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Meet Niccolo Lekai of Leo Leo Gelato in Paso Robles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Niccolo Lekai.

Niccolo, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I started making gelato down in San Diego for David Arato at Bottega Italiana while I was attending the University of San Diego. David taught me a lot about gelato mix, how to decorate gelato, all about inclusions, how to make coffee and how to run a proper gelateria. This of course took a long time… Roughly four to five years to work my way up from a barista to the gelato maker. I would spend late nights practicing and practicing the decorative style that he liked to use. Learning the motions of how to decorate gelato is like learning how to write for the first time. Some pick it up faster than others.

Later, my father and I began to discuss the idea of starting our own company in Paso Robles. What started as an idea has now become a business that services cafes, restaurants, hotels and casinos in California, Nevada, Texas and Louisiana.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Like any startup, the road is never smooth. Generating interest of prospective clients before you invest thousands and thousands of dollars into the business is probably the hardest part to a startup. If you don’t have clients that want your product then you cannot move forward with developing the business.

Family owned business can also be very challenging because family members feel more comfortable approaching one another with more emotion than business partners might. My father and I had a lot of difficult moments over the years but our relationship grew stronger with every disagreement and difficult discussion.

Leo Leo Gelato – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I would say that our gelato is special because our recipes are balanced in the way they are supposed to be for each flavor we make. Meaning, when you are building a recipe, there is supposed to be a certain amount of sugar, water content, solids and fat content within your mix and you just don’t taste that balance with other gelato producers here in the US. The mix is also supposed to taste like a mouth full of fresh pure milk that is lightly sweetened. Then you have your chocolate mix, which is supposed to have its own recipe entirely because you need to pasteurize it at a much higher temperature than your white mix. The cocoa needs the high heat to fully emulsify itself with the rest of the ingredients. The result is far better than just adding cocoa to your white mix.

Lastly, our decorations make us unique. I have yet to come across a gelato producer who wholesales their gelato with the sort of decorations that we do. They are not extravagant but they do pay tribute to the tradition of sculpting the gelato the way you see it displayed in Italy and of course we also add simple garnishes to the gelato as well.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
That is a difficult question to answer because there are highs and there are lows. Some highs are higher than others. I can tell you one thing, landing a huge corporate account is always euphoric. It can sometimes take years to get these accounts and when you finally do get them, WOW it feels amazing.

Las Vegas is a tough nut to crack. When you have done 10 tastings with a corporate account over the course of years and then you finally are sent the paperwork to get yourself set up as a vendor for that account. It feels amazing to send that form right on back and get your first order.

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