This They Make DC marks the first entry in a series that will profile the various small businesses manufacturing their products in the DC Metro area. In these features, we’ll tour the facilities and shops where these goods are made and sold, with the ultimate goal to gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to own, run and operate a business in our beloved capital city. So without further adieu, let’s kick this bad boy off.
Robb Duncan and his Argentinian wife Violeta met by chance in 2000 at a conference in Brazil. Two weeks later Robb flew back to Portland, Oregon, sold everything he had and moved down to Buenos Aires and they were married. While living in Buenos Aires, Robb fell in love with gelaterias. Having toured Italy, Duncan was very familiar with Italian gelato, and while he liked it, he was never blown away by it. So he was surprised when he discovered that Argentinian gelato, made by Italian immigrants and their descendants, tasted a lot better to him. When Argentina’s economy crashed in the early 2000s, Robb and Violeta moved to DC, where he could get a job as a software engineer for the federal government and where Violeta could finish up her degree at American University.
In 2004, while driving back from the Corcoran School of Art & Design, where he was taking a graphic design course and seriously contemplating a job change, Robb spied a “For Rent” sign hanging in the window of 1560 Wisconsin Avenue NW. A quick call to the owner, and Robb and Violeta were setting up their gelateria, called Dolcezza, in the three-floor building with no experience in starting a business. They had no business plan; they had no experience with plumbers, contractors, hiring employees, etc.; no clue about what they were and weren’t allowed to do under Georgetown historic neighborhood regulations: they were complete newbies. Robb describes the process as “Painful, but beautiful and real because you figure everything out for yourself.” They were both working and/or studying full time, starting up the business, and creating/producing the products into the wee hours of the night; their lives were hectic.
The couple imported special gelato-making machines from Argentina, but the machines were so specialized that fixing them and maintaining them became impossible. Now they use a mix of both Italian and Argentinian machines that are more easily serviced and whose operational manuals aren’t rife with Spanish gelato machinery technical jargon. These machines make gelato in small 110ml batches, so every batch gets special, detailed attention. When I recently visited the downstairs Wisconsin Avenue factory, I was lucky enough to sample two flavors fresh out of the cooling/spinning machine: Pistachio and Fresh Lemon with Black Opal Basil. My words can only half describe how amazingly smooth, light, creamy, and flavor-packed this tasting was. It made me want my own gelato-making machinery.
In starting up Dolcezza, the most daunting part was that neither Robb nor Violeta knew how to make gelato. Their only knowledge came from a gelato-making class Violeta’s mother and stepfather had taken in Argentina. But despite the “What the hell are we doing?” thoughts that crossed Robb and Violeta’s minds daily, they forged forward. With the help of an Argentinian “maestro del helado” or gelato master, brought in to help them for their first month, they started off perfecting the standard gelato flavors.
Very quickly, Robb developed a knack for imagining and concocting out-of-the-box gelato flavors. (You can read his gelato-based musings at his blog). Inspired by the local produce he was seeing and buying at DC area farmers markets, he’s constantly developing new, exotic flavor combinations. Their flavors follow the seasons, starting with the strawberries and wildflower honey of the spring, to the peaches and black opal basil of the summer, to the gold rush apples and quince flavors of fall, to the mints, crooked-necked pumpkin and citrus flavors of winter. They now produce over 300 flavors a year.
As farmers market junkies, over time Robb and Violeta have developed close personal relationships with many of the local producers. They spend weekends at their farms with their families; they barter and trade goods; they’re in close contact about what produce is ripe and best for gelato-making; and now the farmers are growing new produce specifically for Dolcezza. In fact, it was the farmers who suggested that Dolcezza sell their gelato at local farmer’s markets.
Dolcezza also sources their base ingredients very carefully and selectively. Every Wednesday they drive up to York, PA to collect their weekly supply of milk, cream and butter from Perrydale farms, where their milk is bottled that day. Their vanilla comes straight from Madagascar; their pistachios from Sicily.
When I asked Robb and Violeta if they ever thought of opening up shop outside of DC, Violeta explained “Working in DC has been so amazing, we’re not sure we’d want to.” Since setting up their now three shops, hiring 25-40 employees depending on the season, starting to sell gelato at 4 DC Whole Foods, providing 70+ local area restaurants and hotels with their products, oh AND they had a baby!, they’ve become so closely connected with their employees and the local farming community that they’ve reluctant to leave. Robb said it best, “It’s important to make money, but what’s important is that they’re doing something we love, and its ours, and we’re doing something we believe in.”
Now that Dolcezza is really up and running, Robb and Violetta are hoping to fulfill their complete gelateria vision by serving coffee and pastries. They’re testing the waters at their Dupont Circle location, which opens at 7:30am and features four high quality coffee roasters and the exquisite and OMG! delicious pastries of Bonaparte Breads. If you happen to stop in, look for Robb and Violeta, as every morning they wake up, take coffee there and then head off to the Wisconsin Avenue office/shop/factory for a full days work.
Robb, Violeta, Dolcezza, their staff, their suppliers, their product and their story truly exemplify an amazing DC story and are definitely one of many reasons to love DC.