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Scotland's Larder: Joe Sykes from Joelato

Cat Thomson talks ice cream with Joe Sykes, who turned his love of creating gelato and sorbets at home into his own thriving business, Joelato.

Published: June 8, 2022
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While many people dream of jacking in the day job and turning a hobby into a business, not many actually do it.

Someone who took the plunge and turned his love of making artisan ice cream into a company making gelato is Joe Sykes.

Marketeer

Prior to founding his company, Joelato, Joe worked in marketing. "My dad is an incredibly passionate marketer, firstly in the corporate world and then he taught me, so it was one of those things I had no clue what else I could do and I thought, oh well my dad did it. But I had very much fallen out of love with it and was desperately thinking what can I do.”

He knew he wanted to run his own business but didn't have a focus until his wife Lucie pointed out that he loved food and was always banging on about ice cream. He chuckles: "I hadn't realised I had."

France

Joe has very fond memories of childhood holidays in Italy and France where he and his siblings were treated to delicious ice cream.

He was brought up in Bedfordshire but the family moved to France when he was seven years old. "That is where we all developed a real love of food. My mum has always been a really good cook and it sort of rubbed off on us."

Joe Sykes from Joelato
Joe Sykes from Joelato



Moving to a foreign country with his brother and sister was daunting, particularly when they didn't speak the language. They went to the local school. “It was terrifying at first but looking back it was an opportunity of a lifetime."

Naturally French school dinners were very different from the ones back home. The pupils were bused to the next village and the nearby restaurant cooked their lunch. "We would have beef tongue and all sorts of stuff, the quality was ridiculously good."

Sweet memories

However, one memory from childhood really made its mark. As a treat following a watersports activity holiday, his mother took him to a local hotel which served Berthillon ice cream.

"To this day it is the best salted caramel ice cream I have ever eaten, there are only just a handful of places outside Paris that Berthillon supplies and it was just the purest, most mind blowing ice cream I have ever had."

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A board displaying different flavours of Berthillon ice cream on a bar of the Ile-Saint-Louis in Paris. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty


"A lot of the flavours I make now are inspired by them; I am trying to do something as good as they do. I have huge respect for their ethos, they have been around for a while but they have not changed. They only use the best best ingredients they can possibly find and I love that."

Living abroad

The family moved back to the UK when Joe was a teenager and he went on to study Languages and Marketing at Sheffield Hallam University which included spending 18 months in Italy and France.

"I went to Nice and then Paris for six months and then Turin in Italy for six months which was just fantastic."

After university he worked in Paris and then Edinburgh, but says: "I realised I wasn't actually passionate about marketing, I wasn't interested in that whole moving up the corporate ladder; I knew I wanted to work for myself."

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Ice cream maker

By this time he had met his wife Lucie and moved to Perthshire and they were, "just making ice cream for ourselves".

Lucie gave Joe the nudge he needed to turn a hobby into a business.

Joe Sykes from Joelato
Gelato in a cone from Joelato

First he did some market research and found that there were only a handful of gelato makers in Scotland.

He discovered a gap in the market for top-notch artisan ice cream and sorbet. He decided to
make gelato using as much of the local produce as possible.

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He says: “Especially in Perthshire where we are surrounded by the most amazing soft fruit farms."

Gelato University

He and Lucie booked themselves on a course at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna to learn more.

"We felt it would be just fantastic to immerse ourselves over there in Italy to really see how they are making it. We thought, let's go there and see what the proper stuff tastes like and learn from the best."

In Italy the name for ice cream is gelato, but there are subtle differences. Here ice cream is 70-80 per cent cream but gelato is around 70 per cent milk and just a bit of cream. It is churned more slowly and it tends to be a fresh product rather than being frozen for months.

A student serves ice cream during a course at the "Gelato University" of Carpigiani in Bologna. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty


Joe explains the key difference: “It is a very smooth and denser texture than your average ice cream."

He learned how to balance a gelato or sorbet recipe with the correct percentages of fat or sugar. That is important if you want to create a particular style of ice cream. "If you've got a shop and 12 diverse flavours, they all have to be a scoopful of each other so how do you do that?"

The course also covered everything about running a gelateria and included some of the business strategies you have to think about.

Panorama of Bologna view from the famous "Asinelli" tower located in the centre of the city. Photo: Getty

Ice cool

Next they began acquiring secondhand machinery. “We discovered how horribly expensive gelato making machinery is."

Initially they hoped to rent a commercial kitchen but that proved to be tricky, as the machinery needs special three-phase electricity. Fortunately, whilst taking a meter reading at home Joe discovered they had the right type of power there so he converted a shipping container into a kitchen in their garden.

Joe Sykes from Joelato
Gelato in a cone from Joelato



The course also gave the couple the confidence to found Joelato and to start selling at farmers’ markets.

Their first was at Logie Rait, near Pitlochry, and thankfully the sun shone. Their first customer was a little girl who bought a triple chocolate ice cream and came back for more and they quickly sold out. “People enjoyed what we were doing and we got some lovely feedback."

Leap of faith

A crunch business decision came in July 2020 when Joe's work wanted him to return having been furloughed. However, it felt like a case of now or never, and sales were good.

Joe admits his marketing background has proved helpful to find a niche market and to focus on making them different from the other ice cream makers in Scotland.

And he loves the freedom of running his own business – although it turns out that means he is working seven days a week.

Rising prices means their electricity bills are pretty horrifying. “You have to be clever and try and reduce your costs where you can but it is tricky, all our ingredients have increased in price some of them dramatically"

Berry tasty

They are still passionate about local produce, with milk and cream coming from Dunkeld and blackcurrants, raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries all sourced nearby.

Freshly picked strawberries from Perthshire. Photo: Getty


Unusual Karaka berries are grown by a cousin who is a commercial fruit grower. Joe says: "We don't get them all that often, because it is very seasonal, but they have the most stunning flavour.”

They also use homegrown herbs; mint, basil and lemon verbena and in autumn apples from their garden are used to create a tarte Tatin style gelato. And nearby Scone Palace garden also supplies them with rhubarb, and beautiful Scottish peaches from their walled garden and greenhouses.

Scoop

I get a scoop on the new season flavours which will feature soon: Raspberry and rose which Joe's mum specially requested. And a few mascarpone options, which Joe tells me: “Makes for the most wonderful texture and ever so slightly savoury flavour with sour cherries that have been soaked in Disaronno."

Pink lemonade is also set to return after being popular last year along with Lemon sorbet with wild strawberries.

As a result of rising costs they have stopped their delivery service until later in the year to concentrate on pop-up events, and will be at Faldonside farmers’ market in the Borders.

Joe Sykes from Joelato
Joe Sykes from Joelato at Bonnie & Wild, Edinburgh.

Bonnie & Wild

Gelato fans can also find them at Bonnie & Wild between 12-9pm daily on the fourth Floor of St James Centre in Edinburgh, or at the Strawberry shop near Scone in Perthshire.

They also supply Flora Shedden's, ARAN Bakery, in Dunkeld with some flavours and make an exclusive flavour for Scone Palace called Palace Mess.

Joe adds: "We use their recipe for raspberry jam and use their wonderful shortbread in it."

Wherever you manage to track them down the hardest decision will be which flavour to try.

Joe Sykes from Joelato

Joelato
Perthshire
Tel: 07805 994 453

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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