Nani's Gelato: Toronto Dessert Innovators
Once in a while a new treat idea comes along that takes everyone by surprise: something extraordinary and inventive, something delicious in its own completely unique way. Think of Ben & Jerry’s in the US, the huge ice cream franchise that pioneered chunky ice cream in a time where industrial ice cream machines could only produce smooth ice cream. Think of Yogen Früz or the rolled icecream that first started in Thailand in 2009, and swept across the world.
Those delicious treat ideas each brought a brand-new concept to the dessert world, delighting foodies, and challenging the industry to adapt. Nani’s Gelato might just end up being Canada’s answer to these world-changing treat trends. The reason it is so exciting and so new is its fusion of South Asian desert flavours (such as carrot halwa, mango kulfi and some other really delicious things that North Americans are mostly unfamiliar with) with the Italian tradition of gelato-making. The result is a unique fusion that can only happen in a place like Canada where disparate cultural traditions are well-established and widely-embraced
Master Indian Spice caught up with Nani's Gelato owner, Parry Sohi, a Thunder Bay native with Indian (and Kenyan) roots, in mid-June - just three weeks after the opening of their storefront on 6 Charles Street East - to talk about creating a food business and the challenge of opening during a pandemic.
It seems like this business idea is in your blood. Your father owned an ice cream store, and your family lineage takes you to both India and Kenya. What inspired this business idea? Have you always had it at the back of your mind, or did it just hit you one day?
Growing up I've always had a sweet tooth and I loved the ice cream shop my dad had. After exiting my last company and taking a bit of a break, I took some preliminary training in ice cream and gelato.
While training I realized there was a niche for Indian and Asian inspired gelato in the market and within a few months I completed more extensive training specific to gelato and Nani's Gelato was born. I had a lot of challenges trying to find a physical location initially so I decided to buy a used food truck, retrofit it and use the truck to build the brand in year one. I decided to build the foundation of the brand around how my grandmother and mother cook food - everything made fresh daily from scratch using the best available ingredients.”
What were some of the challenges in finding a physical location, and what made you decide on Charles Street?
PS: "When you make gelato or ice cream from scratch, we have very unique electrical requirements that many buildings do not have – we require a lot of power. If you look at factors such as being centrally located, having consistent walking traffic, electrical requirements, the state of the existing space, finding a good landlord to work with, etc. the list is quite long of what you need to find in a location. I looked at dozens and dozens of spaces and you go through each space trying to tick off as many boxes as possible and 6 Charles Street was the unit that was the best for us."
What was the response to the food truck when you first began? Was it encouraging?
PS: "No, not at all! For the first few weeks in June, I would see between 10 and 20 customers over a 10 hour period of time. Things were very slow and very challenging. There were countless days I would come home after working 16 hours and have $50.00 - $100.00 in my pocket. Tough days are expected in business, nothing comes easy."
You were making plans to expand and possibly set up a new store front, then Covid lockdown hit. How did that impact you? It must have been stressful.
PS: "The COVID lock down hit 10 days after I signed the lease on my new location. We were scheduled to be open by the end of April and we didn't end up opening until the end of May. The only stressful part was wanting to move as quickly as possible to open, but knowing that I had no control over the process."
What made you decide to push through the Covid problem and launch your new store front, which must surely have involved some financial risk?
PS: "We're lucky enough to have built a pretty wide range of geographical customers across Toronto because I was constantly moving around Toronto.
As a result, my gut told me that our existing customers, friends, family, etc. would show up to support us in the first few weeks and we were right. I absolutely love our customers and I built so many genuine relationships in the first year. It meant so much to me personally that they all came to visit the new shop as soon as we opened. I would be stressed out and helpless without the support I received. Moreover, the local Yonge and Bloor / Yonge and Charles / Church and Charles area that we opened up in have been incredibly supportive. Everyone is coming by the shop to say hello, support us, sharing on local social media channels, etc."
Now that you've made it through covid-19, you have a new storefront and an online business. How do you feel about it, and how's it going?
PS: "Things are hectic trying to balance multiple business avenues, but it's exciting. Personally, I stay motivated by the new and old faces coming into the shop and seeing so many familiar faces across the GTA when I'm out for delivery. People have been isolated for months and pulling up to a house in Markham, Richmond Hill, Mississauga, etc. and knowing your about to put a smile on the face of a customer you haven't seen in months but you recognize the name from seeing them every week last summer, is exciting and makes a difficult situation fun."
We've read about the carrot halwa gelato based on the iconic Indian dessert. For the uninitiated, could you explain what it tastes like and why it's so popular?
PS: "The carrot halwa recipe tastes just like the warm Indian dessert many of us grew up eating – just in a cold format. Some of our customers also compare it to carrot cake. I think it’s popular because it really hits a lot of tick marks when you look at what a dessert needs: creaminess, texture and aroma. The way we make the base of the carrot halwa takes hours and it’s cooked just to a point where it has a very unique aroma, you can still taste a bit of the organic carrots we use, but the final product is still very creamy."
OK. Customers can pick up on Charles Street, where can you deliver to?
PS: "The Greater Toronto Area. Our delivery boundaries are Lake Ontario, Highway 427, Highway 401 and Woodbine Avenue / DVP."
We in the maritimes and the rest of Canada outside of Toronto will have to wait then, for these delicious flavours to come to us.
For Perri Sohi, a Toronto restaurateur getting back to his roots with one of the most delicious dessert innovations we've seen in ages, the journey looks like it's only beginning. We won't be surprised if Canadians hear more and more about Nani's Gelato in the coming months and years, and here's to enjoying an Italian dessert with South Asian flavour in a Canadian city. If you want to see a Nani's Gelato in your neighbourhood, show your support by heading over to their facebook and instagram pages, sending them a shoutout and hitting that like button!