Vote with your fork: an interview with Robb Duncan
Robb Duncan is 1/2 of the awesome duo behind Dolcezza. Founded by Robb and his wife Violeta Edelman in 2004, Dolcezza is a small chain of delicious gelateria-coffee shops scattered around the District.
Not only are they all about making the world's best version of ice cream (shoutout to Italy), but they're also committed to sourcing fresh and local ingredients, making handcrafted food, and being selective about what we put in our bodies.
We got to chat with Robb about issues of food access and food equity in D.C., the importance of eating healthy and local food, and how to strengthen the quality of attention you give to everything you do.
You guys were ahead of the game on two fronts – bringing gelato to D.C. (and America in general) of course, but also doing it old-style – handcrafted with fresh and local ingredients. What was it like breaking into that new, relatively untouched space and getting people to see the value in what you had to offer?
Ah you know to be honest with you, it wasn't really done in that sense like consciously - like we're going to do it this way because we want to show people or anything you know… It was more just like, this is the way that we do it at home, so this is the way we're gonna do it in a business that we now have. So it was more of that, just like a natural kind of way of doing things. Like I said at home, you know, we go to the farmer's market - we make our own chicken stock with the backs, neck and the feet, whatever - and so then when we had our business, at that same farmer's market it would be strawberry season and we'd then ask the farmer hey, do you have two flats of strawberries that you can sell to us wholesale? And then that became the ingredient that we used. It was just - that's the way that we do things. And then it was - we have a business, and this is more in the public scene as opposed to just at home in the private, you know?
As you’ve grown, has it become more difficult to stay true to your commitment to fresh, local ingredients?
No way, not at all. It's the opposite - we get better at it because we know more. It’s like the further in you go, the bigger it gets. You know now we have these ten year partnerships with these farmers, and we're able to really make a significant income stream for the farmers because they struggle more than pretty much anybody in any other profession. Especially now because there are farmer's markets on every day of the week, so their farmer’s market ten years ago that would bring them $10,000 on a Sunday will now bring them $3,000 on a Sunday because there's a farmer’s market that people can go to on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, so they're not really just waiting. So yeah, it's the opposite.
So you guys have really built a community around you at Dolcezza, not just with your suppliers, but also with your customers. How did you go about building a community around your business?
I see it as a natural result of actions. The way we do things attracts people that also value that way - you know whether it's fresh, local, delicious, good quality. I think that if you do whatever and you do it well, everything else takes care of itself. Again, it's not like we’re trying to consciously build this community, it's just the way that we've done things attracted other people that appreciate it, that like it, that recognize it, that value it, whatever you want to call it. And so there grows your customers that dig it, that like it. So it's a natural result of your actions, not anything you do to do that. But first you know, we make a good product and so from that you have customers that recognize it.
How has your commitment to fresh, local ingredients and all that played into your decisions to bring other products and brands into your stores, like Stumptown Coffee for example?
Well, it's just aligning ourselves to other people who are doing it at the same level, who are pushing it, who are re-defining it. You know Stumptown were the visionaries in the specialty coffee area, they opened up in 1999 back in Portland, I was living in Portland at the time, and they opened right up the street from where I lived and changed my coffee definition forever. They're some of the first ones who went down directly to the farmers in the countries of origin and cut out the middle man and did it directly themselves. So they ended up finding the best beans and paying the farmer much more money than what they were getting before. And then they actually went into those communities where people would grow coffee and they would show them how to improve their coffee quality, either by how they wash their coffee, how they process their coffee, how they dry their coffee, etc. so by “improving” their coffee they increased the value of their coffee. So, these are folks who changed the coffee industry, which is no small feat.
It's the same thing when we’re choosing a farmer to work with - it's the farmers who are pushing it, redefining it, returning to the roots of farming, who blow us away. These are the folks we want to work with and it’s their products we want to use when making our gelato and coffee. If you can surround yourself with these type of folks and this quality of food, then it’s a big party where everybody is turning everybody on with what they are doing and who doesn’t want to be part of this.
So you've said that you’re using your gelato and your shops to “encourage people to eat the way we did before the industrialization of food"
Yeah yeah, I think so. I mean now that we see that we have that platform, that we have a business that has 8 shops and we have a bigger reach, bigger impact, bigger footprint than what we'd normally have, yeah now we see that. You know a lot of people say it, not just me, but you vote with your fork. Food is very political. I mean if you really get into that as far as like - where do you get your food from? Who do you support? Where do your dollars go? You know do you support the big industrial food chains and corporations and companies that are not about providing the best, most healthy, locally sourced, carefully grown or raised livestock, or whatever it is? You know, where do your dollars go for your food? A hundred percent, we're all about that.
