Sweet Magnolia Gelato Co. founder Hugh Balthrop chuckles when the question comes up. How many flavors has the Clarksdale-based artisan company churned out?
“There’s no way for me to keep up, we’ve created so many,” he says. “It’s endless. I mean, if I had to just guess, I’d say 500 or so.”
In early 2019, Sweet Magnolia Gelato looks forward to opening its first retail location, a scoop shop in South Main Market, a food hall in downtown Memphis at 409 S. Main St. The company is also moving its manufacturing to another location in Clarksdale, possibly next door to its current spot, he says.
The Birthplace of Sweet Magnolia Gelato
Anchored in the Mississippi Delta, with connections to local growers, producers and chefs, Sweet Magnolia Gelato is part of Genuine MS, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s new branding program to recognize and highlight top quality, authentic products crafted, raised and made in Mississippi.
Balthrop started Sweet Magnolia Gelato in 2011. “Basically, the way I started was, making ice cream at home for our three kids, just kind of playing around. I’m the cook in the house,” he says. Originally from Washington, D.C., he and his wife moved to the Mississippi Delta in summer 2000, after she finished her OB-GYN residency in Chicago. She’d grown up spending summers with grandparents in the Delta and was eager to return to the community of fond memories, friends and family, he says.
Restaurant visits on travels throughout the country, his own research, an ice cream course at Penn State and studies under a gelato master got Bathrop on the right churn in this venture. Gelato has lower fat, lower sugar and less air pumped into it than ice cream, and the gelato machine’s slower churn results in a flavor that’s a bit more intense. “I wanted to go with something different, and something that had a history with it,” he says. “Also, it gave me a way of supporting the local community in terms of farmers.”
Supporting Local Farmers
The company’s growers and crafters dot the state, including Brown Family Dairy in Oxford for milk and cream, espresso beans in Jackson, Indianola Pecan House in Indianola, and more.
“We try to source our ingredients locally as much as possible,” he says.
Seasonal produce from local sources drive flavors, too, with blackberries and blueberries from Peggy’s Blueberry Farm and peaches from Cherry Creek Orchards in Pontotoc. “We get honey from Mr. Powell, right down the road. It’s one of those places I go to, and I know I’m going to stay there for at least an hour. We have to catch up, and talk about family and our pets and all that kind of stuff.”
“That’s one of the great things for us. It’s really about relationships.” Other great things: supporting Mississippi famers and eating healthier. “Plus, it’s just better. Better for the economy. Better for the environment.”
The Chef’s Ice Cream Kitchen
Restaurant owners and chefs want something unique, and Sweet Magnolia is ready to help them make their ideas a reality.
Balthrop pulls up a recent order from The Beauty Shop Restaurant in Memphis. “She always has the most interesting flavors,” he says of Chef Karen Carrier, as he runs down a list that includes salted dark chocolate, Madagascar vanilla, cinnamon Mexican chili chocolate chunk, cranberry goat cheese, blueberry honey marshmallow, peppermint Oreo vanilla and eggnog rum.
“She names the flavors, and I’ll come up with it. It’s kind of like a back-and-forth.” Is that fun? “It is! It keeps us on our toes. … We love just being creative and making new flavors.”
He’s also worked with The Manship’s Alex Eaton in Jackson, Fan and Johnny’s Taylor Bowen Ricketts in Greenwood and Delta Meat Market’s Cole Ellis in Cleveland, as well as the Delta Supper Club, the Hot Tamale Festival, a custom peanut butter flavor for Georgia Grinders in Atlanta, and more. Louisiana Chef Cory Bahr once requested a salty pork fat caramel gelato. It actually came out really good, Balthrop says. “Most people thoroughly enjoyed it.” Balthrop was part of 2016’s Taste of the Delta at the famed James Beard House, where desert featured melon sorbet with ham hock croutons and Jezebel Sauce.
Those connections are just the start. Sweet Magnolia Gelato also works with many other restaurants, coffee shops, scoop shops, grocery stores (mom-and-pops to Whole Foods) and farmers markets, with a cool footprint that expands through Tennessee and Mississippi, over to Atlanta and, as of last year, into Texas.
Endless Flavors & Favorites
Balthrop’s own favorites reach back to ice cream shop memories from childhood. Pistachio and lemon custard top his list. “If I had to put a third one in there, I definitely like Delta Gravel, which is salty caramel and Delta buttered pecans,” he says.
No telling what new flavors are chilling on the horizon! Keep up and connect to make your own flavor dreams a reality at sweetmagnoliagelato.com.
Editor’s Note: This profile was written by Sherry Lucas, a Jackson, Mississippi culinary writer with an appetite for iconic foods. This story was produced in partnership with Genuine Mississippi.