A Tiny Gelateria with Big Flavors
Just a few steps from the bustling main pedestrian street, the small doorway of Mondo Gelato beckons like an open invitation to the private pleasures of ice cream. Mondo is a micro business with only a tiny seating area and a freezer featuring six rotating flavors. The owner manages everything. As we stand by the counter on a late summer afternoon, passers-by glance inside, slow down, double back and stop for a break from whatever they are doing and wherever they are headed. They mull over their order – usually going for a double – and eat outside the shop on one of the seats. Some are with family members, especially children, but many are alone. Rain or shine, summer or winter, an ice cream shop is a respite from whatever dull or busy day we find ourselves in.
Mondo Gelato serves up rich natural flavors from organic products, said owner Tsunoda Tomomi, framing this respite as wholesome as well as pleasurable. “I try to use ingredients that are domestically and organically produced without use of pesticide,” she explained. “For example, when I use pre-made paste in my gelato, I make sure that they are preservative-free. For pistachio gelato, I use pistachio paste that consists of one hundred percent pistachio. I never use paste that incorporates sugar, preservatives or food colorings and most of the times I try to avoid any added aromas although it’s hard to find chocolate without it.”
In a very different way, an ice cream shop represents a respite from busy and dull routines for its owner as well. In this case, Tomomi decided to start this shop as a way to escape from her corporate job.
Mondo Gelato opened in May 2017. Tsunoda told us why she resigned from her corporate job to open a gelateria. “When I decided to quit the previous job, I thought about what I can do and wanted to do next,” said. “I knew I did not want to work another corporate job, but I can’t cook nor am I great at baking. I have always liked ice cream and after researching, although I have no previous experience in the culinary business, it seemed doable, so I decide to open a gelato shop.”
Tsunoda is originally from Yokohama, but she decided to open her gelateria in Nishiogi. She explained that there weren’t many independent restaurants and cafes in Yokohama and the city, therefore, was not an ideal environment to open her shop in. “I wanted to open a shop in a small neighborhood for the people living in the neighborhood, rather than a big city that people from outside visit. It was difficult to find such neighborhood, some were too small to attract enough customers, but others were expensive to run a business individually. So, when I visited Nishiogi, I knew that this was the neighborhood I had been looking for, so I decided to open here.”
Compared to most gelateria in Europe, Mondo is a small-scale business with only a few seats. Tsunoda told us that she decided to keep the shop small so she could manage it by herself. “Of course, it would be nice to have a big shop but, in that case, I would have to hire staff which is difficult for a start-up business. I also wanted to do everything myself. In terms of budget, this shop was the best I could do.”
As she told us, she manages the work all by herself from gelato making to service and finances, so we asked her what her schedule is like. “Gelateria get busy from around Golden Week,” she said. “So from May to August, within those four months, I generally don’t have any time off. Even if I do, I can only take a half-day break a week. But gradually I have been able to rest as I have become more accustomed to the running the business. I start preparing to make gelato between 9 am to 10 am and close the shop at 8 pm and go home. So, I basically work all day and though it would be difficult to work in the same way as a corporate worker, with the current job, it’s not as exhausting as it sounds. Of course, it’s not easy but there is time when customers are not in the shop when I can rest for a short time. Also, I can decide when to take a day off myself, so in that way I feel that I have a certain degree of freedom.”
Prior to the opening of her shop, Tsunoda had no knowledge about gelato-making. Tsunoda told us that she could not find a gelato shop to gain experience at, as there are very few gelato shops in Japan. Therefore, she had to learn all by herself from scratch. “The company I bought the gelato equipment from taught me the basic knowledge about gelato, like how to use the machine and ingredients.”
Tsunoda explained to us that all the machines are imported from Italy as most of them tend to be. Therefore, such equipment is expensive which is why, Tsunoda speculated, there are very few gelato shops in Japan.
The most difficult thing about starting a gelateria for Tsunoda was deciding the taste of the milk gelato which is the base for many other gelato flavors. She experimented many times using different milk brand and adjusting sweetness level to achieve its current flavor. “I think deciding on the flavors of gelato was most difficult. I aimed to create gelato that is not overly sweet, which is what I prefer, but it was difficult to decide by myself so I invited my friends to ask their opinions. The first experimental phase was a difficult time. I had to try all different flavors of gelato for the first time.”
We asked Tsunoda if there was any gelato flavor that was difficult to make. “Fruit sorbet that doesn’t contain milk is more difficult to make. It takes time to figure out the perfect ratio of fruit, sugar and water as it is different for every fruit.”
One unique feature of Mondo Gelato is that it offers vegan gelato which is rare in Japan. “Most fruity sorbet in Mondo is vegan. For example, for apple sorbet, I make it with apple, sugar and small amount of water. But vegan chocolate gelato is hard to find elsewhere. Vegan customers are very happy to find this gelato since it’s so rare. I came across a recipe for this gelato online and adjusted it to vegan chocolate gelato. We tried this chocolate gelato, it had very rich flavor of cacao and it was so smooth that it was hard to believe that the gelato did not contain any dairy product. To our surprise, it was made only with chocolate, cacao powder, water, and sugar. Tsunoda told us she went through much trial and error to achieve the perfect ratio.
