Jazz Fest Gelato Vendor Starts Working Months in Advance
NEW ORLEANS — Many New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival food vendors have to begin working months in advance to be ready to sell their wares at the annual spring event. Tulane lecturer and entrepreneur Carmelo Turillo, who has served artisanal gelato at the Fair Grounds for more than a decade, talks about the process on this week’s Biz Talks podcast. Here are highlights from the conversation:
RC: With all the special equipment and personnel required, does setting up to sell gelato at Jazz Fest feel like you’re gearing up to play an actual concert?
CT: Yes, it’s like a gig but it’s like a Kiss gig from 1978 with all the fireworks. It’s crazy. We’ve got so much stuff, but we need it. There’s no way around it. The big thing is that we have a freezer pod delivered to the house about two months in advance. And then we make gelato and fill it up. The nice thing, of course, is that gelato is frozen, so it’s got this nice long shelf life. And then a truck comes and takes the whole thing to Jazz Fest and sets it down right next to our booth. It’s amazing.
RC: Do you need a special power supply?
CT: Yes, we had to have a special kind of outlet put in at the house. It’s the same outlet that a Tesla takes. And then, at the fest, the electricians are awesome. They set up the same power, so when the pod gets delivered, we can plug it right in and the unit never loses temperature. And it’s I mean the pod is just full, full full. You open the door and there’s just a wall of gelato.
RC: Where do you make it all?
CT: We’ve got a kitchen in a spot on Magazine Street that’s got everything we need. We’ve got Italian pasteurizers that cook everything, because we make everything from scratch. Basically, as far as the state is concerned, we’re a dairy. We could have cows walking around in the backyard. And we’ve got a batch freezer, which is a giant version of the kind of thing that your grandmother used to turn ice cream. And we have a blast freezer, which is kind of the opposite of a microwave. It gets the gelato really cold really fast.
RC: All that equipment sounds exotic, expensive and hard to maintain.
CT: Yes you’re absolutely right about that. All of this equipment would be pretty typical for I would say any mid-sized Italian town, but in the States, I’m not sure how many folks have any of it. It’s all very tricky because the FDA and the USDA don’t automatically approve this stuff; you’ve got to get it specially approved.
There are plenty of other gelato shops in the United States. Don’t they use the same equipment?
[A lot of people make] what I call a train station gelato. And if you’ve been to Italy, you know that every train station has gelato and, in fact, it’s pretty good. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a much easier process. You’re not making everything from scratch. That’s different.
RC: How big of a project is this? How many people are involved?
CT: I would say it’s a huge undertaking. We’ve got a great crew we rely on that comes back year after year to help us out. They help us peel pineapples, wash and pare strawberries, etc. It’s a lot of work but it’s almost like a carnival atmosphere. We’re all there doing it to make this experience for people, so there’s this really fun aspect to it. … We get all of our chocolate from Valrhona, which in my opinion is is one of the best chocolate companies in the world. They told us that we were the biggest customer in the United States for [the product we use]. And we only use it for Jazz Fest.
RC: Your partner in life, Katrina, is also your partner in this gelato operation. What’s the strength that each one of you brings?
CT: Yeah, that’s easy. I bring none and Katrina makes it all happen. That’s our strengths. But she hates doing things like podcasts.
RC: So you’re basically the marketing department for the operation?
CT: I wouldn’t even go that far.
RC: How did the pandemic affect your enterprise from a practical standpoint and from a psychological standpoint?
CT: I think we’re very lucky in that we do Jazz Fest because it’s so much fun, but there are so many vendors out there for whom catering is their main source of income. The pandemic really hit those kinds of companies very hard. It’s been tough for them. In fact, this year there are a few of us who won’t be out there, but I would say the lion’s share of folks made it through and it’s going to be just a celebration and probably tears of joy, tears of relief when it all starts back up.