THUNDER BAY -- A few summers ago, Anne-Marie Calonego and her friends were talking about how there should be an ice cream or gelato place near the waterfront. “It was a year when the train station ice cream wasn’t there and TJ’s wasn’t there so there was no ice cream on the waterfront. And that turned into ‘well, why don’t you do it?’”
She went to Gelato University in Bologna Italy in July 2015, taking an intensive course and internship. Renovating the store on the corner of Red River Road and Cumberland Street started in September that year and Prime Gelato opened its doors on July 1, 2016.
Calongeo got top notch equipment from Italy (“way too expensive - they’re all made in Emilia-Romagna - the Ducati and Ferrari factories are there, and so are the factories making equipment for gelato”) which may sound like overkill in a city where cold dessert is considered a short summer treat. “It would actually be more profitable if we closed in the winter,” she admits. However, she had bigger plans from the get-go. She acquired a dairy license in March 2017, which allows her to produce pints of gelato to be sold in other retail stores. A dairy license is expensive to maintain, but she hopes to expand sales until she can sell nationally.
Currently, a dozen retailers carry Prime Gelato pints, including Shoppers Drug Mart. While Prime Gelato is constantly experimenting, they always stock a few popular flavours such as cheesecake and lemon, and there are always dairy-free options to choose from as well. On the adventurous side, they have made Grana Padano, smoked trout and other savoury ones for restaurants, and Calonego’s personal favourite is burnt butter sage. As much as possible of the ingredients are sourced locally, and seasonal fruits such as wild blueberries and strawberries are flash frozen while they are in season. Each flavour needs to be treated differently to maximize the flavour profile, so depending on what fruit or herb they use, they roast it, soak it, or blend it.
Her business plan goes beyond the attractive little shop downtown. “There are 27 dairy farms in Thunder Bay, I’ve been told, and their milk is processed at Parmalat here (under the Beatrice brand.)” Prime Gelato buys milk from Parmalat but check to ensure that it is from local farms. “Here in Thunder Bay we don’t use as much milk as we produce, yet they sell milk from Winnipeg in stores like Walmart. The ultimate goal for us is to build a national plant, where we can get our dairy directly from the farmers.”
The trucks currently bringing in food to Thunder Bay leave empty, she explains, so if those trucks could transport pints of gelato when they leave the city, it would make a lot of sense. “It would be amazing if we could actually use our local milk and create a higher-value product.”