If you’d been walking along Palmer Square one fine day in May, 2004, and saw that a new ice cream shop was opening its doors, you may have rolled your eyes – oh, no, another ice cream shop in Princeton. When you went in and saw the offerings, you might have thought: oh no, the prices are too high and the portions too small. But chatting last week with Gabrielle Carbone, co-owner with her husband, Matt Errico, of the Bent Spoon, an artisan ice cream shop and bakery, we learned you would have been dead wrong.
"We were busy from day one," says Carbone of the 800-square-foot-shop (with 700 more square feet in the basement). "We love that there are other ice cream shops in town." With a completely straight face, she adds, "Princeton could become a destination for ice cream."
The secret of what keeps customers coming back – many of them daily – starts to reveal itself, well, one egg at a time. "We crack and separate 120 dozen local organic farm eggs every week," says Carbone. "Initially one of our employees broke the record, separating 45 dozen eggs in a half-hour. Then I blew that record away at 47 1/2 dozen, but then Matt tied me. But I’m pretty sure I can do 60."
Carbone, 30, and Errico, 32, have taken a very simple thing – ice cream – and created a minor phenomenon that defies the pages of any business school textbook and could easily be called a performing art (Carbone jokingly calls herself "an art-eest"). For starters, Carbone measures her success not in dollars but in relationships: She says her favorite moments are when the farmers they work with – including Matt Conover and Dave Zabek of Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, Gary and Pam Mount of Terhune Orchards, and John Giarusso, III, from Runnin’ Free Organic Farms in Hillsborough, come into the store. "There they are standing in line with everyone else, and I describe a flavor to a customer, `This is made with Cherry Grove rosemary and hey, turn around, there’s the farmer who grew it.’ It can’t be better than that."
Carbone and Errico’s relationships with local farmers are the muses of their business, inspiring flavors like Terhune peach and mascarpone. Says Carbone: "Last fall, Cherry Grove was growing these incredible cheese pumpkins and Cinderella pumpkins, which we began using in our ice cream. We’d already been using their eggs. Farmer Dave was looking for a job over the winter during the off season, so it worked out perfectly that he would work here. But the greatest thing was that one of his first tasks on the job was to roast his own pumpkins that he grew. It was so nice to have that circle. Those circular kind of relationships are so important."
The Bent Spoon will be sampling its artisan ice cream at the third annual Epicurean Palette, a gourmet food and wine tasting event at Rat’s Restaurant, Saturday, September 24, to benefit Grounds for Sculpture. Carbone says she will serve "whatever’s most local, something from Terhune, maybe something from Herban Garden (the organic garden owned by Terra Momo behind Witherspoon Bread Company), and maybe something from this great farm in Solebury called Carousel Farm, which only grows organic lavender – it’s almost the end of lavender season."
Carbone grew up in Pennsauken, the youngest of three girls. Her parents both worked for Campbell Soup, her father in information management systems and her mother as a medical secretary in Campbell’s medical office for employees. Errico grew up in "the farmland in between Stockton and Sergeantsville," the youngest of two boys, where his father was a postmaster. "We both come from Italian families and feel that food is something you have memories with; all your special occasions center around food," Carbone says. "Everybody in the family cooked and we had all kinds of gadgets. We even had a banana whip machine. When I was young, my dad and I would go out for ice cream and a walk in the park every night, and we always had Breyer’s ice cream in the freezer."
Carbone and Errico met at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, where Errico was working as general manager after graduating in 1996 from the College of New Jersey with a bachelors in history and a minor in education. Carbone graduated in 1998 with a bachelors in special education and psychology. Carbone says that when she first met Errico, "he thought I went to Princeton and I thought he went to Princeton, but then we ran into each other at this event at school and that was it."
Right after graduation Carbone went to Japan to teach English for a year (where she tried squid ink gelato). "I would ask my students and co-workers, `Who is going to show me how to make soba noodles, and everyone was, like, who wants to know how to make soba noodles, we want Coke!’ I had to seek out really old grandmas who knew how to make miso paste the traditional way. I was on this path to go to college and finish, but you know you can’t always tell if you want to turn the things you love into a job necessarily, but it was becoming more and more clear that I should really do something with food."
