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How we started making gelato: A look back on 2019

Amber McComish for Progressive Dairy Published on 14 January 2020

January will mark our first six months of business with gelato, an Italian dessert much like ice cream. We’ve learned a lot and accomplished some things we didn’t anticipate. Our ultimate goal was to see if people were interested.

We wanted to see if we should invest more money into our idea because there are many avenues we could take, and we wanted to pick the right one. For example, we could invest in a distribution-focused business – buy trucks and have a small-scale production facility. Or we could build for a brick and mortar type business, which has its complications as well. Where would the building be? How would we bring people in? Starting small and investigating each of those avenues has allowed us to find out which best suited us. So what have we learned?

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As you can probably imagine, starting a business takes a lot of time investment. So does farming, especially this year. We did not make our goal revenue because I couldn’t get out there and tell people about what we were doing. I was barely keeping up with the orders from local establishments. The kitchen we use to make our gelato is a shared kitchen and working my schedule with others presented a few hiccups. I started making gelato at night so I could farm and be a mom during the day and have my husband watch the kids at night. Harvest lasted FOR-EV-ER. I had planned events and taste testings to showcase our product, and I couldn’t make it to some because, well, farming. To remedy this, we have added more help on the farm, and soon we will replace my position on the farm. This has been a hard and scary decision for me, but we think it’s the right one to fully make a go of this venture.

My next lesson was making the actual product. What did I want my gelato to taste like? I did a lot of troubleshooting and asked a lot of questions to get the recipe I have now. I learned that the recipe I created is a lot different than what gelato makers in Italy would make or big companies like Talenti create. I was wanting something in the middle – something with more shelf life and less processing and minimal ingredients. I wanted the best of both worlds. I was treading in new territory.

Typically, authentic gelato is made and ate within days of creation. Bigger companies have ingredient lists a mile long with the shelf life of a year or more. I wanted that middle ground so people could experience the authentic taste but with a longer shelf life so I was not losing product. I even reached out to a well-known gelato maker in Italy. I was scared to do it. I was afraid he would tell me I was never going to figure it out and that I might as well quit now, deflating all my ideas and dreams. Thankfully, he just directed me to his new book and pretty much told me, “Good luck.” I suppose it could have been worse. The easy part is asking the questions; the hard part is being able to receive the answers sometimes. I found I was just asking the wrong questions to the wrong people. The answer ended up being pretty simple and the source even more so. I can’t give you all my secrets in one article. But I can tell you about the road getting there.

The easiest part (if any part of starting a business is easy) was figuring out the numbers. We figure out inputs on corn and cows all the time. Once we knew where and how we were going to make it, the challenge was trying to lower those costs as much as a small business can then set the price to reflect those costs. The challenge was being accommodating to the businesses that bought our product. Stores wanted to add a 60% price increase on top of our price. This was interesting to find out because it has become a rule of thumb among other small businesses. This reflected our price at the store. Did our product cost too much? Would it deter people? So far this has not been the case.

Now we have our biggest struggle to date: What do we do now? We’ve done our research and tested the waters. Now it’s time to put our money where our mouth is, quite literally. Now it’s time to make some hard decisions and once we make them, there’s no going back. The similarities of forming a business and farming are crazy. One decision can have compounding effects. It’s like when you cut hay, it gets rained on, feed value lowers and in turn cows don’t milk as much, and you have to buy more feed to cover that deficit. If we choose the wrong road this early in the game, it could ruin our dream and our bank account. Like almost every farmer I know has said, “It’s only money; you can’t take it with you when you die.” Then why do it? Why put yourself through it? I do it for my kids and my cows. I want my kids to see that Mommy and Daddy put in their all. I want to keep my cows. I want to continue farming. To do that, I feel like we need to start creating visual circles for consumers to see and experience their food. Cows make milk, the farmer takes care of the cows and makes said cows’ milk into product. The consumer eats said product and sees the hard work and pride put into their food. If it’s a good product, they will hopefully come back for more. Cross your fingers and toes! 

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Friends, stay tuned and grab some popcorn. It’s been an interesting ride so far, and there are bound to be bumps in the road. This is just the first six months. Who knows what the next year will hold? People think we’re crazy, which we probably are. But a dream is a dream, and we’re going for it. We’re goin’ all in.  end mark

Follow McComish Family Farms and their gelato adventure.

PHOTO: Joe and Amber McComish launched their gelato business six months ago. Photos by Shannon Marie Photography.

Amber McComish
  • Amber McComish

  • Dairy Producer
  • Darlington, Wisconsin
  • Email Amber McComish

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