Isle of Gelato : Bringing Sri Lankans the real deal
Updated: Mar 26
They both had successful careers. They were in love (still are by the way...very much) but a romantic escape to Italy changed their destiny and the destiny of our gastronomical preferences too. Kathya Fernando brings to you the story of the Isle of Gelato.
1) Tell us the story behind the birth of this confectionery dream.
Shalini: We started Isle of Gelato a little less than an year ago. The gelato dream was born in 2015 during our trip to Italy. This is when we discovered gelato and the difference between gelato and ice cream. We had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner got a bit addicted and then fell in love with both Italy and gelato. We got engaged in Italy and it always holds a special place for us. I am a real planner so during our trip we traveled quite extensively and pretty much covered the whole of Italy in 2 weeks.
From city to city the taste of gelato differs and the main reason behind that is because Italians are all about being local. For example the gelato in Milan will be different from the gelato in the Amalfi Coast or in Sicily. Then we came back to Sri Lanka. Few years later we got married and then we decided why not go for the product we were completely in love with. Looking back it feels like a no brainer almost. I can’t imagine doing anything else now.
2) Isle of Gelato serves a range of homemade gelato, sorbets and ice cream sandwiches. What is it’s specialty that keeps customers returning back?
Suranjan : I think the most important difference is that we are the only Gelateria in Sri Lanka who make gelato from scratch. We don’t use any pre-mixes, flavorings nor natural essences like the others.
Shalini: So the gelato you have here and in 5 other places across the world could be the same which is really sad because gelato is all about that artisanal product. Isle of Gelato is the only place you can find our flavor combinations. For example, the salted caramel for our sea salt and caramel is made in house. The the peanut brittle that we use is also made from our very own recipe. The gelato industry is quite big in Italy and unfortunately there are so many companies that make a salted caramel pre mix, mint pre mix or rum and raisin pre mix. However we don’t use any of that. All we use is milk, sugar, cream and about 80-95% local ingredients.
Suranjan: Mint chocolate chip has been my favorite since childhood and I remember it was always luminous green with an explosion of peppermint in my mouth. Now that we are older we are aware that mint is not luminous green which means we’ve been eating an artificially flavored and colored product. Looking at our mint chocolate chip, it is hardly green just white with a tinge of green in it so it’s fresh mint leaves that are used from our garden. We’ve been trying to educate and communicate what we do and how we are different to our customers. We feel that to a certain extent it has worked. That is also what people expect when they come to us.
Shalini: When we say that we source locally we mean it. Everything is homemade, not industrially produced which essentially means that it is a small batch product and is the reason why we haven’t tried to expand too quickly as well.
Suranjan: If we had used a pre-mix it could have been easy for us to expand. Because you just pour the pre-mix into the milk and in 7 minutes you get your product. But the way Shalini does make her gelato it takes a minimum of 12-72 hours. When our customers hear the way we make it as opposed to someone else they realize that we offer a high quality product.
3) First opening doors in Galle and then making way into the heart of Colombo; looking back now do you think you’ll made the right decision?
Shalini: Yes, definitely. Galle was such a great learning experience for us. It was a little bit difficult because we live in Colombo so there was a lot of shuttling up and down. Suranjan was staying there for a while I was back here in Colombo so it was tough at the beginning and it still is on some days. The special thing about Galle is that everyone is on holiday and everyone is a tourist. And when you are on holiday you are in a good mood so it was very nice to meet happy faces from all over the world.
Suranjan: The main reason to start in Galle was the tourist market because Isle of Gelato is based on Sri Lankan flavors.We wanted to introduce unique local flavors for the tourists and we felt that they would appreciate it when they come looking for Sri Lankan products. We don’t have pistachios, hazelnuts and good quality chocolate so we tend to want what there is abroad as the tourist want to have what we have. So the idea was to come up first with our local flavors to the tourist market and then bring that to Colombo and customize it.
Shalini: When we came up with the concept that we are going to localize Italian gelato with our local ingredients including spices, people did think that we were a bit crazy to try that type of a thing. But in Galle what we realized was that because the tourists are in a different country they are more likely to try out these different combinations. We’ve got some exceptional flavors like tamarind and coconut, pineapple and coconut, or the Golden Milk Sorbet (Turmeric and Coconut milk) . Before they try it they’ve got a big question mark on their faces but once they try it they are sure to love it.
Suranjan: All the other players who are Italian claim themselves as being Italian and bringing ingredients from Italy and making the best gelato. But for us hands down the very essence of being Italian is being local as possible and making proper gelato the way it should be made, from scratch. We feel Isle of Gelato has honored Italy and Sri Lanka at the same time.
