While preparing to launch Cremalosa, her brand-new Decatur hand-crafted gelato shop this winter, after running two restaurants, multiple newspaper stints and training as a pastry chef at Johnson & Wales, Meridith Ford thought she was ready for anything.
“I forgot to include ‘global pandemic’ in my business plan!” says Ford, laughing. In February, after a grueling four-year expedition to open her dream business, Ford finally opened the doors to Cremalosa, her shop on the MARTA Plaza Level at 2657 East College Avenue in Decatur. Despite the nonstop monsoon and the not-ready-for-primetime-patio-seating temps, she was already exceeding the start-up projections in her business plan.
Says Ford: “For a minute or two there, I thought, ‘I can actually make a living doing this. Things are going to be OK.'”
Then, on Friday, March 20, Ford sat inside her gelato shop on a beautiful spring afternoon for three hours without a single customer. “There was a palpable change,” she recalls. Life as normal was over. “The next day, even before there was any kind of mandated lock down in Decatur or Atlanta, I put everything into pints and became to-go only. Like a lot of other people in this profession right now, I had to alter my business model on a dime.”
(Full disclosure: Back when Ford served as dining critic at the AJC, we were deskmates and pals at the old Bailey Building & Loan).
Even though she’s currently only open on Thursdays starting at noon and selling to-go pints, Cremalosa’s Italian-inspired spin on spun in-house comfort food is still flying out of the freezer. “Last week, I opened at noon and I had sold out of every flavor by 3:30,” Ford says. “The support I have received in the Decatur and Avondale communities has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. People literally come in the door and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re here, we’re so glad you’re open!’ My daughter went all through Decatur public schools so I was very familiar with the people here. But throughout this, the level of support I’ve been shown is just incredible. Residents here want to support local businesses. It tells me I picked exactly the right place to open this shop.”
For four years, aside from frogs falling out of the sky enmasse, Ford bobbed and weaved her way through every other conceivable obstacle to open Cremalosa. “I had to put my grandmother’s house up as collateral in order to qualify for a business loan, I lost that loan and then two leases before I finally got my current loan and this location and I finally got through all the licensing and inspections,” she reflects. “And now, a pandemic. You can’t make this stuff up.”
After leaving the AJC, Ford went to work for Milan-born Atlanta chef Riccardo Ullio, owner of Fritti when he was developing the gelato menu for his Dunwoody restaurant Novo Cucina. Ullio brought in gelato master Stefano Tarquinio from Italy to personally put Ford through a frozen dessert boot camp of sorts.
Two restaurants later, as other folks her age were contemplating retirement, Ford was dreaming of owning her own gelato business. “I have friends who think I’m crazy to open a business, but this is my baby,” says Ford. “In so many ways, I’m grateful that I’m an almost 60-year-old and not 27, trying to figure this all out right now. All of those life and work experiences I’ve had come in handy. If business owners, particularly those of us in the hospitality industry are going to survive this, we’ve got to be nimble and flexible right now.”
Toward that end, for the duration of the pandemic, Ford has transitioned Cremalosa to a pint-only, take-out, cash-free business that’s currently open only on Thursdays starting at noon — for now. Blessedly, she says her guests are self-social distancing to allow one customer in the shop at a time. She’s encouraging customers to check out her social media accounts on Mondays when she posts the flavors for the week and via online advance ordering, she’s also whipping up gelato cakes for Easter. This week’s flavors are: Lemon Cream Strawberry, Pecan Turtle Cheesecake, Mint Chocolate Chip, Cappuccino, Strawberry-Mango Sorbetto and her current customer favorite, Chocolate Fudge Brownie.
Ford feels confident she and Cremalosa can continue to change with these rapidly changing COVID-19 challenging times. “The only thing that is killing me right now is not being able to serve families who want a cone or a taste when they come in on an outing together,” she says. “I love serving this to kids.”
But even Decatur families are learning to adjust to our current new normal. “Last week, I had a family come in and order five pints and five take out spoons. When they left, each of them had a big spoon dug into their own individual pint while social distancing on the plaza! It was hysterical. Gelato makes people happy. Even with all this craziness right now, this is not a bad business to be in.”
Cremalosa is located at 2657 East College Ave., Suite B, MARTA Plaza Level, Decatur 30030. Throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic, the shop is only open on Thursdays from noon until pints sell out. Call ahead at 404-578-2739.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.