We asked how pistachio gelato, which is the most popular gelato in Mondo, is made. “If I am making the gelato using raw pistachio, I start by roasting it with a machine and I blend it with milk gelato,” she explained. “Sometimes, I do the roasting here but most of the time I use pistachio paste which I make sure is only made with pistachio.”
Mondo features a range of gelato from basic such as milk, chocolate, and pistachio, to somewhat obscure ones such as apple, chestnut, and zunda (sweet edamame beans paste). According to Tsunoda she does not consider what is fashionable when deciding gelato flavors. “I don’t usually follow trends because I like basic things. Sometimes the gelato I make overlaps with the trend, such as mint chocolate, but it has existed for a long time. I prefer basic and simple flavors that do not include herbs or spices, so the gelato I make will be suitable for children too. Offering seasonal flavors is one characteristic of a good gelateria. You don’t usually feel the season with ice cream because, for example, convenient stores always sell strawberry ice cream year-round.”
There were six gelato flavors when we visited Mondo for the interview and the most popular was chestnut gelato. “Chestnut gelato is the most difficult gelato to make. I first boil chestnuts, cut them in half and scoop the inside one by one. The process takes a long time. But it’s the most popular seasonal gelato and most customers order it when its available, so I feel like I should make it even if it takes time and effort.”
We asked Tsunoda how she found suppliers for gelato ingredients as she had no experience in culinary business before opening Mondo. “It was difficult at first,” she said. “I got introduced to farmers, but a small business such as Mondo can’t handle a huge bulk of fruits so I couldn’t find places to purchase from. For some ingredients, the price would be no different from buying at a greengrocer. Eventually I found suppliers through by again getting introduced to them. During winter, ingredients I don’t need to buy too much, I purchase from Nagamoto Brothers Market in Nishiogi (connected to the organic Balthazar restaurant). They sell organic fruits and vegetables. Also, through another connections in Nishiogi, a customer of Mondo introduced the supplier of the hojicha tea leaves used in hojicha gelato to Tsunoda.
More than half of the customers are regulars. During the interview, we saw that Mondo was visited by customers of all ages. We asked Tsunoda about this. In response, she shared the concept of her gelato shop. “Before the pandemic,” she said, “this shop was open until 10 pm. In Japan, there is a strong impression that ice cream is for children but in city center of Italy, gelaterias are open until around midnight. Customers, after work, can watch a film or get dinner and eat gelato at night so gelaterias there are quite lively even at 10 or 11 pm. I really liked that idea, so I started a gelateria for adults, not just for children. The first year, not so many customers came in the evening, but it gradually increased. There are many restaurants and bars in Nishiogi, so people came after having drinks. I hope it can go back to how it used to be before COVID but for now, Mondo closes at 8 pm.”
Tsunoda runs Mondo alone, so she values conversations with regular customers and Nishiogi community. “I don’t have anyone to talk to, so a short conversation can make a huge difference, especially during COVID. I always bump into someone I know when walking around Nishiogi, and I think it is difficult to find a town where you can have such an experience. It’s a small thing, but it has a huge impact.
The time she most strongly experienced the sense of community in Nishiogi was right after opening Mondo. “When I was preparing to open Mondo, I put a note that said something like “gelato” and someone took a photo of that and uploaded it on Twitter. On the first day I wasn’t sure if any customer would come, but because of that, quite few people came, I was amazed.”
The time most people long for cold, refreshing gelato is summer. As Tsunoda said, in the summer Mondo is busy, but in the winter, unfortunately, the number of customers decreases. Despite fewer customers, Tsunoda keeps her gelateria open during winter in hope that more people will eat and enjoy gelato. “Compared to summer, the number of customers is fewer, but it has been gradually increasing over years. In Italy, many gelateria closes for three months during winter until spring and even in Japan some gelateria closes for a month. But I choose not to close Mondo for so long – may be a week off in January. It’s because I want people to be able to gelato also in winter. In summer, gelato melts too quickly so I think autumn or maybe winter is the best season to eat gelato. But of course, there are much fewer customers, so the sales are not high, but that is inevitable.”
COVID-19 has had huge impact on independent culinary business and unfortunately, Mondo has suffered from the effect of COVID as well. “Firstly, restaurants and cafés had restrictions on opening hours, so the hours were shortened. Also, on weekends especially during summer, the street in front of Mondo got too crowded with customers so although I was grateful, I chose to close Mondo on weekends for a while. Obviously, those changes had an effect on the sales.”
Lastly, we asked Tsunoda her opinions on opening an independent culinary business. “I don’t think I can recommend it,” she replied frankly. “I am lucky that I was able to open a shop here and have quite a few customers visit, but as it’s often said, only one-tenth of culinary business survive after ten years, so I guess it is difficult. I can’t recommend it to others, but I am happy myself that I opened Mondo. I am content if I can earn a living. If I expand Mondo and open many shops, I might be able to earn more, but I don’t plan to do so. I want to be able to look over everything and that is not possible if Mondo expands. My ambition is not to expand Mondo, so I am going to do what I can do.” (James Farrer and Mana Nomoto Feb. 16, 2022).
(Interview by James Farrer and Mana Nomoto September 29, 2021; transcription and translation by Mana Nomoto; Japanese editing Fumiko Kimura; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)