Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Your neighborhood Dojo:

David and I were both still pretty new to twitter when @Dojogelato mysteriously began following both of us. At the time, we both hadn't met Michael and Kimberly, the husband and wife behind Dojo's pretty blue logo.

Through the summer, we read cryptic updates on the start-up. Dojo opened for business on August 1, 2009 at the front of Findlay across from Herbs & Spice. By that time, we were both intrigued and excited to stop by and sample some gelato.

Key lime (with graham) gelato and Kiwi sorbetto

Dojo has since celebrated its one year anniversary---but honestly, it feels like they've been stationed, smiling behind the gelato case, for much longer than that. We've been very curious about what goes on behind the counter, so we asked Michael and Kimberly to step away from the gelato machine for a little while so we could ask them a few questions. There's a nice article in the Business Courier here and Soapbox here, as well, if you want even more information.

Have you always been interested in gelato?

"Definitely, I prefer it over traditional ice cream--the flavors are more intriguing, it’s healthier because of the lower butterfat content, and since it is denser the flavors are more sophisticated. I’m really attracted to the use of real, local--if possible--and seasonal ingredients. And the variety of gelato is much broader, you can make your flavors, very true flavors, without depending on standards found in a lot of American ice creams now, like the use of inclusions. I really like letting a flavor just speak for itself."

So we won’t be seeing bubblegum gelato in the future?

"No, and no strawberry in February either!"

How do you think the reception at Findlay has been?

"We get a lot of questions about what’s in our case. Is it butter? Hummus? Mousse? Whip Cream? Chicken Salad?! I still don't know where that came from. I really enjoy introducing people to something new. The support from the community really keeps me going. We didn't start making gelato to make a ton of money--there's so much joy in sharing food.

Especially at Findlay, there's a lot of hardcore humanity there on a daily basis that people don't see on a Saturday morning. To bring a little bit of respite, that means a lot...One of the things that I enjoy the most in seeing customers come back. I still remember a week after Mother's Day, a customer visited us and told me that he wanted to let me know that his Grandma has cancer and doesn't like to eat much because of her medication, but he gave her some Dojo and she loved it. To hear stories like that-- it's intense, and when people bring their kids by, it makes all the long hours worth it. I like to think we are in the experience business as well as the gelato business.

So why Dojo? And why Findlay Market, Cincinnati?

Dojo's origins are in Austin Texas, and the catalyst for the move from Austin to Cincinnati was Kimberly's job as a professor at Miami. While in Austin, Michael worked at a non-profit organization, the Center for Child Protection, for 7 years . Once they moved to Cincinnati he worked for the advertising agency WonderGroup for two years. But in March of 2009, he was laid off from WonderGroup, and he began looking at other opportunities.

This led to Dojo's business plan, which he worked on constantly while simultaneously seeking another marketing position. "I became completely consumed with my business plan, working on it first thing in the morning, well into the evening, for about 6 weeks straight." He states. After the business plan was complete, he took the plan to a few banks to see about a loan.

"It was completely depressing. I still have a collection of rejection letters--a reminder of not taking no for an answer. We ended up going to Huntington, they are one of the top small business lenders in the country, they’ve been great. The other banks were very skeptical-- They said, you want to make ice cream and...wait; you want to make it at Findlay Market?"

Do you think that the bank’s skepticism has to do with this being a culinary expedition?

"Yes, in part, food establishment, part lack of experience, but my personality--if you tell me no, I’ll find a way to do it."

Michael picked Findlay specifically. "There’s nothing like it in Austin. The growing season there--with the heat-- isn't as conducive, but when we visited Findlay, Kimberly and I were just fascinated. And not to sound cheesy, but it’s really what America's about. there are not too many places like it anymore. It’s not fake, it’s not prepackaged, it’s culturally diverse."

I asked Kimberly about her thoughts when her husband told her he wanted to start making ice cream for a living.

Eventually, Kimberly explained, Michael was offered the opportunity to join a large hometown company's marketing department. But the desire to own his own gelato business won out. I don't know about you, but to turn down a nice career opportunity to start your own business selling ice cream takes some serious cojones.

"I knew ever since I met Michael that he wanted to own his own business, preferably a gelato shop. As he took positions along the way, he was able to gain experience that would help him to eventually do that. Before he started-- I have to admit, I was sort of scared...It's nice to have two salaries. And health insurance. I remember listening to him on that phone interview--and he was saying all the right words, but I could tell he was praying not to get this job."

How many hours would you say you work?

"Oh, man. I don’t know..."

"I think it would be easier to count the hours you don’t work." Kimberly interjects helpfully.

"Probably about 70."

How much time is spent in production and running the counter, among other things?

"That’s difficult. The main part that takes the most time is prep--getting a variety of ingredients ready, weighing chocolate and sugar, washing fruit, processing ingredients. Paw, Paw, for instance, I cleaned about 20 pounds of paw paws for 3 1/2 hours one morning. And there is so much rinsing of equipment. When I attended gelato school in New York, and later Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course, they never really touched on how much rinsing and cleaning there is between flavor batches. It’s all been a constant learning experience, but that’s what makes running the business all the more exciting."