"You vote with your fork. Food is very political."
A follow up question to that is, aside from eating your delicious gelato, and brands like Stumptown - those kind of locally committed brands, what do you think people can be doing on a daily basis to eat the, so-called, ‘old-school way’ – the way that’s better for our bodies and for our planet?
Eat food. It's kind of like what Michael Pollan says, “If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” It's really just eat food not something that's coming out of cans or something that’s picked up through a drive-thru window. If you’re going to eat mashed potatoes, buy potatoes, peel them, boil them, mash them – don’t buy the packaged, freeze dried stuff. Same thing for beans, bread, whole grains, greens, etc.
That's one thing and then - if you can do it - buy as much as you can from the local markets. The thing about the local markets is, it'll have to change for that to be available, is that they're so expensive you know? So it's a very exclusive thing in that sense because it's so freaking expensive in the farmer's markets. The good thing for us is that everything we eat, we barter and trade it in the farmer's markets with our gelato and coffee so that kind of helps us for it to not be so expensive, but you know, a whole chicken's $25 bucks! I mean that's a lot of money, and a lot of people it would be difficult to buy all their stuff. This Sunday I bought 10 cukes (cucumbers) at the farmers' market and it was $10! I mean it's crazy. People should eat as much as they can locally but it's obviously a bit more expensive, but other than that eat whole foods, you know make everything yourself - it's really important for the health, for the individual.
In a city like DC where there's so much income inequality, what do you think could and should be done to make this kind of food (this healthy, whole, natural, local food) more accessible to all communities?
Yeah that's a good question. It's kind of one of these things that we think about a lot. I mean there's programs I know that - you know there's a lot of food that after the farmer's markets, the bells ring and there's a lot of food that's still there on the farmer's market tables - and there's programs like D.C. Central Kitchen. They have what they call the gleaning where they come and they pick up I guess what the farmer decides they can give away and so they use that back in the D.C. Central Kitchen. So maybe something like that.
There's so much surplus - maybe for example the seconds. Your seconds are like so much cheaper than your firsts at farmer's markets, so maybe doing something to make those seconds available to the communities that are more in need or something like that. Like, bringing the seconds and having a farmer's market in those kinds of neighborhoods you know that might be a way of getting that kind of stuff much cheaper than the firsts at farmers markets. You know stuff like that to be able to make it more available to everybody, but it's a big loaded question… There's so much food surplus everywhere and so many people with a need… There's a big disconnect.
"It's kind of like what Michael Pollan says, 'If it's a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don't.'"
Exactly, and that's something that we think about a lot over at MISFIT because we see how much these farmers are having to waste, and so we're trying to do our part by juicing some of it, but there's just so much and it's not getting to the people who are hungry and who need it.
Right, I remember being at this conference - the James Beard Leadership conference or something like that – this lady got up and said how she hated hearing the word “food desert” - that whole word. It's not a food desert, you go to my neighborhood and there's Popeye's Chicken, there's McDonald's, there's Burger King, there’s 7-11. You know it's got food, it's just all this fast food and processed food. It's not a desert, it's just that the type of food that's in there is not healthy for you.
You know community gardens are really cool I think, maybe they can do something… I've thought about just putting an herb garden out in my front yard and putting a sign saying that this is available for anybody who wants it. You know just little stuff like that, like on the individual level. I mean if you think about and you've got a street with 50 houses on it, and 10 or 15 of those grow stuff that's available for everyone, I don't know maybe that would make a difference just in that little neighborhood… I mean there's a lot of stuff that we can do from the personal at home to the business too.
"I've thought about just putting an herb garden out in my front yard and putting a sign saying that this is available for anybody who wants it. You know just little stuff like that, like on the individual level. I mean, if you think about it and you've got a street with 50 houses on it, and 10 or 15 of those grow stuff that's available for everyone, I don't know maybe that would make a difference just in that little neighborhood."
Yeah absolutely, those kinds of individual actions can have a really meaningful impact on a community. On a completely unrelated note -- what's the weirdest gelato-related experience you've ever had?
Well we had somebody come in and say that they had a baby because of our dark chocolate gelato so that was a pretty weird one. Like, dark chocolate gelato leads to copulation and reproduction haha so that was a cool one.
I don’t know, also the weird flavors that we've done - like foie gras, parmesan cheese, stuff like that but I don't know, nothing too far out.
Part of your philosophy in life is to be spontaneous. Can you tell us about a time in the past week where you’ve been spontaneous?
