We had the good fortune of connecting with James (Tondi) Haskins and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi James (Tondi), what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
Starting my gelato business and becoming a “gelataio” initially wasn’t much of a process, it actually struck me like lighting. I was having gelato at my favorite Gelateria called “Imperiale” in Brescia and was speaking with friends who wanted to start a gelato shop. It hit me that gelato was something I was going to dedicate my life to. At that point I knew nothing about gelato or business, so I started doing research online, buying every book I could get my hands on, and then eventually started practicing at home. Once I started to have a better understanding of gelato and how it’s produced, I started to look into the business side of the equation. This included doing a business plan, and therefore tons more research not just on the product, but on the industry, the competition, the financials, and everything else related to business. Throughout all this my thought process was to keep my head down and just keep going while the fire was lit. One thing I noticed after years and years of R&D is that even if I wasn’t making gelato I was still passionate about learning. I started to realized that after all this research, what set me apart was my dedication to be an artisan and continuously improve every day.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Our business is unique because we truly are an artisanal Gelateria. We make everything from scratch in the shop where we sell it, fresh everyday. From scratch means, we don’t buy pre-made bases or pre-made flavors, and we definitely don’t use artificial ingredients or preservatives in our gelato. From scratch means we take raw organic Santa Barbara Pistachios and grind them into a silky nut butter to use for our pistachio flavor. It means we squeeze every lemon minutes before churning it into a Sorbetto al Limone or a Granita. It means we make our own pie crust for our vegan Key Lime Pie flavor. We cut open real Grade A vanilla beans and scrape out the precious seeds. Most of all it means we create our own balanced recipes, so we can make sure every flavor is perfect. This leaves us as one in maybe a handful of gelato shops in California that do this, if that. What we make, very few people have tasted. I know this because we’ve done lots of weddings and events and people are blown away. This is what we’re excited about, finally bringing true Italian gelato to Santa Barbara for people to experience. Business-wise I always tell my wife “nothing comes easy does it?!”. It seems everything is a challenge, even the things that should be simple and straightforward. Much of this is because we’ve always been on such a tight budget. When I moved to Santa Barbara from Italy, I had less than $3,000 to live on, go to college, and get the business running. So I had to do everything myself as I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do anything. SCORE.org was a huge free resource that helped a lot. They provided templates for business planning, as well as mentors that you could meet up with to speak about any aspect of the business. The thing about business is that you can overcome challenges, but new ones will arise. So I think as a business owner you have to be able to overcome and adapt, but also roll with the punches during tough times and try to come out stronger and better prepared for the future. One of the main things I learned, is that no matter how hard you push and how dedicated you are, some things just take time. Every year I thought for sure that would be the year we would open our shop, and here we are 9 years later opening our shop. So, things take time especially if you’re a micro business on a small budget. If there’s anything I’d like the world to know about Tondi Gelato, it’s that our artisanal gelato is the result of our love for nature, food and people. We are passionate about the ingredients we use, the gelato we make from it, and the people we serve it to.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Santa Barbara is such a unique gorgeous town because it’s small but with so much to do, especially if you’re a nature oriented person. The mountains and the ocean is literally 10 minutes apart, So you can be hiking at 10am, and swimming in the ocean a few minutes later. If I had a friend visiting, the first thing I would do is tell them to drop their bags and come check out this new amazing gelato shop called Tondi Gelato! 🙂 After grabbing a cone with multiple flavors, we would walk up and down the new downtown Santa Barbara promenade that is now closed off to traffic. We would catch up with each other and then plan how to spend the week. I would take friends to the many beautiful beaches, including Hendry’s, and maybe catch a happy hour drink and snack there. I would definitely take my friend out on a day trip to go fishing or whale watching. We would cap off the day eating out at one of the local favorite restaurants such as Los Agaves, Trattoria Mollie, The Natural Cafe, Mesa Verde, or one of the many other great Santa Barbara food businesses. After that we would go for another round of gelato! The next few days would involve lot’s of scenic walks including More Mesa, Shoreline park, Downtown, The Mission, The Botanical Gardens, The Harbor, and more beaches. Hiking (La Cumbre Peak, Inspiration Point, Cathedral Peak, Nojoqui falls, Figueroa Mountain, Redrock, Seven Falls etc), wine tasting (many to chose from but Deep Sea is nice at sunset) and camping (El Capitan, Refugio, and many others) would make their way into the schedule too. After all this, we’d go for….another gelato. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I definitely want to give recognition to my amazing wife Deborah who has been with me on this journey almost from the very beginning (9 years ago). She met me a year after I moved to California from Italy, when I was living on the floor in my sister’s garage. At that point I don’t know how she could see any promise or future with me, but she saw how passionate I was about gelato and was always supportive and interested in hearing what I had discovered. It was with her that I made my first gelato. We made a mixture and pulled it in and out of the freezer every 30 minutes for 4 hours. It was also with her when we woke up at 3am to go check out the LA farmers market to figure out cost analysis for the ingredients we’d use. She was also there to encourage me when I started the business and a few months later had $.37 left in the account and nearly went bankrupt. She has made many sacrifices, helped work events even while 8 months pregnant, would come in late at night to help wash dishes, and most of all, was ALWAYS ALWAYS available to taste test our new flavors XD Not all partners/relationships turn out to be good for a business, but I am fortunate to say that I am thankful beyond words for my wife. We truly are a mom and pop shop.
Yelp: Tondi Gelato
Other: Tiktok – @tondigelato
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