When she returned from Japan she started working at Small World, and started the coffee shop’s food menu while attending the French Culinary Institute at night. That was 2003. And Carbone was still eating ice cream every day. "Matt and I were avid Thomas Sweet eaters. And I made ice cream at home every day," says Carbone, who, at 5 foot 7, is a wisp of a thing. "I eat ice cream every single day. But I have a very fast metabolism. Once Matt and I had our own place (a condo in West Windsor), we had three ice cream makers, including one that Jessica (Durrie, owner of Small World) gave us as a gift that we actually kept in the living room. Whenever people would come for dinner I would make up the base while I was cooking dinner and while we were eating I would put it in the machine, so by the end of the meal, the buzzer would go off and we would have fresh soft ice cream. I discovered the flavors were more intense when the ice cream was a little warmer, like gelato is."
Carbone perfected her gelato "R&D" in Italy on their honeymoon in Italy and Paris in 2000. "Paris and Italy have the best ice cream. Gelato is Italian for ice cream. But there are really two things that make a difference (between gelato and American ice cream). It’s served as a warmer temperature and it’s more dense because they work less air into it."
Carbone and Errico had been gestating a business idea of their own but originally it wasn’t going to be in this area. Says Carbone: "We were going to do a beach location, we kind of had it in our head, like, wouldn’t it be great to work nine months of the year, then travel. Then at one point we were walking around Palmer Square. We called David Newton (of Palmer Square Management) to ask just out of curiosity what the rent would be. As soon as he found out it was us, he said, `You just have to be here.’"
Newton had gotten to know both Carbone and Errico well during their tenure at Small World. "He told us he could really use an independent (among the chain stores of Palmer Square). And we just looked at it like, it makes sense to be here first. We’re young, we have so many ideas for where the business may or may not grow. We had been working and living in this area. We know people, we know vendors, so in a way it was the perfect place to open. It was just this little snowball that started rolling."
Carbone and Errico started the business completely on their own. "We didn’t have money from our families. We didn’t save up pots of money – we were working in a coffee shop! It was just us and a small business loan from PNC Bank. We were really numbers-conscious." Their greatest financial challenge came two days after they applied for their loan. "It was December ’03, and the Fed froze all the SBA loans. It was the worst thing ever. Basically, we weren’t going to get the money. And we were due to give Palmer Square a month and a half deposit, and it now it was January. We were buying equipment." Carbon and Errico were shelling out $100,000 to $150,000 in materials and equipment, a relatively small amount but still, they were dependent on that loan going through.
As they sweated out the wait, they did most of the work to open the shop themselves, getting a crash course in crisis management along the way. Just before their equipment was delivered, in March, 2004, there was a snowstorm in Vermont, where their flooring – old growth walnut – was coming from, and it couldn’t be delivered. "It was supposed to be delivered on a Thursday, and our equipment was being delivered the next Monday," says Carbone. "And we were going to spend the weekend putting in the floor. So Matt and I drove up to Vermont with a rented truck and picked up the floor, then we stayed up with my dad for two days straight and put it down."
Then good news arrived. The loan turned out not to be frozen. "We turned in our application on a Monday and then on Wednesday it was frozen," says Carbone. "We had already talked to our loan officer and they had seen our business plan. They finagled something and basically because we had put it in on Monday, the SBA had said, well if the loan is in the pipeline by such and such date, and ours was, then it can go through. And that’s the only way we got our loan."
Carbone says the biggest lessons they learned were from crises like the flooring and the loan. Another crisis occurred when their walk-in refrigerator arrived. "We had done all this research and found the only one that would fit in the basement. This was just before we opened. So, here we are, receiving this refrigerator in parts, and apparently on the spec sheet they left off two inches of something, and those two inches meant we now couldn’t get it down our winding stairs. And we had to put it together quickly because we were having milk delivered."
Carbone ended up calling Trenton Sheet Metal to come and weld off the metal stairs. With the help of a few friends Carbone and Errico slid the parts down and assembled the fridge. And then they had Trenton Sheet Metal come and weld the stairs back on. "We were posed with a problem. That’s when we realized, there exists resources. There are businesses that can make things happen. When you have your own business, problems happen, and you have to respond," says Carbone.
