City Paper is not for tourists
Not a seat at the gelato shop remains on a recent gray,45-degree Sunday afternoon. Except no one is actually eating gelato. Instead, the tables at the Logan Circle Dolcezza are dotted with lattes and laptops.
With good reason. If you order a steaming bowl of ramen or hot tea on a blazing summer day, supposedly it has a cooling effect, turning on your body’s natural air conditioning. But ice cream on a cold day? That’s just…cold. No amount of holiday spice or winter citrus can replace a wool sweater.
It’s that time of year again when “winter is coming” is no longer just an overwrought line from Game of Thrones. Everyone has broken out heavy coats and started wearing scarves for non-fashion purposes. “Frigid Blast” and “Arctic Invasion” are actual headlines, not apocalyptic thrillers aiming to compete at the box office with Hunger Games this holiday season.
Restaurants are always at the mercy of the weather report, but perhaps none so much as the ice cream shop. And there’s a lot more of them lately: At least a half-dozen frozen treat spots opened in the D.C. area this summer, and this will be their first winter. It’s expected to be another cold one. “Ten years ago when we first started, it was hell,” Dolcezza co-founder Robb Duncan says of his initial cold months. “Those were the days of, ‘Are we going to make it or not?’”
From summer to winter, gelato sales at Dolcezza’s shops plummet 50 to 60 percent. But here’s the thing about frozen treats in freezing temperatures: While people may not be inclined to stop into a shop for a cone, they’ll still eat it at the end of a meal in a restaurant—or even curled up on a couch at home. And for restaurants, early winter is a busy time, while summers tend to be sleepier. So wholesale sales—the gelato that goes out to restaurants and grocery stores—go up roughly 25 percent in the winter, Duncan says.
In Dolcezza’s early years, the wholesale operation was relatively small. But after opening a 4,000-square-foot factory near Union Market in the past year, the business is now able to turn out five times more gelato that it was out of the 300-square-foot kitchen underneath its original Georgetown shop. Today, Dolcezza pumps out product to 150 restaurants, seven Whole Foods, and other stores and hotels. In August, it also began online sales with a $60 minimum order. It’s not quite enough to offset the retail drop when the temperature drops, but it helps. “It’s really rounded everything out quite well,” Duncan says. He no longer worries about whether they’ll make it to spring.
Coffee sales rise in the winter, too, Duncan says, but he wasn’t sure of the exact percentage. Dolcezza has always had coffee, but it wasn’t a priority at its first shop in Georgetown. All the time, energy, and attention went to the gelato. It wasn’t until the Dupont location opened in 2010 that the non-frozen offerings were worthy of being dubbed a “coffee program.” Coffee has become an even more significant part of the business with the launch of the “coffee lab” at Dolcezza’s factory: Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters now runs a satellite operation there and roasts beans on-site.
“It’s a whole other level of coffee for us,” Duncan says. “And they’re just cool fucking people smoking the best dope.”
It’s not just Dolcezza that relies on coffee to pack its shops on 45-degree days. Coffee is many an ice cream shop’s most trusted friend in winter while trying to stave off financial hypothermia. At Clarendon’s Nicecream Factory, which opened in May, the staff peddles samples of its liquid nitrogen ice cream out front in the summer. Come winter, it’s La Colombe coffee. “We’re trying to build that program up a bit more,” says co-owner Sandra Tran.
That’s the not-so-secret secret to selling frozen treats in a region without palm trees: If you don’t want your business to melt after February, you have to hustle and fatten up profits June through August—and find something else to supplement sales. The ice cream shop that’s just an ice cream shop barely exists anymore.
While Nicecream Factory no longer has lines out the door in sweater weather, Tran says she’s trying to sell more high-priced items better suited for the temperature, like warm brownies or peach cobbler—topped with ice cream, of course.
Ice Cream Jubilee, which opened in Navy Yard in July, is going a similar route by hosting a Thanksgiving pie pop-up with Buttercream Bakery’s Tiffany MacIsaac to usher in the city’s first major cold front. On Nov. 20, 25, and 26, the store will sell chai-spiced pumpkin pie, double-crust cinnamon dulce apple pie, and Nutella-fudge icebox pie, plus take-and-bake scones and ice cream sandwich kits (a pint of Ice Cream Jubilee’s goods with a dozen cookies and a four-ounce jar of caramel sauce).
Ice Cream Jubilee owner Victoria Lai hopes to go on a pint-pushing offensive this winter and also start an ice cream subscription service where people can have their cold treats delivered directly to them. No one will need to brave the weather for her maple pecan rye.
Which kind of makes you wonder: At just what temperature are people no longer likely to go out for ice cream?
“Maybe 22 [degrees],” says Lai. “Twenty-two is brutal enough for me not to go outside.”
That’s a whole 10 degrees below freezing. Optimistic. Meanwhile, Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats owner Brandon Byrd, who operates a food truck and stand at National Harbor, puts the threshold around 40 degrees. So does Dolcezza’s Duncan. (In both cases, that’s warmer than the chilly temperatures that settled into D.C. earlier this week.)
“I think once it gets cold enough where you can see your breath,” Byrd suggests.
“Sun is such a huge factor,” Duncan says.
Cold rain, that’s the worst, Tran adds. (Although her shop has yet to experience its first snow.)
For obvious reasons, staying on top of the weather can be a critical part of the mobile ice cream biz. “I have AccuWeather, which I find to be the most accurate of all the apps,” Byrd says. “Trust me, I’ve had them all.”
Byrd, like many ice cream truck operators, has already parked his vintage van, Gigi, for the winter. Meanwhile, his frozen custard and soda stand in National Harbor has begun limiting hours to weekends only through Dec. 21, at which point it will close until spring. “To be honest with you, the custard will be the secondary offering,” Byrd says. Instead, he’s selling hot drinks and warm baked goods. He’s also been testing country-style stews and chili with buttermilk biscuits and cornbread. Over the last couple weekends, apple crisp and bread pudding outsold the frozen custard nearly three to one.
Byrd has tried in the past to stay open year-round, but “it doesn’t make sense to go out where you’re doing maybe less than a third of what you would normally do,” he says. The risk of a flat tire or the radiator breaking isn’t worth it. “Now the little bit of money that I would have made, I’m spending it on repairs,” he says.
So instead, Byrd will spend his off-season—or “recalibration period,” as he calls it—doing some catering, fixing up his vehicle, and working on his second van (nicknamed Rudy). He works seven days a week in the warm months to be able to afford to take this time off.
“I kind of take the same approach where I’m a bear,” Byrd says. “So I have to pack on as much fat to be able to survive…I’m brown bear Brandon, that’s all.”
And if you’re not a bear, you might as well at least be a bird and flock south. For an ice cream maker in need of vacation, there’s no better time than the winter.
“We’re getting out of here and going to South America,” Duncan says. “When it gets cold and slows down here, we can stick our head in the sand.”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of Dolcezza gelato by Darrow Montgomery