You could say gelato is having the best year or decade ever, depending on which source you consult. While it’s an Italian frozen dessert that’s been around for thousands of years, to many Americans it’s the latest “IT” dessert to hit retail spaces and shelves, inching out traditional ice cream and trendy frozen yogurt.
Gelato is not new to the American market. In fact, history shows it first debuted in 1770 when Giovanni Basiolo, an Italian immigrant, brought it to New York City. Since then gelato has found its way into many corners of the U.S. with gradual spikes, especially in mature markets such as New York City, Miami and San Francisco. More recently, strong consumer packaged goods and savvy Millennials have exposed the public through social media and even reality television (yes, the “Jersey Shore” cast did work at a gelateria) to the deliciousness that is gelato.
But First, What Exactly Is Gelato?
Unlike ice cream and custard, gelato is not currently defined by the Federal Drug Administration. There are traditional and modern-day recipes for gelato, but today it is primarily made from milk, sugar, emulsifiers, stabilizers and flavoring. Gelato only contains milk, whereas ice cream contains both milk and cream. The absence of cream allows for gelato to have a lower butterfat percentage at about 3%-8%, compared to the 10% minimum required by ice cream. It is also spun differently in the machine, incorporating less air than ice cream, which accounts for the density of the product. Last, it is generally crafted into visually appealing pans rather than dipping cabinets as a greater part of the experience.
To Whom Do We Credit Gelato’s Rising Popularity?
It’s not whom do we credit, but rather who is making the most noise and talking about gelato. As it turns out, there are quite a few.
American Culinary Federation’s What’s Hot Chefs Survey
Gelato has been a mainstay on this annual survey for years, jumping in and out of the Top 5 list in the desserts section, but never losing its spot on the survey. Why? Simply looking at most mid-range to fine dining(and Italian) restaurants’ dessert menus, which have incorporated gelato by itself or as a prominent part of plated desserts.
Chain Buy In – Pacuigo Gelato Café
The first Pacuigo Café opened in 1997 and has since grown into 44 locations with further plans to expand. Availability is the most important aspect to give rise to a trend. Pacuigo‘s growth in new markets also attracts competition. Independent shops are inspired from large chain success and motivated to bring about the concept in a new and different way. Trends can only survive when there is both mass market and local appeal, thus fostering more gelato shop openings.
Häagen-Dazs, Talenti, Ciao Bella & G.S. Gelato Take Over Grocery Shelves
Gelato extends itself to the home and suddenly consumers can’t live without it. Pints of ice cream, old-fashioned ice cream sandwiches and frozen pops used to be the staples on freezer shelves but now the choices range from frozen yogurt and candy bars to gelato. There are options for everyone, and companies such as Ciao Bella and Talenti have been leading the way in the retail space over the years.
The Brand Making the Most Noise Is, No Doubt, Häagen-Dazs
That is the noise of passionate, screaming Italians on television that can only be silenced by the delicious gelato the company created. In a series of clever commercials, Häagen-Dazs, which is not an Italian company, managed to capture the romance of true Italian gelato and bring it into the homes of Americans. Attracting consumers is something gelato has been unable to do for centuries stateside and this was the first time gelato went national other than mentions and scenes in popular teen dramas and reality shows.
While consumer demand and mainstream media are the most visible sense of a food trend’s success, behind every consumer effort is that of the business-to-business sector which serves both retail spaces and shelves in the grocery. Italian gelato ingredient and equipment companies have been visible in the B2B world for many years with training programs to encourage gelato making. PreGel AMERICA’s Professional Training Center and Carpigiani’s Gelato University are two of the industry’s strongest schools for learning to make gelato and are important stepping stones for those breaking into the business.
National Restaurant Association Show 2014 Top Trend
Perhaps the greatest visibility in the B2B side of the food industry is none other than the largest food show held by the National Restaurant Association. Every May vendors in all areas of food gather to showcase the latest and greatest products available on the market, and one of 2014’s top trends from the show was gelato. Both Food Business News and Bake magazine reported on gelato as a must-see at the show and a trend that restaurateurs and manufacturers need to be aware of. The sources cited the artisan, healthy and unique flavor profiles of the dessert as a reason why, for the first time in recent years, gelato outmaneuvered frozen yogurt and cupcakes as the hot dessert of the year. This notoriety and recognition from one of the largest food organizations in the country only solidifies the fact that gelato is an up and coming dessert.
Fad into the Background or Strong Trend to Stay
To some, gelato may be having its 15 minutes of fame this year, but many forget that halfway around the world, gelato is a part of daily life. In Italy and Germany, it’s estimated that around 30,000 gelato shops exist. To put it into perspective, the U.S. currently boasts anywhere from 800-1,000 gelato shops, proving that there’s a lot of untapped potential. True, the U.S. has traditional ice cream and frozen yogurt to compete with, but even those areas are finding gelato within them. Soft serve gelato and the authentic and artisan approach of gelato are being woven into the ice cream making process. Gelato also fits snugly into both concepts as it brings both healthy and indulgent options to the forefront (don’t forget that gelato made with fruits and water is sorbetto).
There’s no way of truly predicting the future of gelato, as history has shown trends are unpredictable, but with the globalization of foods, consumer packaged goods and a taste for something authentic and unique, the cards for gelato look delicious. Mangia!