Shalini: We use the Italian method of making which is slow churning and small batch production. We are trying to use those methods which have been used for centuries in Italy using our fresh produce because we have some of the best ingredients in the world.
4) What is the brand philosophy behind Isle of Gelato?
Suranjan: We want to be part of the community rather than just a business. One thing myself and Shalini made a decision was that from the start we wanted to be different from everybody else and make a difference in everybody’s life. Even our staff from our first store in Galle are paid way above the average wage anybody in that area or Colombo pays. As much as we are doing well we want to give back equally to the society that is something which is very core to both of us and to Isle of Gelato. As mentioned before, making gelato from scratch and using as many local ingredients as possible is very much at the heart isle of gelatos brand philosophy. And of Course produce the best gelato in the world.
Shalini: We want to be a fair trade operator. In Sri Lanka even though that concept is getting a little bit more attention it’s not as popular as it should be and it’s not practiced as it should be, almost nonexistent.
5)What has been the feedback from the customers and how did it motivate to keep you’ll moving forward?
Suranjan: I was based in Galle for the first 4 months. I basically served almost 90% of the scoops. The feedback we got from that was unbelievably overwhelming. That feedback is the one which let us know that we are onto something big and the right move would be to expand. The feedback is important when you get it personally. When I’m there serving the customers I talk to them and explain about the flavors and how we make it. We used to get many Italians, Australians coming in and saying that we are on par with Italy or in some cases even better. That gave us a big source of strength. And that’s when I told Shalini to come there too because she was the one who made the Gelato in Colombo.
Shalini: It gives us so much motivation to keep doing what we do when we hear positive feedback. When people say things like this is amazing and is the best they’ve had it gives me so much joy, realizing that I’ve done something to make their day better. We started with only gelato then slowly started adding a few gelato based desserts, gelato sandwiches, popsicles, a bomb Alaska which has been really very popular, a honey comb bar. We are slowly trying to introduce new products gradually. It’s just me and a few other ladies who do it.
6)Premium pricing for a scoop of goodness with quality ingredients, how does
Isle of Gelato justify this?
Shalini: Our main concerns are about the quality of the ingredients, the time that goes into it, the unique recipes and the fact that it is not replicated anywhere else. Because when everything is made from scratch there is no way that somebody else can make it the same exact way. We use only the best quality ingredients and don’t cut corners on ingredients at all so when customers taste it they know that it is a premium quality product. I am sure we give our customers value for money.
Suranjan: Doing a pre-mix would have been a lot cheaper for us since it could have been done by one person and we wouldn’t have to have this big operation at all. With artificial flavors you need to use only a very small quantity whereas because natural ingredients do not have an overwhelmingly strong flavor we have to use a considerable amount to make sure the flavor comes through. I feel the product we offer is justified for a scoop of goodness.
7)How do you’ll manage to minimize the gap in the Sri Lankan dessert space for the Italy’s well known gelato?
Shalini: I think we’ve managed quite well because we follow the Italian philosophy. But of course we are always trying to be better by improving ourselves every single day. For instance if you take coffee caramel, the recipe I started in December and the recipe we have now are completely different. We keep trying to modify the formulation, add a little bit of a local touch to it then try out different types of coffee, sugar, butter. Sometimes the most expensive butter is necessarily not the best and the most popular type of sugar is not the best for this particular purpose. And so we make sure to pick our ingredients with good care.
8)What are the future plans of Isle of Gelato that ice cream-a-holics could look forward to?
Shalini: We would like to expand to other places across the island but at the moment we are taking it slow because we don’t want to grow too fast. We want as many people as possible to experience our flavors and then hopefully fingers crossed go out of Sri Lanka as well in some point.
Suranjan: If you go back one year from 1st of December so much has changed. It’s exciting and we are taking it step by step. Hopefully Sri Lanka will see a lot more of us in the future.
9)The two of you gave up your corporate careers and took the leap. What is your advice for those thinking whether to take the leap or not?
Suranjan: It depends on what you are doing and the person who’s with you. But if you can find the right partner to complement what you don’t have and you complement what they don’t, then you will definitely be able to succeed given that you are willing to work hard. But you have to make sure to do the numbers too of course! I would say find an amazing partner and take the leap.
Shalini: You should definitely do your research and know what you are going in to. You must clearly know the market and your competitors!. Like Suranjan said we complement each other very well because I am very conservative while Suranjan is more forward and confident when it comes to decision making. So it’s good to have both of that. You also need to be prepared for a lot of hard work because particularly in the beginning it’s a 24 hour job.