Later, after they opened, another crisis occurred – their $25,000 gelato case, made in Italy, died – twice. "It was a nightmare," says Carbone. "The first time was Christmastime. The case was still under warranty but we couldn’t get anyone to come fix it for three weeks. We were able to open up with the help of Princeton Borough and sold gelato out of our little sidecar for our Vespa (used for special events). "The bottom line is there are just some things you cannot plan for. You find the solution. The next summer lots of customers said, `Oh, where’s your cute little Vespa? We loved that.’" The second time the case died – during the peak summer months of 2005 – they replaced it completely (and had to have Nelson Glass remove the front window of the store to get it in).
Further, Carbone says lots of people tell her they think they are not charging enough. "We charge $3 for a small and you get two flavors. As for the portion (even though it looks smaller) you’re actually getting more ice cream, because ours has less air. And as for flavor – for pistachio ice cream, we roast our own pistachios and infuse it in the milk. Our pistachio ice cream takes seven days to make. I could open a bottle for 1/20th of the price. But that’s not what we’re about."
Carbone believes that the genesis of their philosophy of using organic and all-natural ingredients and working with local farmers goes back to family. "Our families cared about using good ingredients when they cooked. My dad had a garden; we always used tomatoes and basil from the garden. We certainly didn’t say, gee, let’s just open a business so we can be our own boss; we were in the business because we wanted to do something that took something pretty simple, like a cupcake or ice cream, and use really good ingredients."
Customers constantly compare the Bent Spoon’s cupcakes to Magnolia Bakery in New York, an old-fashioned bakery in Greenwich Village. "But here’s what people say: `Magnolia’s cake is dry and the icing is too sweet.’ We use all natural colors in the icing (beet for pink, tumeric and cumin for yellow). People will bite into our ice cream or a cupcake and say, `I just can’t figure out why this is so good.’ And I say, `Really, it’s because it’s good stuff to start with.’ The cupcake has a local organic farm egg in it, it has real vanilla, real chocolate, real butter, natural colors. If you’re eating baked apple ice cream the apples are from an orchard that’s four miles away. That kind of thing is really important to us but I never realized how much of a role we could play in educating people about where their food comes from, knowing the farmers, seeing the connection between buying locally and the community ties between other businesses."
Despite Carbone’s love of gelato she says she was determined not to call it gelato at the Bent Spoon. "I wanted to call it ice cream.We’re here in New Jersey, we’re not in Italy, and we’re using ingredients that are from here." A sign on the wall describes New Jersey "terroir," a concept near and dear to Carbone’s heart, which, loosely translated from the French, means "the taste of this place." "The ice cream here grows out of the ingredients we can get," says Carbone, who has developed more than 400 flavors in two years, each inspired by local ingredients.
As for the name the Bent Spoon grew out of a brainstorming session with friends, and when they all realized that the characters in the movie "The Matrix" could bend spoons with their minds, Carbone says, it stuck.
Not surprisingly, Carbone and Errico have jumped on the Slow Food bandwagon – a trend in the international food industry that seeks to preserve traditional ways of growing and making food. This October they will attend a meeting in Italy called Terra Madre, started two years ago by Slow Food. "It’s the world meeting of food communities," says Carbone. Surfing online this past winter Carbone stumbled on the Terra Madre. "I called Matt and David (of Cherry Grove) and Mike Azzara, the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farm Association) New Jersey outreach coordinator, who heads the Lawrenceville Farmers Market, and I said, "We have to go to this, we have to go to Italy." As is typical in the way things often go for Carbone, the application was due the next day. Carbone, as usual, was undaunted. "We stayed up all night and applied and were accepted, so we’re part of the U.S. delegation to go as a food community."
"We’re going to be meeting 5,000 people from around the world who are all interested in preserving the old ways of making food like we do," says Carbone, who recently unveiled a new flavor at the store featuring the Mariposa plum from Slow Foods’ list of "rare and endangered foods."
So does this trip to Italy constitute a real vacation like normal people have? No, says Carbone, it’s still work. In fact the only vacation they have had since they opened is to close for a week in January. But Carbone, who says that she needs very little sleep, is adamant that she and Errico are beginning to achieve more balance. "It’s getting better. We’re totally on track for that: we’re eating lunch in the middle of the day – actually stopping and going downstairs for lunch. I’m starting to take time off – this summer Matt was able to have one full day off and I had two nights off," she says. "And this summer was over the top better than last summer. My mom was helping us do our laundry! This May we turned on our refrigerator at home. That was huge."
