They say that storytelling is the best form of teaching because the lessons resonate better with the listener. Some could argue that making the decision to go into business (or invest in one) is an instance that requires learning by way of gathering A LOT of knowledge. However, I would imagine that the more stories you hear about why entrepreneurship, especially in the frozen dessert industry, is a good idea, the easier the apprehension might fade.
In my opinion, one of the best forms of inspiration is hearing the success story of someone else. Introducing dessertpreneur, Sierra Georgia, founder of GELAT’OH! Brick & Motor, specializing in wholesale gelato manufacturing, retail, and private catering services across the upper northeast.
As the first feature in our “Each One, Teach One” series, an abundance of lessons and encouragement can be found in my most intriguing conversation with Sierra below for those making the transition into dessertpreneurship. Her story also offers sources of inspiration for those who have experienced the trials and triumphs of owning a business.
Chef Sierra Georgia, founder of Gelat’OH! Brick & Motor
What was the scariest part about leaving your former job as an executive staff assistant at the Federal Aviation Administration to become a dessertpreneur?
The scariest part was knowing I was leaving a field I was an expert in to dedicate myself to becoming an expert in something totally new. I was mostly nervous because I knew I would be 100% responsible for myself with no excuses. When you’re in the government, if you have a bad day and are not as productive, at the end of the week, you’re still being paid and it’s a financially comfortable atmosphere.
Being honest with myself on how I would deal with the worst case scenario of being an entrepreneur was scary. I allowed myself to make the plunge because I made a promise to myself that no matter how hard building my business got, I would never give up. I didn’t decide to resign and be a full time entrepreneur until I mentally got to that point.
What advice would you give those considering a transition from employee to employer?
My best advice is before you hire anyone into your business, break down what job functions your employees need to perform. Make sure every employee understands the vision of your business, the goals, and overall mission.
Additionally, you don’t want to hire people just to hire them. If you bring a new team member on, that new person’s functions should give your business an increase. If it’s a salesperson, your sales should increase; if it’s a production person, you should be able to improve your capabilities to serve more customers/accounts. Make sure people understand the expectations of their positions and you’ll minimize the stress in your operation.
I had the absolute pleasure of meeting you in person while conducting a student interview for one of PreGel’s 5-Star Pastry Series courses. How do you maintain such a high level of energy in this industry and leadership position that demands so much of you?
I attended a business seminar once and the absolutely awesome speaker said, “In business, if you want to make people happy, sell ice cream.” She didn’t say this because she actually was encouraging people to sell ice cream, it was more so a joke. However, I seemed to take it differently than those around me, I thought the statement was incredibly accurate.
I truly love what I do because I know my product makes people happy. I grew up in a small business family. I am energized and highly motivated to create a national brand so that my family and anyone that wants to be a part of my organization can be proud. I am energized because I know what I’m building will create opportunities for people in my community to work, start a business, or just dive into something new.
I also feel that people need my product. I have never found someone that didn’t have a family member or close friend with diabetes or some kind of health issue. As a dessert professional, America’s health crisis always was in the back of my mind. I wanted to make people happy with my dessert, but I didn’t want to hurt them. So being able to change the narrative on how people can enjoy quality desserts and not sacrifice on taste truly motivates me. This is also why PreGel’s Dietetic Fruit Base one of my most used and favorite products at this point in my business.
Seeing as gelato is an Italian-born dessert, what made you want to be a part of the movement of artisans bringing the culture of gelato to North America?
My experience has been amazing and is one of the driving factors that made me want to get into the gelato industry. If anything, my being American was more of a “thing” when I was learning gelato. When I started my gelato journey in Italy I felt I had discovered a world I didn’t know existed. I felt as if I stumbled upon something in Europe that just wasn’t happening in my community. The culture of gelato just wasn’t as widespread and respected as it was in Europe, and I wanted to change that. I knew gelato was on the rise in the USA and I wanted to be on the front lines of that. I wanted to share this industry with my community.
When you go to a country like Italy and learn the history of gelato, see how its so normalized into any meal of the day, and has cemented its spot in the Italian culture, I knew we could have the same dynamic in America, it just didn’t exist yet. From very early on I knew gelato had the power to bring the world together.
You say you want to take your guests on a “flavor journey.” Explain a bit more what that is.
I love playing with infusions and creating flavor experiences. This is when you basically curate a 5-7 second experience in someone’s mouth every time they get a spoonful. For example, I recently created a No-Added Sugar sorbet I call “GET WELL SOON”. It’s pineapple-ginger-tumeric-lime (great for hangovers). In the first taste you are getting the pineapple, then you’re getting the ginger spice, and it ends with the turmeric and lime. I tell people to relax and pay attention to what’s happening in your mouth, and it’s always an interesting experience.
