Owners: Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe
4342 ½ Tujunga Ave
Studio City, CA 91604
Yelp: 4.5 stars
Interview Date: Friday, July 16, 2010
Although I grew up in Los Angeles and have spent a good deal of time in Studio City, I had never before been on the short block of Tujunga Avenue that takes you back in time to a simpler, friendlier small town. Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe is a fixture on the street of mainly husband-wife business partnerships, and it was full of neighborhood friends meeting and working over gelato, espresso and Panini.
Gail Silverton is the founder of The Neighborhood School, a well-known nursery school in the Valley. “I was operating three schools, and I love it,” says Gail. “It is a very intense business – the parents and the health and safety concerns are very serious, so I was looking for a business that was lighter … something that felt less serious. As long as we don’t poison anyone, we’re OK serving gelato.”
As she searched for the perfect location that would provide her with the sense of community that she loved about her schools, the location on Tujunga Ave. opened up and she jumped on it. “The building came available and I signed the lease – I didn’t know what it would be yet,” she says. Gail and her sister, Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery, travel to Italy annually and have a deep love of the culture, so when she saw the space, she naturally gravitated to an Italian fixture: gelato and espresso.
The café opened in September 2006, right around the time that Gail met Joel Gutman. In 2007 they were married, and in February 2007 he quit his 23-year career in the advertising business to join Gail in the café business. “We were both looking for a simpler life,” says Joel. “We were paring down as we got older. I thought to myself – if money was no object, would I be sitting at a desk all day?” The answer was clearly “no.”
The two were planning to work in the business only occasionally, but their savings were wiped out by Bernie Madoff, bringing them deeply into the day-to-day operations. “Instead of 20 hours per week, we are working 40 hours or more,” says Joel. “But we still go to Italy every year, and are working on tasting every gelato and coffee in the country,” says Gail.
When Gail and Joel added espresso to the menu they undertook it as a learning opportunity and have fully immersed themselves in the coffee business. “Coffee is a moving target and a great challenge,” says Joel. “It is a great challenge not only to learn how to buy and make it correctly, but also to educate our customers about how espresso fits naturally with gelato – as it does in Italy.”
The best part of owning the Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe are comments like “Oh my god, this reminds me of Italy,” says Gail. “Also, we are seeing that people are becoming entwined through the café. They come here every day and get to know each other, and that’s what I really wanted – a community. We survive on about 100 customers who come in twice a day – for coffee in the morning and gelato in the afternoon, with a Panini here and there. Many of the people who come here have gotten to know each other.”
Gail sold two of her schools and has maintained one with 80 students. “I love my school, and I love this, too,” she says. “Scaling the school down was necessary so that I could do both.” Gail and Joel recently opened a second location in Los Feliz, but that location is more hands-off. “We have a great store manager – a friend of mine,” says Gail. “So we basically set up the store and trust her to run it.” As for additional locations, Gail says that they are always on the lookout, but that it really depends on finding the right community-driven location and service-oriented people to help them grow.
These factors are critical because there is something sweet about their lifestyle now. “We live two minutes from here,” says Gail. “And the customers love knowing the owners and knowing that we will do almost anything for them.” For example, one day Joel personally delivered 20 small gelato cups to a child’s birthday party on his way home one afternoon. “We can do that because we’re the owners,” says Joel. “It’s an amazing feeling to be able to say ‘yes’ to almost any crazy idea, and people really love it.”