Well I guess spontaneous is like kind of what's happening in the zeitgeist of the moment, you know being present or whatever. So right now I'm doing a lot of design for a new store that we're going to be building out in a year and a half from now - the Wharf, the South West Waterfront Wharf project. We're putting a store there, so it's like I go into this whole design process where I do the whole design of the spaces - like all of the materials, the lights, the floors, the backsplash, the bar, everything - so it's just like in the last couple of days, I started to see it.
It's a weird process that happens, but as I get closer to it and go into that kind of design phase… just yesterday I was sitting there and I looked across at a book cover, the design of the book cover all of a sudden became the ceramic tiles that would make a cool kitchen backsplash, and then that led me to think about the kitchen floor tiles but actually it ended up being like the wood bar design of it - so you know spontaneity is kind of like that.
We also have two little girls, a six year old and four year old, and we're about to have another baby in a month from now, so every second is a spontaneous improv to deal with the labors of small children.
As a startup, we just came out of our first year of operations. Given your experience diving in head first, figuring things out as you go along with a lot of trial and error, and balancing the business with other responsibilities, what advice do you have for getting through it all?
You know, like I swear it all comes back to the quality of attention that you put into it. And whatever ‘it’ is, all decisions that are made depend on: Are you really looking into it? Are you asking the right questions? Or are you just winging it? Do you have no experience? Are you not very present? Do you really give a shit? Do you worry too much what you're doing? Are you passionate? You know the quality and attention that you put into it, whatever it is - having a family, running a business, the first year in, the second year in - it's asking how deep have you looked into the matter of your own self, of your own being? And from that goes everything - so it all returns to that.
And then in an indirect way, you should eat better food, you should cook it yourself, you should travel as much as you possibly can, you should read old, classic, great books, you should have great sex, you should smoke great dope, you should hang out with some really interesting, amazing people - artists, chefs, farmers - and if you do that, then you start to move through the world and relate to yourself and relate to others in a different way. It’s a truer way of seeing things, not just the way that everybody else sees things because that's the way that they’ve been told to -- that's a sham, that's like a trick, it's an illusion that you need to dispel. The more that you can dispel that, then you can bring a truer quality of attention to what you do, and that's the secret, that's the trick.
It’s just making sure whatever you do is done with that attention and presence, and so from that I think is where it really starts - that's where magic happens, that's where good ideas come from, that's where good intentions and good actions and good food, good design, whatever - it comes from that. Just fucking be present, do yoga, do meditation, all that good stuff you know. Anything that gets you off - go hike, go live in the woods for a month, any of that kind of stuff.
So if you could, is there anything that you would have done differently?
No, not at all. My little daughter asked me that "is there anything that you regret?" Not at all. Because it's like, I would not know what I know now had I not done all of that. And I made mistakes, hell yeah, and I've continued to make mistakes, but that's how you learn, you just learn through mistakes. So don't be afraid to get into it and fuck it all up. As long as you learn from your fuck ups, that's the big deal - so that you don't go back and regret any of your fuckups because you learned from them.
If you don't learn from them, that's the problem, and again that goes back to the quality of awareness and attention. If you can see that you make mistakes and if you're aware that you're making mistakes then you can change your course and adjust. If you don't have awareness then you keep making the same mistakes again, and that's called stupidity.
"I made mistakes, hell yeah, and I've continued to make mistakes, but that's how you learn, you just learn through mistakes. So don't be afraid to get into and fuck it all up. As long as you learn from your fuck ups, that's the big deal - so that you don't go back and regret any of your fuckups, because you learned from them."
What’s the most epic flavor of gelato you’ve ever had?
The most epic flavor…. The best flavor… You know one of the most amazing flavors - and it's been forever since I've done it because it's much more expensive to make than we could actually sell it for, but I'm talking to a farmer this year to see if we can bring it back and just have it be like the grand cru and just charge like $25 a pint or whatever it takes to pay for the cost of it - is a purple raspberry. It's like simple, simple, simple.
You know there's red raspberries, there's black raspberries, there's also something called purple raspberries that I had never seen or heard of until this farmer - Chuck Geyer who is with Agriberry Farm out of Hanover, VA - and he grows red, black, purple and gold raspberries. And the purple raspberry sorbetto is otherworldly - it's simply a puree of purple raspberries and a little bit of simple syrup. It's like eating velvet. It's the most sophisticated, sweet, bright, balanced, sorbet I’ve ever eaten, with an amazing texture – pure velveteen. I hope I get to do it this year.
I just talked to Chuck a couple weeks ago and we talked about bringing that back for like a limited run this year and call it like the grand cru or something so that we can charge more in order to justify that I can do it. Because my family won't let me make stuff anymore that doesn't make money -- or that loses money I should say - this was something that it was more expensive to produce it than what we were able to sell it for, so now hopefully I can bring it back for like a limited, small run this year.