"We’ve been pleased with our success--we’ve set a few Dojo Gelato sales records at Findlay this summer. There was a period last summer where we were making gelato as fast as people were buying it, we felt a little like Lucy in the chocolate factory--Speed it up!"

Dojo is very active on twitter, what are your thoughts on that?

"From a business standpoint it makes sense. It’s free, and advertising can get very expensive. I also enjoy the fact that it is an instant source of feedback from visitors to Dojo. Often we create flavors spontaneously at the shop and its great to let our customers know they can come taste something new that day. Social media has been very helpful in getting our business established and establishing deeper relationships with customers. I’ve started to notice now, too, just from being out around town with the Dojo Gelato Cart, that a lot of our Twitter followers will hunt down the cart because of conversations being had via Twitter on a particular day or evening in regard to a flavor we made that particular day.”

the much coveted nutella

What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered you wouldn't have expected?

"Human resource management--and staffing, definitely. I try to be respectful of every one's time, but it really is a team effort. Also trying to differentiate ourselves from the other folks--it’s a delicate art, answering the question of why they should buy your product over someone else’s."

"In college I worked at Whole Foods flagship store in Austin for 2 years. And the reason that the business is so successful in my opinion, is unparalleled customer service. It’s not a drive thru mentality.”

Any plans for expansion?

Michael smiles as he recounts a visit from a representative attempting (in vain) to sell him pre-mixed dry ingredients for gelato.
"She visited and asked where we made the gelato. Where’s the facility? She asked. I replied that she was standing in it--it’s all made here at Dojo in Findlay Market. She didn’t believe it until we showed her the equipment. So it would definitely would be nice to expand our production facilities some day soon.”

Where do you get your ideas for the flavors?

“A lot of the things I enjoyed as a kid are inspirations. A good example would be, say, a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich. You gotta be crazy to think that wouldn’t be delicious as a gelato! Classic desserts are a good starting point for brainstorming too. So are cocktails and beers. There really aren’t any limits to what we like to create here. Also, being across from Herbs & Spice, how can you not visit them and wonder what smoked salt and chocolate would taste like as a gelato flavor? As long as you respect your ratios of milk to milk solids nonfat to butterfat--you can really make any flavor of gelato. I love flavors. When friends and I would go out to a place with numerous hot sauces on the table, they'd be finished with their meals and I'd still be sampling sauces. I think when you start running out of ideas for flavors, it’s time to pack it up.”

We've noticed that some of your flavors are more subtle than others. Is that a Dojo thing or a gelato thing?

“I think some flavors have evolved. The caramel now is completely different than when we've started, some traditional gelato flavors are very subtle, so it's definitely a bit of both. I really like the natural flavors to come through--like in our avocado flavor. I don't like to add a lot of sugar to the gelato. Our blackberry gelato, for instance--The blackberries are great, they are from Neltner’s Farm in Kentucky. You shouldn't have to peacock-show-pony your flavors--I think it would be just ...rude, honestly, to put anything else in with our blackberry sorbetto. I know the person who harvested them; and it would be an insult to say that their blackberries are lacking without something else in it. I want to taste the flavor I'm having. I like the really simple flavors--that's what gelato’s about. I don't like to have more than 3 flavor profiles in a gelato, or they can get a little busy.”

What are some of your favorite flavors and some of your least favorite? Any ones you'd like another try at?

“A definite do over is plum. Plum is very....fibrous. It was a let down. Probably our only true big dud. There's a famous ice cream shop in Boston, and they took years to perfect their plum ice cream recipe. People ask me all the time what my favorite is, but I have so many. Fior de Latte is probably on of my top flavors. It means “Flower of the Milk” in Italian. You don’t see it around too often here in America. It’s basically just milk and a little bit of sugar. It’s a flavor that gelato shops in Italy, usually the old school ones, make to toot their horn about the quality of the milk and cream they are using in their gelati. It’s just a really simple flavor profile. It reminds me of fresh whipped cream, but as gelato. Fior de Latte with Amarena Cherries has to be one of the tastiest desserts ever.”

Do you think you'll keep working with Beers?

“Definitely. There's so much sugar in alcohol to begin with, its very conducive to ice cream. I think doing a beer series would be cool. Mike over at Market Wines and I have been talking about it. Allagash would be good.”

Dojo is open at Findlay Market every day but Monday, when Findlay is closed. They cater, make custom flavors and killer gelato cakes and pies (They made David a german chocolate gelato cake that was great). Flavors change weekly and sometimes sell out within hours, so don't wait to visit!

Dojo Gelato on Urbanspoon


  1. We got Dojo's Apple Cider Sorbet over the weekend.
    Damn that stuff is GUUD!!

  2. this might be one of my fav posts of yours. Thank you so much for doing it!

  3. Great interview indeed. And I agree with 5chw4r7z--Dojo's Apple Cider Sorbet rocks!

  4. thank you all! I'll have to try the apple cider sorbetto before they stop making it.

  5. This is fantastic! Thank you for sharing it! Like most...I'm a big fan of the Dojo! I just love everything they're about!


I try to be honest, fair and keep a good sense of humor in my posts--I would appreciate if you follow the same policy with your comments.