Jazz Fest ice cream vendor starts work months in advance

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NEW ORLEANS — Many New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival food vendors must start work months in advance to be ready to sell their wares during the annual spring event. Carmelo Turillo, a business professor and entrepreneur at Tulane who served artisanal ice cream at the fairgrounds for more than a decade, talks about the process in this week’s Biz Talks podcast. Here are the highlights of the conversation:

RC: With all the special equipment and personnel required, does setting up to sell ice cream at Jazz Fest feel like getting ready to play a real gig?

CT: Yes, it’s like a concert but it’s like a Kiss concert from 1978 with all the fireworks. It’s crazy. We have so many things, but we need them. There is no way around it. The big problem is that we have a freezer capsule delivered to the house about two months in advance. And then we make ice cream and fill it. The good thing, of course, is that the ice cream is frozen, so it has that long shelf life. And then a truck comes along and takes it all to Jazz Fest and drops it off right next to our booth. It’s incredible.

RC: Do you need a special power supply?

CT: Yes, we had to install a special socket in the house. It’s the same plug a Tesla takes. And then, at the festival, the electricians are brilliant. They configure the same wattage, so when the pod comes, we can plug it in directly and the device never loses temperature. And 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 all of this?

CT: We have a kitchen in a Magazine Street location that has everything we need. We have Italian pasteurizers that cook everything, because we make everything from scratch. Basically, as far as the state is concerned, we are a dairy. We might have cows roaming the garden. And we have a batch freezer, which is a giant version of the kind of thing your grandmother used to process ice cream. And we have a blast freezer, which is kind of the opposite of a microwave. The ice gets very cold very quickly.

RC: All this equipment seems exotic, expensive and difficult to maintain.

CT: Yes, you are absolutely right. All of this gear would be pretty typical for, I would say, any mid-sized Italian city, but in the US I don’t know how many people have it. This is all very tricky because the FDA and USDA don’t automatically approve this stuff; you need to get it specially approved.

There are many other ice cream parlors in the United States. Don’t they use the same hardware?

[A lot of people make] what I call a station mirror. And if you’ve been to Italy, you know that every train station has ice cream, and it’s actually pretty good. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a much easier process. You don’t do everything from scratch. It’s different.

RC: How big is a project? How many people are involved?

CT: I would say it’s a huge undertaking. We have an excellent team that we rely on and who come back year after year to help us. They help us peel pineapples, wash and peel strawberries, etc. It’s a lot of work but it’s almost a carnival atmosphere. We’re all here to do this experience for people, so there’s this really fun aspect. … We get all our chocolate from Valrhona, which in my opinion is one of the best chocolate companies in the world. They told us that we were the biggest customer in the United States since [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 is the strength that each of you brings?

CT: Yes, it’s easy. I bring nothing and Katrina makes it all happen. It is our strength. But she hates doing things like podcasts.

RC: So you are essentially the operation’s marketing department?

CT: I wouldn’t even go that far.

RC: How has the pandemic affected your business from a practical perspective and from a psychological perspective?

CT: I think we’re very lucky to be doing Jazz Fest because it’s so much fun, but there are so many vendors for whom catering is their main source of income. The pandemic has really hit these kinds of businesses really hard. It was hard for them. In fact this year a few of us won’t be there, but I’d say the lion’s share of people made it and it’s just going to be a celebration and probably tears of joy, tears of relief when it starts all over again.

Ada J. Kenney