It offers a ‘cleaner taste’ and less fat. But can posh Italian version really replace old-fashioned ice cream in brits’ baskets?

It was once the preserve of Italian aristocrats such as the Medici, but these days gelato is on a mainstream course, with new gelato kiosks and parlours springing up on high streets across the country.

Although the terms gelato and ice cream are often used interchangeably, purists argue they are very different products. So what sets them apart? Is ‘gelato’ an attractive marketing term or does it intimidate British shoppers? And can gelato makers follow frozen yoghurt onto the competitive ice cream fixtures in the grocery channel?

Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream, but according to imported Italian gelato brand Joe Delucci’s - which this month makes its supermarket debut with a 12-month exclusive Tesco deal - gelato offers a purer taste than conventional ice cream sold in the UK and the US. Tesco frozen foods buying manager Lucy Tobin believes it’s precisely this superior quality that will “offer something new and exciting for customers”.

Gelato’s premium quality is down to its predominantly milk-based as opposed to cream and butter-based recipe, explains former Morrisons ice cream buyer Mike Lewis, whose business development company Good Feeling Solutions (GFS) helped Joe Delucci’s extend from the on-trade to the supermarket shelf. It’s how ice cream used to taste before we made it overly indulgent, he says.

“Our dairy farmers over the years wanted to offload their dairy produce and they’ve added butter oils, double cream, whipping cream, single cream as well as milk to our ice creams in the UK and America, so we now have a very fatty product.”

Freshly made gelato typically has a fat content of between 6% and 10%, while an industrial premium ice cream can contain anywhere between 10% and 16% fat. Sweet additives - such as syrup or fudge - and bulking agents such as whey powders and proteins have also added weight to ice cream recipes. Gelato, on the other hand, offers a cleaner taste, Lewis claims.

“Italian-style gelato is the single biggest trend in super-premium ice cream” Matt O’Connor, Fredericks

Confused consumers?

Those who have been on holiday in Italy won’t dispute the quality of the country’s ice cream, but the term “gelato” still leaves UK shoppers confused. The team behind Joe Delucci’s was acutely aware of this and therefore anglicised the front of its take-home tub packaging for Tesco. “It’s very important not to push the word gelato,” says Lewis. “We put the Italian name, gelato, in very small print and the English name - Italian ice cream - in very large print.”

Joe Delucci’s will be muscling in on Fredericks Dairies’ Antonio Federici brand, which first launched in the UK through Sainsbury’s in 2009 and is now available in six variants and also sells through Waitrose, The Co-op Group, Booths and Ocado. With a fat content of 10% to 15%, Federici contains slightly more fat than freshly made gelato, but Fredericks says it uses “expensive ingredients from Italy” for its flavours and also avoids cloying additions such as syrup.

Fredericks’ creative director Matt O’Connor believes gelato has “huge” potential in the competitive ice cream aisles. Sales of Federici are still small - just over £1m a year - but Fredericks hopes to grow this to £5m within the next three years. “Italian-style gelato is the single biggest trend in super-premium ice cream. It just hasn’t hit the mainstream yet,” says O’Connor.

The opening of gelaterias on the high street will push gelato further into the mainstream and into the mults, where its premium positioning could help redress over-promotion, he adds. “It’s an opportunity to add value back to a super-premium ice cream category that’s been stripped of its price differentiation.”

Despite the anti-deals talk, Fredericks hasn’t exactly shied away from promoting Federici, running 29 deals over the past year [, 52 w/e 27 July 2012]. O’Connor admits promotional activity has increased with new account wins, but stresses it will not be part of the brand strategy in the future. “We have been guilty of under-selling Federici, and that’s something we need to address, not least because we use very expensive ingredients,” he says.

Upmarket appeal

Upmarket retailers are certainly doing their bit to promote gelato. Selfridges unveiled a range of gelato-based desserts at its London food hall at the end of June. The “premium frozen desserts” from Gelupo, an artisan gelateria and delicatessen in Soho, represent a “paradigm shift” for ice cream, says Selfridges buying manager Andrew Cavanna, who is looking to market the range specifically as an after-dinner dessert.

“In supermarkets, the frozen dessert and ice cream section is often far less interesting and diverse a place than the fresh desserts section,” he says. “A handful of enormous organisations take the lion’s share of the retail market with offerings that have developed little over the last 10 years. There is a clear opportunity to offer customers a high-quality, grown-up alternative to a simple tub of American-style ice cream - to bring focus back to a product that, at its best, is the centrepiece of any dinner party or celebration and not simply a sweet companion to the Sunday night film.”

Buyers and suppliers are clearly wetting their lips at the prospect of gelato restoring momentum to a market characterised by deep-cut promotions, but getting consumers to understand exactly what gelato offers in comparison with ice cream to justify a premium will require a clear communications strategy and heavyweight support.

This year, R&R helped frozen yoghurt brand YooMoo break into the multiples with a £2.4m marketing push, which has pushed the brand to a total of £1.7m sales to date and resulted in its mini tubs generating higher cash sales per store per week than all other ice cream brands, including Carte d’Or, Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs, in its first three months.

R&R says it is not currently looking at gelato, but industry experts suggest gelato will require similar investment from large-scale suppliers - or, like Joe Delucci’s, a commitment to support the brand in the freezers - if it is to really take off in the mainstream.

“Without the weight of R&R behind them, YooMoo would have struggled to get a listing in the major mults,” says Lewis. “Suppliers hold the key: they select a niche part of the marketplace and make it bigger and change people’s perceptions - they are the ones who will develop it, not the retailers.”