Back in the 1980’s when she was working as a chemistry teacher in Florida, Linda Rubin chaperoned a group of students on a trip to Europe. It was during their visit to Italy, that Rubin fell in love—with gelato. So it was only natural that, two years ago, after 20-something years in the nonprofit sector, Rubin decided to start her own gelato business from her current hometown of Keene, NH.
She also tapped her knowledge of chemistry to create her own proprietary base.
But more than just a gelato seller, the company, called Frisky Cow Gelato, has economic development in mind, using organic milk and other entirely locally sourced ingredients. “If we’re going to have an economic future, it will happen through small entrepreneurs like myself starting something cool and taking it to the next level,” she says.
A registered Benefit Corp, the company donates 15 cents from the sale of every pint to organizations looking to rebuild the local food system.
Rubin also just won $10,000 as the winner of the PitchFork Challenge, a pitch competition for small, rural businesses organized by the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship. The competition was held earlier this month during the third annual Radically Rural summit, which focuses on addressing challenges faced by small towns and rural communities and was co-hosted by the Grimes Center and The Keene Sentinel. (This year’s event was held virtually).
With another $15,000 she raised earlier this year, Rubin plans to use the winnings to buy a more energy efficient and larger processor able to double the amount of gelato she makes.
Making Gelato from Scratch
In 2018, when Rubin got a hankering to become a food entrepreneur, she figured that gelato would be a healthier alternative to regular ice cream. With a lot of connections in the community, she also knew she could help support the local economy by getting her ingredients from local farmers. But she didn’t want to make just any gelato. She wanted to make the entire thing from scratch.
The trouble was, Rubin knew absolutely nothing about making gelato. So she and Elijah, her then-21-year-old son, attended a two-week class at a gelato-making school in Chicago where they learned from pros from Northern Italy. She also ended up buying equipment from the school.
After that, Rubin headed back to Keene and spent six months drawing on her chemistry skills to develop a proprietary base for her product. “When I finally got it right, it was a eureka, I finally got it moment,” she says.
As for where to make the gelato, for many years Rubin had worked with Stonewall Farm, a local nonprofit dairy farm and educational center in Keene focused on regenerative agricultural practices. As it happened, that work had included raising money to build a new creamery. But the facility wasn’t being used. So, Rubin asked if she could use it.
Finding a Like-Minded Distributor
After deciding to go the wholesale route, Rubin spent several intense months going door-to-door, trying to get on the shelves of co-ops and specialty food stores. Then she got in touch with Food Connects, a nonprofit food distributor in nearby Brattleboro, Vt., with a mission to work with small food producers to grow local food systems. “I didn’t have to jump through as many hoops as I would have with any other distributor,” she says. For example, according to Rubin, she was able to supply her gelato packaged simply in big bags that Food Connects picked up.
A year and a half later, she started working with a local branding company to create her own packaging, with a look featuring a lot of color and a cow kicking up its leg. The product is now in 35 venues in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. Most are small, but she recently started selling in three stores that are part of the Hannaford supermarket chain. Plus she sells to Keene State College through the school’s food service company. And she’s looking at signing on with additional distributors that sell outside of her current footprint.
A Covid Pivot
As for how the business has been affected by Covid, that’s been a mixed bag. On the one hand, the company has benefited from an increased interest in supporting locally made goods. On the other, about 15% of her business had come from selling at weddings, festivals and other events, business that’s just about completely dried up. Plus, she’s been unable to do the in-store demos that have been important to boosting sales.
Figuring she had to get creative, in July Rubin applied for a grant from the Hannah Grimes Pandemic Pivot Fund. She’s using the $1,000 to develop a new online subscription club