What else is huge is the wholesale part of their business. Two months after the Bent Spoon opened the chef from Lahiere’s walked over and said, `I am not reordering Ciao Bella (a popular national gelato brand). You have to make the wholesale thing happen – next week."
"Again, thinking in terms of our business plan," says Carbone, "we knew our business was really about the ice cream. We had thought, OK, maybe after we’re open six months or something, we can investigate selling wholesale to the restaurants – but then Lahiere’s walked in. And then we never solicited after that." OtherPrinceton restaurants came: Mediterra, Blue Point Grill, and Witherspoon Grill, along with Hamilton Grill in Lambertville, Nova Terra in New Brunswick, the Lawrenceville Inn, Brothers Moon in Hopewell. Princeton University is a huge client, and Bent Spoon is also available at Lucy’s Ravioli and the Whole Earth Center, where you can get a pint for $7.50.
`And every pint is hand-packed and hand-labeled," says Carbone, whose day starts at 7:30 a.m., as she and Errico and several "spoonies" (servers), decked out in vintage aprons, make the ice cream, bake the cookies, ice the cupcakes, or pick lavender leaves off the stems, whatever needs to be done, until the shop opens at 11 a.m. Carbone employs approximately 27 spoonies in the summer and about 20 in the winter, paying $8.50 to $15 per hour.
The business stays strong in winter as Carbone and Errico make ice cream from non-farm ingredients and they keep it local – stout from Triumph, coffee from Small World, and ricotta from Lebanon Cheese Farm in Lebanon, NJ, and Valley Shepherd in Long Valley. They have introduced European-style hot chocolate, a thick cup of liquid heaven made with hormone-free dairy and topped with homemade (of course) candy canes, homemade marshmallows with real vanilla bean, and homemade whipped cream with Madagascar vanilla.
The European hot chocolate, made from "at least 61percent real chocolate" even comes in different flavors, like chocolate habanero, spiked with the Mexican pepper. "It’s like hot ice cream," says Carbone.
Last weekend they debuted doggie ice cream at Palmer Square neighbor Pawtisserie, whose owner, Will Hassett, asked them to develop a frozen treat made from all natural ingredients; it’s available in two flavors, Hannah Banana and Hazel-Nutty.
Carbone says she and Errico are now having conversations about how to take the business to the next level (and admits that having kids is not imminent). Opening up more shops does not make it onto the radar screen. "If we opened up a second location, say, in Massachusetts, then the ice cream would not taste the same as here. The soil is different everywhere. While initially we’ve said no way to another location I think we have quite a few ways we can go. Working with the chefs has been a real pleasure for us. Are we going to expand next door, which we could do, are we going to open a beach location, are we going to wholesale to more restaurants and food stores?
"I think right now we’re enjoying the idea of doing more wholesale. Take the Epicurean Palette. That’s an event that we’ve been to before but this is the first time we’re participating. I love going to these events because we get to see all the restaurants that we work with. We’re kind of like the glue because we’re not competing with other restaurants but everyone respects what we do. We all come together for a great cause, Grounds for Sculpture."
All the media coverage Bent Spoon has had has been unsolicited. Carbone has appeared on the ABC News cable show, "Money Matters." An article on "supersonic ice cream" in Food Arts magazine heralded the Bent Spoon’s "close relationship with their suppliers" and their flavors, "among them dozens of strawberry combinations from sorbet with black sesame seeds to a `cosmopolitan’ with Cointreau." Last July the New Jersey section of the New York Times lauded the Bent Spoon’s "clover honey ice cream made from New Jersey bees and chocolate laced with mint grown by student farmers at the nearby Riverside Elementary School" (where the Bent Spoon spearheads an educational gardening program).
The Food Network even called and asked for a DVD. So Carbone, ever the entrepreneur and a self-described moviemaker wannabe, made her own, using iMovie software. "It starts with Matt and me on the Vespa and music from the Sopranos, you know, the whole New Jersey thing, and we go to visit the farms." They haven’t rubbed elbows with the Iron Chef yet but clearly it’s just a matter of time. In the interim, Carbone is happy to roast pistachios and ponder the ingredients of her next flavor.
Epicurean Palette, Saturday, September 24, 4 to 7 p.m., Rat’s Restaurant, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Gourmet food and wine tasting to benefit Grounds for Sculpture. $99. 609-584-7800 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.