On a Tuesday in late July, Jon Snyder’s day began at four a.m. when he started making batches of mango, espresso and green tea ice cream. Espresso beans cooked slowly in large pots with his base mixture. He prepped for dozens of deliveries to restaurants, caterers and specialty stores in New York City and ran through his usual routine. By eight a.m. he’d hit a snag — a key employee called in sick and the truck broke down. He quickly made alternate plans, loaded a rental van with dry ice and sent the precious cargo on its way.
For some people, the scenario might have caused a mini-meltdown. For Snyder, it’s all in a day’s work as Founder and CEO of Il Laboratorio del Gelato, the handmade ice cream-making business he launched in 2002 from a 550-square-foot storefront on New York’s historic Lower East Side.
Snyder, a boyish fifty, is no stranger to ice cream. His grandfather, a contractor, helped build Carvel stores in the 1940s and ’50s and kept one store in the family — a franchise in Peekskill, New York, which was eventually handed down to Snyder’s parents. He started learning the business himself at age nine and worked summers at the store as a teenager. However, his love affair with ice cream didn’t really start until age eighteen, when he traveled to Italy. He was fascinated by the taste, texture and flavors of what Italians call “gelato.” “I knew after that trip I really wanted to make ice cream,” says Snyder.
Shortly thereafter, nineteen years old and with $25,000 cobbled together from family and friends, Snyder dropped out of college and launched Ciao Bella with the help of two cousins. He worked seven days a week, earning little to nothing for the first three years. He focused on the wholesale business — early clients included the 21 Club, the Russian Tea Room and Balducci’s gourmet grocery — and forming relationships with chefs who put their trust in him.
In the early days, one of those chefs was Charlie Palmer, then at the River Café in Brooklyn, now a celebrity chef with no less than a dozen restaurants around the country. When Snyder first started out and was still experimenting, Palmer helped him turn a mistake into an opportunity. “I brought blueberry sorbet samples to Charlie. I’d used a blueberry extract instead of fresh blueberries,” recalls Snyder. “When I brought him the sample, he said it was awful, but to his credit, he told me how I should make it — with fresh fruit — and that established one of our first clients for Ciao Bella.” The lesson served Snyder well — his ice creams and sorbets are comprised of ninety percent fresh fruit, an example of an adherence to excellence that he’s proud of: “That’s the best way. Our recipes are about using high-quality ingredients.”
After five years, Snyder burned out from working so hard and sold the business in 1989 for $120,000. (New owners built up the company much further, expanding it into a national brand). Looking back, “I was certainly too young to appreciate what I had built,” says Snyder. “It was still a small company, just local, but it was clearly on the right path and was profitable. It just needed some fresh blood to come in and move it forward.”
Much to the relief of his parents, Snyder returned to school, earning a BA and an MBA from Columbia University. He found work on Wall Street as a trader at Lehman Brothers, where he stayed for five years, before moving on to the Dutch bank ABN AMRO.
But working in corporate America wasn’t nearly as satisfying. “I’ve just never loved putting on a suit and tie,” he says. He missed being the boss, working for himself — and being around ice cream, which he aptly says, “runs in my veins.”
Twelve years after launching Ciao Bella, Snyder was itching to start another business. His MBA, he says, was relevant only in that it taught him how important accounting is to a successful business.
Once Snyder dove back in, founding “the lab,” as Il Laboratorio is known, its wholesale business grew quickly, and by 2010, he’d signed a lease for more spacious digs close to his original site. Il Laboratorio’s 3,300-square-feet operations base and retail store is next door to Katz’s Delicatessen, made famous by the film “When Harry Met Sally,” and just down the street from Russ and Daughters and Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, long-standing destinations for food-obsessed tourists and locals alike.
The privately-held company now sells ice cream to some 500 restaurants, caterers and specialty stores in New York City and boasts nearly 300 flavors of ice cream and sorbet — nearly fifty are sold at any given time from the lab’s scoop shop. The business racks up more than $2 million in sales annually and chefs from all over the city log custom orders for Snyder’s artisanal ice cream; clients include A-list eateries like Blue Water Grill, Milos, Minetta Tavern and The Waverly Inn. The online grocer Fresh Direct now carries Snyder’s handcrafted ice creams and sorbets, as does the Museum of Modern Art.