Where does your drive and inspiration come from?
I grew up in a small business, my family has been in the moving business since 1955. When I graduated from high school, times were changing in that industry and by the time I graduated college, the family business closed its doors and everyone was transitioning to something else.
The younger generation of children in my family, mainly my younger brother and sister, didn’t get the same experience I got growing up being a part of a family business, and I felt like they were missing out on something that truly helped mold who I became as an adult. Giving them the opportunity to be a part of a family business drives me to keep building and is enough inspiration not to quit. My goal was to re-create a family business that will last for generations to come. That’s what drives me.
What is the standout lesson you learned about opening a business that you would have handled differently in retrospect?
The biggest lesson would be knowing when to go full time. It’s totally possible to start and even operate a business on a part time basis. It’s all about managing and maximizing your time. If I could press rewind, I would have planned out my resignation from my previous career with better timing. I ended up resigning after a three-month leave of absence for the summer, which was right on time for very cold and slow winter season.
It has been said that very little of what you “cook up” is normal. Is being different; creating the unexpected; making the unexpected work…is that your ultimate goal during recipe development?
Yes. I never wanted to blend in with all the other gelato menus and flavors you see out there. I’ve been to gelato shops literally all around the world and studied the industry extensively before I got going. It was mind blowing how everyone seemed to rotate the same traditional flavors with a few splashes of creativity here and there.
I knew I wanted to be different. My goal was always to create flavors that were reflective of the rainbow of cuisines and foods we love in America, while still paying homage to the artisan technique that produces top quality gelato. Even with the healthy flavors that are vegan or no sugar added, I wanted different, but still five star quality and taste.
Chefs are usually the ones who get the spotlight, but tell us about your team and how they help you meet/exceed and maintain your success?
I have an amazing team. There’s no way I could have made it to this point without my village. Everyone on my team caught the vision of what I set out to create. Everyone believes in where we are going and the products we produce. When your team believes in you as a leader and the direction the business is going, when you hit the highs and lows of being a startup, they’re still with you.
They play a vital role in making sure we keep progressing and getting more efficient as we grow and identify opportunities and improvements that I may not have thought of, without even asking. It was always important to me to create a company that people were proud to work for, that is one of the take-aways I learned from growing up in a small business.
What’s your favorite Gelat’OH! flavor?
Hands down the Blue Majik, which knocked the White Coffee out of first place in my life once I created it. Both of these flavors won a bronze this year at Gelato Festival America in Chicago (White Coffee), and Washington, DC (Blue Majik). I love the Blue Majik so much because it’s mind-blowingly delicious and good for your health at the same time.
Blue Majik is from my cold pressed juice collection of flavors. I cold press pineapples, apples, and ginger, and spike it with Blue Majik, which is from the same plant family as spirulina, but it’s a blue algae. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and improves your body’s ability to heal itself. Blue Majik is also my favorite because it’s no sugar added. It was the first flavor I created when I decided that I wanted my gelato to help people. We have so many health problems in America, and I wanted literally everyone to be able to enjoy my creations.
Tell us a bit about your experiences in the two 2018 Gelato Festival America competitions you participated in?
Gelato Festival America was such an awesome experience. It was amazing to work alongside other gelato artisans that love making gelato as much as I do. It was also amazing to actually work on the mobile gelato lab, it is quite the site to see! My favorite part about the festival was the people. I had virtually no following in Chicago when I went out there for the festival. The people embraced the white coffee in a way I could not have imagined. It was my personal favorite flavor and to be able to witness the love of the flavor and be awarded for something I created to a totally new audience among such solid competition was magical.
The Chicago festival was one of my first confirmations when I knew I could sell my gelato anywhere in the country.
The DC competition was also eye-opening. I started in DC as DC’s first gelato truck, selling someone else’s gelato. To go overseas to learn how to make my own gelato, come back and launch my own brand, and then compete literally in front of the chef’s store that I used to buy gelato from and actually win a bronze was surreal.
The other biggest highlight of DC was the weather. It was literally cold, windy, and raining all day on the first day. To see people waiting in line with and without umbrellas, ponchos, etc., soaking wet to get a small taste of my Blue Majik was unreal. They were dedicated to a point beyond my comprehension.
Lastly, I was the only sorbet to compete in the festival, and it was also a healthy, no sugar added flavor. To beat out all of the bigger, local brands in the DC area and place third was a huge deal. The final highlight of DC was also meeting the CEO of Carpigiani and getting such positive feedback and encouragement to keep breaking the mold and pushing the limits with my flavors. It was an unreal experience for me.
