This is Our Story.
This is Our Story.
Watch Jackson, Khatera, and Wes’s Video
‘Friends since elementary school, they each had ties to working in education.’
Jackson Smith and Wes Jones have been friends since second grade. The pair attended the same elementary, middle, and high schools, and even went to college together. They met Khatera Ballard in their early adult years, when she married one of their high school friends. They each began their careers on different paths. After attending Harvard University for her graduate studies, Ballard aspired to a career in higher education. Smith enjoyed writing, taught school in China for two years, and knew he wanted to use his creativity in a future career. Jones said he jokingly longed for a future in sports. “I wanted to be a basketball player, but my height and skills didn’t match up,” he said, laughing. “So I majored in business and began working for Teach for America.”
‘I basically talked my way into a job with a leader in the Gelato business.’
After leaving China, Smith moved to New York City in 2010 and began working as a tutor for the No Child Left Behind program, while searching for a permanent job. Finding work in the economic downturn was difficult and after applying and never hearing from hundreds of postings, Smith saw an ice cream production manager position on a local job board. Though he had an interest in the food industry, Smith did not have a culinary background, making him a long shot to receive a response to his application. To stand out, he filled the cover letter with his personality, including his wit and a hint of sarcasm. He was shocked when he received an interview and ultimately the job.
For the next two years, Smith worked under Jon Snyder, a local legend in the gelato business, learning to create flavors and make the Italian version of ice cream. When he left New York, Smith moved back to Atlanta and began experimenting with gelato in his parents’ kitchen.
‘We always knew we’d go into business together.’
It was at this time that Jones and Smith continued a discussion they’d been having since they were teenagers – going into business together. They studied the marketplace and quickly realized there was no one in the Southeast making gelato that was comparable to Smith’s. That’s when they approached Ballard with the idea and the three of them composed a well-researched, comprehensive business plan. Recognizing the opportunity, Ballard moved to Atlanta, Jones left his job, and, along with Smith, they began their own manufacturing company, making craft gelato.
‘He called me and said, “Honeysuckle,” and hung up the phone.’
Struggling to come up with a name for their new company, Smith was determined to find a word that represented sweet, fresh, a sense of nostalgia, and the South. Inspiration came in a telephone call one day. “I answered the phone and this voice on the other line said, ‘Honeysuckle,’ and then the line cut off,” Jones said. “I immediately knew that was the name.”
In 2011, Jones, Smith, and Ballard launched Honeysuckle Gelato by simultaneously opening a food truck and also becoming a small-batch manufacturer, selling direct to chefs in Atlanta restaurants. From the beginning they believed they could use their food truck to gather instant feedback. By doing so, they were able to test new flavors and gauge interest and then turn around and create the more well-received flavors for larger distribution.
‘When we started Honeysuckle Gelato, we sampled it all.’
“From the beginning we have had a very specific goal of being the major regional gelato brand,” Ballard said. “For us, the team dynamics works well. Smith is the creative one. Jones is much more practical and I balance the two out.”
Smith develops many of the combinations and loves to get creative with the pairings. Added Ballard: “At the start, he would make these great flavors, but couldn’t remember the measurements he used. We finally bought him a notebook and told him to write his recipes down so they could be replicated for sale.” It turned out to be the right move, as chefs from restaurants across Atlanta started placing custom orders. It was through a custom order that one of their best sellers, brown butter gelato, was developed.
Asked how much gelato they eat on a daily basis, Jones responded: “We used to eat from every batch. Nowadays, we tend to sample throughout the day, but rarely eat a whole serving – except I have to admit, the other day I ate a whole pint of Lunar Pastry, which is my favorite.”
They use all fresh ingredients in their gelato and are proud to source a majority of it through Georgia-based vendors, including 100 percent of their dairy, which comes from a South Georgia farm. “We take every chance we get to support the local economy,” Smith said.
‘Two deals doubled our manufacturing’
Knowing they needed to focus on the growth of the manufacturing side, in 2013 they decided to close their food truck, but kept the intention of one day re-opening a retail space.
The Honeysuckle Gelato team continued to meet with potential clients and over time grew their business to where they were in more than 100 restaurants and 85 retail outlets across the Southeast, including Whole Foods.
“We really just took advantage of what was available to us,” Smith said. “We listened to the right people, took their advice, and also made decisions based on our business instincts and our business kept growing.” It’s a lesson in running a business that the team tries to impart on young students interested in business. When talking to kids about their future careers, they give the same advice. Learn as many skills as you can and learn from the people that want to teach you.
2015 has been the company’s most successful year yet. They were approached by Delta about providing gelato in their first class cabins on cross-country dinner flights. “On July 7th, on an Atlanta to Los Angeles flight, Honeysuckle Gelato made its debut,” Smith explained. “The Delta deal, combined with opening our first retail location, doubled our production.”
The trio also went back to their earlier promise of opening a retail location, and found a space in the newly opened and sought-after Ponce City Market in Atlanta. According to the team, one can tell how adventurous a customer is by the way they phrase his or her question. For instance, if a customer asks ‘what is your most popular flavor,’ they are more conservative and want to hear about the basics, but Smith says, “If a customer asks what we would suggest, it opens up the door to our favorites, which are more unique.”
The Delta agreement and the Ponce City Market location were significant in another way, too. “We were able to add two new full-time jobs to their team and several new hourly-based employees.
‘In six weeks we’ve donated more than 13,500 meals.’
The Honeysuckle Gelato team is a large supporter of organizations across Atlanta. For the past couple of years, they have partnered with 180° Kitchen, which is part of the City of Refuge, and provides kitchen skills and part-time work to people looking for second chances. The team has hired two of its full-time staff from this program and continues to use the organization as a primary source of employment.
In addition, at the retail location in Ponce City Market, they have a large sign behind the counter that says ‘for every $5 spent here, you are providing one meal for a neighbor in need.’ As part of their commitment to Atlanta and their local neighborhood, they donate five percent of their sales at the retail store to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. In their first six weeks of operation at the store, their donations have provided more than 13,500 meals to people across the city.
“Manufacturing is not a sterile environment. It’s about the human touch – both in the plant and through connecting with the community,” Ballard said. “There are many large companies out there, but there are also so many small manufacturers, each contributing in their own way.
“Manufacturing is a great environment to work in and there are all types of jobs available. My advice for kids is to tour local plants, see how things are made, and discover how this can become a career for you.”
About Honeysuckle Gelato
Founded in 2011 by Jackson Smith, Wes Jones, and Khatera Ballard, Honeysuckle Gelato is a craft gelato manufacturer headquartered in Atlanta. Today, the company has 18 employees and its products can be found in retail locations across the Southeast. Additionally, Honeysuckle Gelato is served in restaurants throughout Atlanta and the company recently opened its first retail location in Ponce City Market. Since launching the Honeysuckle Gelato, the three founders have created more than 250 flavor combinations, their top seller being Sea-Salted Caramel.
Honeysuckle Gelato combines the rich and smooth texture of gelato with the decadent flavors and desserts of the South. All of the company’s gelatos and sorbets are made from scratch in Atlanta and use the finest and freshest local ingredients.
Small businesses like Honeysuckle Gelato account for 55 percent of all jobs in the United States and have been responsible for 66 percent of all net new jobs since the 1970s, according to the Small Business Administration.