Delta town losing its ‘diamond in the rough’ as D.C. native moves Mississippi-inspired gelato company to Memphis

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Sweet Magnolia Gelato Co

Hugh Balthrop is opening his first retail store in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

CLARKSDALE – Living in Washington, D.C., Hugh Balthrop owned an art gallery, selling artwork inspired by what he called the “African Diaspora” until he met his wife, Erica, who had roots and family ties in the Mississippi Delta.

Balthrop heard tales of Erica’s childhood, growing up in Clarksdale and her grandmother picking cotton during the hot Delta summers. Being from D.C., he thought she was joking, he said.

In 2000, they packed up – with their three children – and moved to the Mississippi Delta. Balthrop experienced “somewhat” of a culture shock: streams of poverty and ruralness, limited access to healthy foods and a scarcity of black-owned businesses.

What started as a hobby to create a healthier ice cream for his kids, birthed a successful small business venture a frozen Italian dessert, gelato, now sold in multiple states and stores across the South. And next month, Balthrop is set to open his first retail store in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, after failing to find the right building at the right price in Clarksdale.

It’s sad the city is losing its “diamond in the rough,” said Ben Lewis, program director of Meraki Roasting Company.

“It’s kind of exciting to see Hugh grow and explode and move to Memphis, but it’s sad we haven’t been able to grow him in Clarksdale …,” said Lewis. “If I had a building, I would’ve kept him. It’s sad not as many Clarksdale people stepped up to give him a building.”

Established in 2011, Sweet Magnolia Gelato Co., a “small batch artisan gelato company” located in Clarksdale, with a staff of about three in the winter and about 12 in the summer, manufactures, makes and distributes its own gelato – over 500 flavors with all natural ingredients.  

His “personal” touch not only shows in his product, but it also shows in how he interacts with his clients, customers and employees, said Lewis. 

“The amazing thing about Hugh is we have a lot of vendors that sell at Meraki (Roasting Company), but one thing about Hugh is he always has that personal touch,” said Lewis. “He cares about his customers, who he sells to, who his clients sell to, and he cares about his employees and the youth …. Everybody loves Hugh.”

The attention to detail and personal touch is what opened the eyes of millennials like Donald Sutton, 28, to business ownership.

“For one, it’s not too many black-owned businesses here and just to be able to work at one is cool,” said Sutton, who has worked for Balthrop for six years. “Working here has made me think I can branch off and start my own ice cream parlor or something.”

Hustle like the Nipsey and Master P’s of the world

Growing up in a single-parent home created a drive in Balthrop to set goals and do things on his own, he said. Although he lived all over D.C., “Chocolate City,” a term coined for the large African-American population, sparked entrepreneurship in him early.

“Where I grew up in D.C., they called it ‘Chocolate City’ because it was 80/90 percent black at one point … that’s all I saw. The carry-out spots, doctors, lawyers, real estate agents and I saw all of these businesses, that’s the inspiration I saw from getting in the business. I always saw people like me doing it,” said Balthrop.

Sweet Magnolia Gelato Co

Sweet Magnolia Gelato

Learning about the science of ice cream at Penn State University was Balthrop’s foot in the door. Instead of finishing, he decided self-education was the route he wanted to take instead.

“I went to Penn State and learned the science of making ice cream. That was it. I just picked up every book I could find. I don’t have to be in a classroom to learn something,” he said.

In cash-strapped small towns like Clarksdale, there must be a sense of being more “resourceful than having resources” to be successful, said Balthrop.

“Look at Nipsey Hussle or Master P. when he was selling mixtapes out of his trunk. He had a little money and a quality product. … You don’t need a hundred things on the menu. You just need a quality product and be consistent.”

‘Nobody else is doing it’

Balthrop’s niche was gelato. It was the challenge of making it — the healthier ingredients, and the intense flavors that reeled him in. And “nobody else is doing it,” he added.

He called it Sweet Magnolia Gelato.

“I was in my yard, and it was that season where the magnolia tree just reeks that perfume smell,” said Balthrop. “I was walking in my front yard holding my daughter’s hand and sweet magnolia, it hit me.”

Whether it’s using milk and cream from Oxford-based Brown Family Dairy’s grass-fed cows or Clarksdale’s Powell and Sons honey harvested by hand, Balthrop’s company buys from local growers throughout North Mississippi and Tennessee.

The $6-$8 pint-sized gelato is sold in more than 100 retail locations, including grocery stores, such as Whole Foods Market and coffee shops like local Meraki Roasting Company. It can be found in most Southern states from Mississippi to Tennessee to Georgia and Alabama.

But creating the product isn’t cheap, and the company spends more than $50,000 annually on local products. And, looking at the trends, the company has lost business,  which is why they’re moving into a retail space.

At this point, Sweet Magnolia Gelato Co., only makes 30 percent of profit from sales.

“We were in 15 Whole Foods [stores] at one time, now we’re in two,” said Balthrop. “We couldn’t do demos anymore … if you see my product up against Ben and Jerry’s, you’re going to get that.”

Even though the retail store is opening in Memphis, Balthrop is still looking for a space for the manufacturing facility, which is currently housed at the old Chamber of Commerce in Clarksdale. 

“I’m looking at the long run,” he said. “I’m trying to create a legacy for my family and kids.”