Why do you love the concept of gelato and artisanal desserts so much?
I am a very positive person, and I love to make people smile. Gelato is my vehicle to deliver happiness to people, one spoonful at a time. It’s therapeutic for me personally to create things. I’ve always like baking, cooking, sewing, and generally crafty activities. When I decided to go into the dessert business, I, of course, didn’t want to be like everyone else. I was catering cupcakes part time, however when I was ready to hit the road with my truck, the cupcake craze had died down quite a bit and cupcakes were everywhere! It was the beginning of summer and I knew I had to add something to the mix to stand out.
It was so hot outside so I knew I wanted something cold, but there was plenty of ice cream on the streets. I quickly recognized the opportunity with gelato because there was no one I could find that was doing what I wanted to do, so I knew I was on to something.
When something you create turns someone’s mood around or makes them smile, you know you did your job. I got addicted to making people smile with my desserts. It’s a unique feeling that is extremely satisfying.
Some people may wonder how a specialty dessert chef maintains their physical health and physique working around so much sugar and sweet temptation. What do you do to keep yourself healthy?
I get at least 30 minutes of physical activity in per day. I bought an Apple watch so I could get more in touch with how many calories I burn and steps I take daily because most entrepreneurs, depending on the industry, move around physically so much. As an entrepreneur its also very easy to get enthralled in your business and not make time for your own health.
I was a college athlete so exercising was always a priority and is built into my day. An ideal physique is something you definitely have to intentionally work on in this industry. Thank goodness for my no-sugar added collection of sorbets that don’t make me feel guilty.
Being a dessertpreneur takes a lot of serious work, I’m sure, but what is the most fun part about your career?
The most fun part for me is creating custom flavors. When clients come to me with their vision and ask me to bring it to life, it’s my favorite kind of challenge. I accept pretty much any challenge that comes my way. The more complicated, the better. The big reveal when they taste it for the first time is the best part for me.
Aside from amazing gelato, tell us about the other services Gelat’OH! offers.
In addition to the gelato and sorbets, we create artisan pastry! I am super excited about our GELAT’OH Cookie Cup! We offer it in sugar and chocolate chip. It’s my alternative take on a gelato cookie sandwich, which, in my opinion, are always very messy to eat and found in the majority of gelato shops that dabble in pastry. Its compact, cute, and absolutely the perfect size.
We currently do corporate catering with all of our desserts, mobile espresso bar service catering, GELAT’OH smoothie bar pop-ups, and of course our awesome mobile GELAT’OH cookie cup chocolate bar service. Our newest addition will be our in-house cold pressed juice from which we have created a whole line of sorbets. We will be bottling and shipping our juices by early 2019 nationwide.
What is the last thing you think about at the start and close of business every day?
At the start of every business day, I always examine what the day looks like and relate how every action I have in front of me gets me closer to accomplishing the short and long term goals for the business. At the end of every day, I re-prioritize any outstanding actions, then create a new to-do list for the following day. I am always evaluating how I spend my time because whatever I focus on grows. It’s my job to keep myself focused and minimize the distractions.
What are you most grateful for so far?
I am so thankful for the support of my family. When I started out on this journey, pretty much everyone thought I was crazy for completely changing careers to go into the unknown, when I had accomplished so much and was very well compensated. Nonetheless, my family always believed in my dream and still, to this day, are there for me. Whether it was volunteering their time and hopping on the gelato truck with me in the early days to work the window at a crazy festival, or dog-sitting my beloved American Bulldog, Truck, while I spent weeks in Europe studying gelato and absorbing the knowledge I needed, everyone has been rooting for me since day one.
What’s next for Sierra Georgia and Gelat’OH!?
What’s next right now is growing our wholesale customer base down the east coast. Our first brick and mortar shop will be opening in Philadelphia this spring, so this will start a new chapter that the GELAT’OH team is excited and ready to take on.
Where do you want to see Gelat’OH! in five-ten years?
In five years, GELAT’OH! will be available in grocery stores nationwide, selling in major sports arenas, on the menu at your favorite hotels across the country, and supplying your favorite restaurants around the country with our products. We should be looking to go international at that point.
Is there anything that I have not mentioned that you would like to add?
These were awesome questions! I’m very thankful for the awesome products in the PreGel catalog and trainings that are available for artisans like myself. Because of PreGel, I have been able to bring some of my most creative flavors and desserts to life. Thank you so much!