In Philly, a D.C. gelato pro sees opportunity — and cocktail-sauce sorbet

When Sierra Georgia decided to open a brick-and-mortar successor to her popular Washington, D.C.-based mobile gelato business, she aimed her refrigerated food truck north and kept driving until she reached Philadelphia.

Now, the 30-year-old is just a few months from opening her 1,000-square-foot cafe and gelato kitchen in a repurposed industrial property that's coming back to life on the Northern Liberties-Fishtown border at Front and Wildey Streets.

Georgia's Gelat’oh Brick & Motor cafe will join a soon-to-open Love & Honey Fried Chicken restaurant and an indie men’s hair salon called Philadelphia Barber Co. at the assemblage of buildings in the shadow of the Market-Frankford El, about a block south of Girard station.

With commercial rents lower than in Washington, where her gelato business started, and a thriving food scene here, Georgia said, Philadelphia seemed an ideal place to begin this new phase of her enterprise.

“Philly is a very attractive city; it’s an affordable city; there’s a lot of culture here,” Georgia said. “Philly had so many great options at a great price.”

Douglas Green, a principal at Philadelphia-based real estate brokerage MSC Retail, said Philadelphia offers advantages over East Coast peers such as Boston, Washington, and New York for emerging businesses such as Georgia’s.

Green, who has represented retail tenants and landlords throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, said central Philadelphia’s population density – among the country’s highest – translates to lots of potential customers for all kinds of businesses, while its rents remain relatively affordable.

And with much of the city still emerging from decades of disinvestment, Philadelphia hasn’t seen as much retail development as its counterparts, he said, meaning less competition for the businesses that do give it a go here.

“There’s a perception that you can be a bigger player, with less risk, in Philadelphia,” Green said. “There’s this big-fish-small-pond mentality you can have.”

Georgia’s shop will open on the southwest corner of 1100 N. Front St., an aged property that’s served time as a bottling plant, a rug factory, and a marine-goods warehouse, said Josh Olivo, a principal at Elk Street Management, the property’s owner.

Elk Street is now marketing the building's two upper stories as “creative” office space with exposed brick walls and pine floor boards, after filling most of the ground-floor retail space, said Olivo. His company also is completing work on Frankford Avenue's 1400 block that includes Cheu Noodle Bar’s second location at the Bicycle Stable's former home.

No opening date has been set for Georgia’s gelato shop, though her plan advanced Monday when the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association board voted to approve zoning clearances it will need.

The Pemberton, Burlington County, native said she got into the gelato game a few years ago, after deciding that the frozen dessert would sell better during Washington’s humid summers than the cupcakes around which she had built an earlier food-truck business.

Georgia teamed with an experienced gelato chef to sell the treat at food-truck festivals under the Dolci Gelati brand before deciding to strike out on her own with a permanent storefront, while also continuing truck sales at festivals and catered events.

After completing a six-week gelato-making program at Carpigiano Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, Georgia headed to Philadelphia to establish her new Gelat’oh brand. With its youthful population and density of restaurants and bars, Georgia quickly zeroed in on Northern Liberties for her production space and retail outlet.

She plans to make and sell conventional gelatos at her new space, but there will also be more exotic options such as infused lavender, a canine-friendly peanut-butter-and-sweet-potato flavored “doggie gelato,” and – at special tasting events – cocktail-sauce sorbet, with chilled shrimp.

Georgia said Philadelphia's affordable rents and adventurous palates give her the luxury to take her craft in these esoteric directions.

“I wanted to be comfortable in a place where I could have a nice layout in the kitchen and really master the process,” she said. In Washington, “I wouldn’t have been able to do it at the same price point.”

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