Artisanal gelato in CAFES – advantages, alternatives, investments.


A brief guide on how to sort through the options.

By contrast on what we have seen about restaurants, in a café, a gelato will often be a one-off purchase that makes up the whole eating experience. As a café has to stand out from a gelato parlour, the product range needs to exploit diverse combinations that will complement the rest of the café’s products.

A café that is not looking to sell itself as a specialist gelato establishment, but just wants to have its own hand-made gelato on the menu, has several options. For example, you can use a soft-serve machine instead of a classic batch freezer to make a variety of soft-serve gelatos that differ from the typical vanilla or chocolate flavours associated with fast-food joints, which do not have much character.
A soft-serve machine can be used either to make what is generally known as “express gelato” because it is batch-frozen on the spot, or else frozen yogurt gelato, a different category altogether which is particularly attractive for the consumer.
Soft-serve machines can either be bench-top or free-standing, with one or two flavours, and they can be either gravity-fed or pumped.
In general, for a café, we recommend a bench-top machine which takes up about one metre of counter space and can produce two flavours.

The difference between a gravity-fed and a pumped machine lies in how the batch-freezing cylinder is fed. Where there is a pump, air is also mixed in with the gelato mixture. Of course, this means that the product has more air inside it, so the same volume of gelato from a pumped machine will weigh less than from a gravity-fed one. In order to minimise maintenance and cleaning time, a café might find that a simpler (and cheaper) gravity-fed machine would suffice. The machines use a 220V electricity supply and are not particularly power-hungry. As they are air-cooled, they need a bit of free space around them, and while they are operating they give off hot air. Apart from that, they are easy to find a place for.

The best type of ingredients to use in these gelato machines are semi-finished and finished products. These liquid or powdered mixtures are diluted in milk or water and then poured into the tank above the machine, where they can be kept for up to 3 days. Water, milk and fresh produce such as fruit or creams are normal café supplies, so they should not complicate anything at purchasing level. If you extract the gelato slowly, it can be used to fill catering trays with different flavours, which can then be stored, either in a showcase for 2 or 4 flavours, or in a freezer. This system enables the machine to be kept loaded with a flavour of the day and a frozen yoghurt, for example, the latter being a completely different category from normal gelato, as it is based on milk and yoghurt. The powdered base is dissolved in the liquid and then completed in much the same way as an express gelato, but given that the consistency is different, you will not be able to fill a catering tray with it.

A soft-serve machine is a pretty minor investment, so the trickiest part might be finding room for it on the counter, which is often rather crowded, so a modicum of planning is required. If you want to produce trays of gelato, a bench-top machine, even located out at the back in the café kitchen (like in the restaurant scenario above), might be the ideal investment. It is doubtless more efficient than a soft-serve machine for making trays of gelato, and the equipment costs more or less the same.

A small range of top-quality gelato flavours can also be sold using a mini counter showcase holding two to four trays, each containing 3 to 4 kg of gelato, or else storing the gelato in the freezer under the same conditions as above for a restaurant.
However, as the gelato is not on show, this reduces the chances of impulse buys, which for a café are crucial. Whether express or scooped, gelato can be served up in bowls, or stuffed inside sweet pastries or croissants, or else used as a takeaway in a traditional cone or tub. If a café makes hot or cold alcoholic or non-alcoholic affogatos (zabaglione, chocolate or coffee, for example), that is without doubt a big plus.

So gelato can be brought into a café for a rather modest outlay, offering quick production times and quite a broad range of flavours. Utilities costs (just electricity in this case) will not be particularly onerous, while maintenance and cleaning needs to be carried out a couple of times a week. The only issue which regularly comes up is how much room a café might have for a soft-serve or traditional machine, and for a small showcase. The second-hand market for soft-serve machines is quite lively, certainly much more so than for small countertop batch freezers, so it should not be complicated to find a good second-hand machine should you decide to plump for making express gelato or frozen yoghurt. It is also vital for a bar to come up with combinations with other products in its range. Gelato croissants, for example, are a great way for a café to turn products which often have to be thrown away (e.g. croissants) into a novel sales channel (which will sell throughout the day).

An interesting alternative for a café, which bases many of its non-standard sales on impulse buying, are the new batch freezer trays, which have been on the market for a few years. These are little batch freezers set inside a showcase, protected by a plexiglass dome which allows the customer to see the gelato inside. Once they have reached optimum temperature, the freezer paddles stop revolving, and the gelato is kept at a constant temperature. When the temperature rises a little to above normal serving temperature, the freezer starts up again and quickly brings the gelato back down to optimum temperature. When the cover is open, the churning has to stop for safety reasons.

These batch freezer trays are usually made up of 2 or 4 domes, which can be grouped together. The main advantages of such technology are that the batch freezer and the display case are combined into a single block and that the consumer is attracted by seeing that the product they are going to enjoy is being made almost before their very eyes. The quality of the gelato is good, as it is batch frozen from cold, unlike in showcase trays, where the temperature is lowered statically.

The problems with this alternative might include space and cost, as these machines are far from inexpensive, which explains why they have seen rather slow market growth. Given that we are discussing a small range of cold-processed flavours, the ideal products are complete ingredients and flavours. These products come in powdered or liquid form, and can be mixed in adequate jugs and kept in the fridge until they need to be added to the flavour which the customer has ordered, thus ensuring that the consumer gets their gelato in optimum condition.

In conclusion, making one’s own gelato in a café or restaurant is an investment which can help to achieve a number of different aims, and which does not put too much of a hole in the bank balance. Even when it comes to utilities costs, provided that gelato is being used as an accompaniment to the establishment’s core products, there will be few major issues. Space inside kitchens and on counters is often at a premium, but all it usually takes is a bit of reshuffling and the new equipment can usually be fitted in without too much trouble. Given that the equipment is unlikely to be used very intensively, used machinery that has been properly serviced can help to reduce the investment substantially and provide a rapid ROI.

Guide by Fabrizio Osti

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