"Now that I'm past the initial depression and worry that I might lose my business, I'm thinking that I have this opportunity to work on a pivot that I didn't have before."
Uli Nasibova moved from Azerbaijan to pursue her American dream, opening Gelateria Uli in downtown LA in 2014, followed by a second mid-city store in 2017. Her gelato is the best in Los Angeles, creamy beyond imagination and made with the best local California produce. Amidst the most difficult year for her business, when many other small businesses are shuttering, Uli has shown an inspiring resilience and fierce determination to take care of her staff while continuing to offer Angelenos a sweet respite from the stresses and uncertainty of life. Trust us – a scoop of vegan dark chocolate sorbet or California pistachio gelato and your troubles will melt away if only for the moment.
Our House chatted with Uli recently about why she loves LA, how she's getting through the pandemic and what's coming next. Spoiler: Gelateria Uli is expanding!
Why do you love Los Angeles?
I love the people and I love how beautifully diverse LA is. I first moved to LA in 2007 and one of my favorite things was that you could find incredible, earth-shatteringly amazing restaurants in a strip mall. Some of the best culinary experiences that I've had in my entire life have been here. I used to think that to eat something really special, it would have to be in a formal setting and very expensive, but here in LA it was so casual. I was inspired by that. In my family, it's a tradition to drive to the San Gabriel Valley on weekends and have some of the best and most authentic Chinese food that you can find outside of China. How lucky are we in LA to have that?
Why did you choose to make gelato specifically?
I'm an immigrant myself and I've always been attracted to immigrant communities. As immigrants, we all have the shared experience of sometimes feeling isolated and food is the comfort that makes you feel better. Almost as a thank you to LA – thank you for embracing me – I wanted my shop to not only be classic flavors of pistachio and stracciatella, but to reflect the demographics and people of LA. And I wanted to make gelato instead of ice cream because in my opinion, gelato is the better frozen product. It's denser, but has less fat than ice cream, and is such a rich experience.
The American market is very open to any kind of new food movement. There's a lot of innovation happening here. In the Old World, many places are steeped in culture and tradition, but in America it's all about mixing and mingling and creating new things. So I'm taking gelato but giving it a bit of an LA twist.
How did you take care of your team during the pandemic?
Before we knew anything for sure, when the pandemic started, there was a lot of panic all around. I didn't know what was going to happen and if there would be any government programs or private grants to help us. So, I immediately started a GoFundMe campaign that was very successful. I used all of that towards payroll costs. I reached out to our existing customers and anyone who would listen and said that we're a small shop, dedicated to quality and we also love our employees and I want to be able to pay them in full. The month of April to this day has been my highest payroll month because not only was I paying people their full hours, but I was paying them for any vacation or sick days that they had accrued. We had all of these wonderful donations coming in, and we were able to convert most of those into gift cards, I wanted to give that to my employees.
What's the secret? Why is your gelato so good?
I'm a minimalist with my flavors. If I'm getting the best ingredients from local farmers, I want to let that shine. Many of my flavors don't have any mix-ins, just smooth, creamy gelato. A simple recipe with the best ingredients, like Flavor King pluots from Andy's Orchard. I add a little salt to just about all of my flavors too, which really helps enhance the flavor, like adding a little lemon juice to a dish.
Has there been a silver lining to the pandemic?
I'm a mom and I have a five-year-old daughter and a son who's almost two. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I worked until the day I went into labor. For the last five years, I have just been juggling. My shops were doing well and I had no intention of changing anything. Even though deep down I knew that maybe I should innovate a little bit. As an entrepreneur, you're always thinking of how you can take your business to the next level and create new channels of revenue. I didn't have the time or luxury to do that. I was just surviving week-to-week as a mom and entrepreneur.
Now that I'm past the initial depression and worry that I might lose my business, I'm thinking that I have this opportunity to work on a pivot that I didn't have before. And that's super exciting. It's still in the works but hopefully by the first quarter of next year I'm going to have a completely new e-commerce website, where I will be able to sell my same exact recipes and products online. I'm trying to take the homey, community feel of my shops and create a store of mine that will serve not only Los Angeles and all of California but the entire United States.
What flavors do you have coming up next?
We're getting ready to launch our November menu. We just received two gallons of incredibly amazing olio nuovo olive oil from one of our favorite olive oil farms in Bakersfield. It's unfiltered, so it's very potent and vibrant and we'll be making our olive oil gelato from that. They are super sustainable and produce their own solar and hydroelectric power. Their harvest is energy neutral! This Saturday we had a delivery from Murray Family Farms, also in Bakersfield, and they grow incredible organic fruit. So we got incredible organic hachiya persimmons, strawberry guavas and pomegranates from them. Persimmon almond sorbet and pomegranate guava sorbet are coming up next too.
We will even make gelato from your backyard fruit if you bring us at least three pounds. A lot of it falls off the tree, and it doesn't necessarily go to waste because it becomes fantastic compost, but if people ever want to preserve their fruit and they just can't keep up with all the jamming, we turn it into gelato for them.
If you're local to LA, take advantage of Uli's Backyard Fruit Project here!
Meet the Family
Amber Gibson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in food, travel, wine and wellness. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Saveur, Departures, Architectural Digest, USA Today, NBC and Hemispheres. Gelato, dark chocolate and champagne are her biggest weaknesses.
Follow her adventures @amberyv on Instagram.