to Pitango Gelato manager Christopher Novashinski. He seeks employees who are not only reliable and friendly, but who are also enthusiastic about Pitango’s sustainable mission. “Hiring people who believe in your product is very important since they are the ones who represent your product to the public,” he says. Staff members are expected to explain to customers what distinguishes Pitango’s products from regular ice cream. “We sell a premium product that’s like nothing else out there,” says Novashinksi. “Our people are aware that they are not only scooping but are also doing our marketing. We are constantly training them to communicate to customers. This is a marketing strategy.” Pitango gets great feedback on its friendly staff members, who offer customers samples and suggest which flavors of gelato go well together. In turn, says Novashinski, the company’s employees can offer the best feedback on what customers want and what the company can do better. “We listen to our employees, since they are the ones who are in direct contact with our clientele. We let them make many decisions, from day-to-day operations to product improvement. This also lets them know that they are valued.”
In a market saturated with novelties, from exotic colorings to kid-friendly mix-ins, Pitango Gelato intentionally avoids the fads and focuses on an authentic, traditional product line. “Novelty has its side effects,” says Pitango founder Noah Dan. “I know that blue ice cream sells like crazy, but when consumers are over their ‘blue period,’ they may add the place that sells it to their list of places to avoid. “Fundamentally, gelato is a comfort food,” continues Dan. “For my money, both the challenge and the reward lie in building a better vanilla or a new twist on chocolate. We also achieve the perpetual novelty effect with the season’s fruits. Working with fresh fruit is a huge challenge. Whether it is the humble lemon or exotic lychee, customers’ reactions are an immediate and gratifying ‘Wow.’ Which brings you to realize that nature has been creating its own novelty flavors long before we got into the business,” says Dan. “All we have to do is play along.”