Written by Richelle Putnam
Entrepreneur Hugh Balthrop has been to some pretty sweet places in his lifetime. He grew up in Washington, DC, where he ran an art gallery. Then, he married his Chicagoan sweetheart, Erica, and they ended up in another sweet place—Clarksdale, Mississippi.
“She grew up in the Delta with her grandparents and went to school in Chicago,” said Hugh. “We met in DC and we decided to move to Clarksdale for work purposes and family. I was actually a home-dad for a while,” which led him to another sweet place. “Basically, I started making ice cream at home for the kids.”
During this time, he read an article about Brown Family Dairy out of Oxford, Mississippi. The owner, Billy Ray Brown, is the son of the late Mississippi author and literary giant, Larry Brown. “I figured I could use this healthier version of milk that the Browns use, because their cows are grass fed and free-range roaming and it’s a family business. The children help feed the cows and I thought it was great.”
But Hugh wanted to do more with his ice cream. To figure out how to churn his passion into a business, he enrolled in Penn State University’s ice cream course to learn about the science of ice cream making. “I also studied under a gelato master,” he said. Gelato is churned slower, so the flavor is more intense. It is also lower in fat and in sugar and less air is pumped into it, 30 percent air as compared to 50 to 100 percent pumped into ice cream, explained Hugh. “I looked at all the ice cream machines and saw the gelato machine.”
And gelato it was.
Hugh shared his creamy creations with friends and family to get honest critiques before introducing it to local restaurants. His plan was to build the business from the guest house on his property, but once the health department explained the guidelines and requirements for a food business, Hugh and Erica knew he needed another space. The Clarksdale-Coahoma Chamber of Commerce business incubator program provided the needed space where Sweet Magnolia Gelato has been churning for over six years.
“Our business model is that we are a wholesaler and not a retail shop. We sell wholesale to grocery stores, coffeeshops, restaurants and scoop shops.”
Gelato is heathier than ice cream, but Hugh says, “We’re not snobby in terms of flavors. We like having fun with it.” When a customer with a major restaurant in Memphis wants “Munchies Gelato,” with M & M’s, Rice Krispies and marshmallows, Sweet Magnolia fills the order. “We don’t turn anything down.”
Chefs come up with really cool ideas, said Hugh. “Sometimes it’s way over the top. We did this this one salty pork gelato. Some people would think that’s a great idea, but some people wouldn’t even think of tasting it.” The response from the people who did said it was great. Other flavors come from inspiration and Sweet Magnolia’s seven classic flavors. You won’t find a set flavor list at Sweet Magnolia because Hugh is constantly testing and tasting new recipes. Thus far, he has developed over 300 swirling, velvety flavors, like Strawberry Champagne, Fior Di Latte, Espresso, and Blueberry Cheesecake.
“We do classic Italian flavors, but we also like to put that Southern twist to it, whether it’s pecan, or sweet tea or watermelon or sorghum,” ingredients that are not only fresh, but locally sourced. “My wife and I travel a lot and go to different restaurants all over the country. Some of the best chefs out there, that’s what they do, and it just makes sense to want to support your local community and stimulate the economy. It was a natural idea and process for me to incorporate as many local farmers as possible.”
Hugh doesn’t simply incorporate farmers into his business…he builds relationships with them. He has witnessed the harsh reality when farmers don’t get enough business. They shut down. “I saw that part of it, so I know it’s important and critical to support our local farmers. It’s always been about relationships and building those relationships and having those relationships,” he said. “There are certain people that I just can’t over to their place and pick up an order. I ask how they are doing and how their family is doing. We have to talk.”
His growers include Beanfruit Coffee Company, Brown Family Dairy, Peggy’s Blueberry Farm, Indianola Pecan House, Powell & Sons, Shotwell Candy Co., The Peeples Farm, Woodson Ridge Farms, and Yalobusha Brewing Company.
The sweetest thing about Sweet Magnolia Gelato is that it is a homegrown company with a community focus, taking pride in “creating local jobs and supporting our local farmers,” said Hugh. “I want folks to get behind Mississippi businesses and support all the locals, so we can all grow.”