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Frozen town, frozen treats: how Ottawa gelato vendors survive

So you think you have it tough here in winter? Try selling frozen yogurt or gelato for a living.

Despite any global warming trends, Ottawa winters remain four months of sometimes-brutal cold. With frostbite warnings and driving advisories in the news, Ottawa residents might hesitate to step out—let alone step out for cold dessert. On Elgin Street, Michelle Tommy has been owner and operator of Pure Gelato for 15 years, selling gelato in a variety of flavours, plus café-inspired desserts, sandwiches and crêpes. She says the trick to sustaining her business through the winter is simple.

Michelle Tommy, owner and operator of Pure Gelato on Elgin Street. [Photo © Selin Kum]

“We coast,” she says as she drops her hands. “You make your money all summer, and you coast throughout the winter.”

Tommy says that crêpes and desserts account for only around 15 percent of her year’s total sales; gelato captures 85 percent. Yet she says gelato sales are a big variant: completely reliant on season. “During the summer we have lines out the door, but when it comes to winter and it’s minus 40 degrees outside, I could write ‘Free’ on my windows and I would not have that same line-up,” Tommy says. So we basically streamline to survive.”

A cooler sales season

Gelato vendors like Tommy look at a 12-month span: May to August is the vital one-third, counterbalancing much of the rest of the year. Over 12 months, vendors will have balanced their highs and lows, for a sustainable business model.

Frozen yogurt, also known as “froyo,” is sold by a franchise named Menchie’s, a make-it-yourself shop with four Ottawa locations. James King is general manager of the ByWard Market and Barrhaven locations. He admits that business definitely slows in winter: “When temperatures dip, folks are less likely to source out a cold treat.” Menchie’s mitigates the winter slump by putting on less staff, reducing costs. Thus Menchie’s coasts part year, like Pure Gelato. King says they choose to stay open year-round because they don’t want to lose their trained core staff, or have their brand forgotten.

 ‘You hope the summer comes early, and you hope it lasts long.’ – Pure Gelato owner Michelle Tommy

The café advantage

For Tammy Giuliani, owner and master gelato chef of Stella Luna Gelato Café in Old Ottawa South, the story differs slightly. Stella Luna has won many awards from websites like Urban Spoon and TripAdvisor for its food and customer service. This past summer it took fourth place in the North American Gelato World Tour in Austin, Texas. Says Giuliani, “Even in the winter time, gelato still accounts for 50 percent of our sales. Gelato in the summer time, of course—you have your line-up out the street.”

She ascribes Stella Luna’s success to quality products, customer service and a seating-friendly café format. She says winter brings a higher demand for take-out gelato, while over-the-counter sales are helped because the café interior is warm and inviting, making gelato a reasonable indoor choice.

Stella Luna opens daily at 8 a.m., as opposed to 11 a.m. for Menchie’s and Pure Gelato. Giuliani says they cater to every pocket of the day, from early-morning risers to lunch goers to after school, in that they also offer European-style breakfasts and pastries. Street value plays a huge role, too, as the café draws different clienteles throughout the day. “You have to think of each slot and how you can service that slot, notwithstanding that you still have to offer a premium product,” Giuliani says.

A street view of Stella Luna Gelato Café, located on Bank Street, near Sunnyside Avenue in Old Ottawa South. [Photo © Selin Kum]

Street smart. Stella Luna Gelato Café, on Bank near Sunnyside. [Photo © Selin Kum]

Pure Gelato enjoys strong street value, as well, but owner Tommy says its atmosphere is more modern and lively, brightly coloured. The contrast with Stella Luna’s dark wood furniture and auburn atmosphere seems to show that these two gelato places appeal to different ranges of clientele.

King says it helps that Menchie’s customers can personalize their frozen yogurts with sprinkles and gummy bears and such. He credits this feature with helping keep sales alive in winter. “People like to be in control of their experience, so this isn’t just the traditional way of getting a cold treat.”

Tommy observes that for selling a small-ticket item, location is key. “You never want to be somewhere where you don’t have people walking by, especially when you’re selling a five-dollar product.” Winter hits hard, with its huge reductions in sidewalk traffic. “That’s when you hope the summer comes early, and you hope it lasts long.”

[Front page photo © Selin Kum]

Location, location, location

Stella Luna Gelato Café, Pure Gelato and Menchie’s ByWard Market all possess great street value—a must for selling any “impulse” item.

Perhaps the clearest contrast would be between the two Menchie’s locations that general manager James King oversees: Barrhaven and the ByWard Market. “When people come to the Barrhaven location, they’re making an active choice to come to Menchie’s for the experience,” says King. He says that Barrhaven winter customers often are families with children after a local hockey game. In the Market, by contrast, he sees a young-adult clientele, such as university students, typically on foot.

At either locale, King says, one essential factor is a friendly indoor environment where people feel comfortable to stay and enjoy their treats.