It’s hardly 11 a.m., but Gianluigi Dellaccio has already pulled out a six-pack of beer.
He opens the bottles of Blue Moon, one by one, and empties them into a bucket of sorbet base. He adds orange juice and pours the mixture into a machine.
In less than 10 minutes, he has a container full of foamy beer sorbet that tastes more like a bitter brew than it does a sugary dessert.
“Ah, this is good,” the 39-year-old says, tasting a spoonful. “You see, you can use anything. I’ve used Guinness, Peroni, Three Stars Brewery’s IPA. Sometimes I make a beershake. Like a milkshake, but with beer.”
Dellaccio has spent the past seven years experimenting with new flavors of gelato and sorbet, and building District-based Dolci Gelati into a million-dollar business. The company has long specialized in wholesale orders for area restaurants and specialty shops, such as Sette Osteria and Balducci’s, but with the opening of Dolci Gelati’s second retail location later this month, Dellaccio said he is shifting his focus to stand-alone stores to keep up with a changing industry.
“It’s a good time to open a store,” he said. “People are more familiar with gelato now, they are familiar with our brand.”
Dellaccio spent six years as a pastry chef — first at Maestro, Fabio Trabocchi’s restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, and later at Roberta Donna’s Galileo — before founding Dolci Gelati with his wife, Anastasia, in 2006. In the early days, he strapped a cooler of gelato onto his Vespa and drove from restaurant to restaurant looking for business. Cafe Milano in Georgetown was one of his first clients.
“We wanted to bootstrap our business,” Anastasia said. “It’s just so much cheaper if you rent a warehouse space instead of having a retail space.”
The couple spent about $200,000 setting up a production facility in Northeast Washington with three gelato machines. That was enough to supply a number of area restaurants.
But cash was slow to trickle in. Restaurants tended to pay for orders every 90 days, which made it difficult for Dellaccio to make his monthly rent payments.
The turning point came in 2007, when Dellaccio began selling gelato at the National Zoo. All of a sudden, there was money coming in every day.
“That really helped us in the beginning,” he said. “We got money right away, so there was finally cash flow.”
A year later, after seeing sales stall during the winter, Dellaccio began selling pint-sized containers of gelato to local stores, including Whole Foods and Balducci’s. A food truck and a deal with Nationals Park came later.
Today, he said restaurant business has tapered off — early clients such as Cafe Milano in Georgetown and Cafe Saint Ex on 14th Street NW have bought their own gelato machines to save costs.
At the same time, he decided it was time to sell directly to the public. Last April, the company opened a 480-square-foot shop in Takoma Park. It was close to the factory and small enough that Dellaccio thought he could make it work.
“I always hesitated to open a storefront,” Dellaccio said. “The winters in D.C. get very cold. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it.”
So far, it has worked. The shop — which cost about $80,000 to open — was profitable within a few months.
The company’s upcoming store, at City Market at O in the District’s Shaw neighborhood, is considerably larger and more expensive than the first. The 1,200-square-foot location cost about $300,000 to set up, and will have its own kitchen and gelato machines so desserts can be made on-site.
“We are building everything from scratch,” Dellaccio said. “Retail is very new for us, but it’s a good way for the business to grow.”
There are plans to eventually franchise the business, which has annual sales of nearly $1 million. But for now, the Dellaccios say they’re focusing on their upcoming shop in Shaw.
“We’re taking it one store at a time,” Anastasia said. “Is it going to be our last? Obviously not. But we want to get it open and breathe.”
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