The lab’s rotating list of flavors range from the extreme — wasabi, basil and beet — to the exotic: kaffir lime, acacia honey, lavender honey and passion fruit. Decadent flavors like hazelnut amaretto crunch, dark chocolate cinnamon and crème fraîche grace the same list as wackier options like bourbon, fresh brown turkey fig and even bacon and cheddar cheese, which Snyder says turned out surprisingly well. Two large white boards in the kitchen are filled with flavors and their acronyms: Salted caramel (CSAL) is noted as a customer favorite, and green tea is also incredibly popular, he says.
The key to the ice cream at Il Laboratorio del Gelato is simplicity. Snyder starts with a base recipe of cream, non-fat milk, sugar and naturally derived stabilizers. He doesn’t use eggs because they give off a flavor to the base that he doesn’t like. There’s less butterfat in his base than traditional Italian gelato and it’s churned slowly, which results in a richer taste. The colder the ice cream gets, the creamier its texture and consistency become. The process is fairly straightforward. For example, a flavor like grapefruit Campari sorbet, which calls for grapefruit juice, sugar, water and Campari, poured into an ice cream machine for churning. When the mixture is finished churning, the batch is hand-packed and hand-labeled.
Snyder and his staff make all the extracts, such as vanilla. This involves a labor-intensive and time-consuming process of scraping vanilla beans from their thin pods. The kitchen is filled with other fresh ingredients. Boxes of fresh papayas, lemons, bananas and mangos are neatly stacked up, while locally sourced seasonal herbs like basil and lavender are carefully refrigerated in containers with damp paper towels to keep them as fresh as possible. Snyder’s mother Phyllis, who lives in an apartment above the store, gets into the act: She rises at 1:45 a.m. to hand-label the lids of Il Laboratorio’s rectangular white containers in spare, neat lettering, prep the herbs and perform other duties that are crucial to the ice cream-making process.
Over the years, the tasting process has become natural for Snyder. He knows when a flavor is right based on instinct. His passion for ice cream informs his palette. And when it comes to tasting, Snyder, while laid-back, is clearly hands-on: “I do everything here,” he says. Despite all his success, he enjoys being back in the kitchen, dreaming up new flavors, from s’mores to wasabi — though he admits that it took some time to find the right balance in order to make wasabi for Ippudo, the Japanese ramen house, after he hadn’t made it in six or seven years. “That’s a flavor that has to be finessed in order to make the right proportions,” he says.
With a plethora of exotic choices, he says Il Laboratorio is known for “one-note flavors” — making “the very best vanilla and espresso,” for example. Snyder also won’t make a flavor unless he’s intrigued by it himself. Take the chef who wanted caviar ice cream. “I didn’t want to contaminate my machinery with fish roe, so we didn’t do it,” he says.
Snyder recalls a whimsical flavor development opportunity that stands out from a decade ago when The Pierre hotel called the day before Christmas Eve requesting tarragon with peppercorn for its Christmas menu. Snyder’s acute attention to detail and methodical nature were put to the test under an insanely tight deadline, and there wasn’t time to make a mistake. “I ordered fresh tarragon leaves, pulled them off the stem and ground them into a paste, like a pesto. Then I chose pink peppercorns for Christmas colors — pink and green. We married the tarragon and pink peppercorn together and they loved it. To this day, we still make it.”
But on this day in July, it was time to make corn gelato for the Mexican restaurant Dos Caminos. The prep involved husking 100 ears of corn, then stripping the kernels off each ear the night before. The corn had been steeping in cream overnight in an enormous vat. The milky, faintly yellow mixture would be strained to remove the kernels and then placed into the machine.
Snyder says he can make ice cream with his eyes closed by focusing, among other things, on using premium ingredients. “We don’t skimp on anything. My philosophy is to do it right and make the best you can make.” He presumes that his work ethic is genetic. “When I am idle, I don’t like it. I’m definitely a perfectionist and want to be sure things get done properly. I have a great staff but no one cares (or knows as much) quite like I do.”