Starting a business with friends means developing a partnership not unlike a marriage. Despite the best business advice, you can’t separate the professional from the personal. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But sometimes it works out great.
Wes Jones and Jackson Smith have been friends since childhood, growing up a mile apart. Khatera Ballard became a friend in college. Jones and Smith had always talked about starting a business together. When Smith developed a passion for making gelato, the trio knew they’d found the business they wanted to be in. Honeysuckle Gelato was born.
“A food truck was our first iteration and five years ago we started selling at a food truck gathering in Virginia-Highland. A truck on the street is a perfect mobile marketing tool,” said Smith.
“And having a truck allowed us to establish our brand on a budget. We weren’t tied to one location so we could explore the city and get feedback from people all over the place,” added Jones.
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They also got their gelato into restaurants which in turn brought them to the attention of real estate investment and management company Jamestown, developer of Ponce City Market. Now Honeysuckle Gelato has their first retail outlet, a 182-square-foot shop just off the main drag of the Ponce City Market food court.
“That may seem small but compared to the 63 square feet in a truck, we don’t know what to do with all that space,” said Jones with a laugh.
The retail shop has allowed them to expand their offerings. “Our customers can buy scoops, gelato sandwiches and shakes and the best part is they can make up their own combinations. But the thing I like to tell people about is that we give 5 percent of our total revenue to the Atlanta Community Food Bank,” said Ballard.
The company’s connection to the food bank dates from their time in their original commercial kitchen, 500 yards from the food bank facility. “Ever since we got started, we always had the food bank in our thoughts as a means for us to give back to the city. We offer a premium product that might not be accessible to everyone but we wanted to be sure we were benefiting everybody, not just a small segment of the community,” said Jones.
In addition to their cash contribution, they also hire staff from Westside Works, a neighborhood program that creates job training and employment opportunities for Westside residents including those who live in Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill and the area around those neighborhoods.
“We had a function with Westside Works last week and I was telling the head of the program that this started out as a way for us to give back to the community, hiring our neighbors, but the quality of the employees is so good that it’s now a fixture of our business philosophy. We’re moving our kitchen to West End, but we’re committed to continue to hire from this program,” added Ballard.
Each week at the retail shop, Honeysuckle Gelato offers 12 flavors of gelato and two sorbets, with flavors rotated every six to eight weeks. “The problem is we have flavors we want to rotate out so we can make room for others, but we can’t take them off. Our customers won’t let us. Vanilla, chocolate, brown butter, Nutella, bourbon – they’re all favorites,” said Smith.
“And we always have some sort of mint. During holiday season time, it’s peppermint. In warmer months, it’s our fresh mint gelato,” added Jones.
And they enhance their gelato and sorbet with toppings like house made caramel sauce and cookies for those cookie sandwiches. “We are hoping to roll out prepackaged gelato sandwiches for our wholesale partners. They’re really popular,” said Ballard.
Working with restaurants, they also develop custom flavors in batches as small as two gallons although a typical batch is more in the range of 30 gallons. The kitchen might turn out 10 to 18 different flavors in a day.
Their advice for other food entrepreneurs is to follow your passion. “Your passion is what will get you through the hard times. It’s easier to work through things when you know you have something the market will appreciate. We firmly believe in the quality of what we’re doing,” said Ballard.
“We run into people who think it’s as simple as buying a food truck and getting a location. Making this a success is a lot harder than we anticipated, and we were anticipating a lot of effort. Think the thing through and make sure the timing is right. Define what your product will look like and how you will bring it to the market, and what all of that will mean to you and your financial partners,” added Jones.