Clarksdale — The swirls of caramel and pecans tucked in the creamy vanilla of Sweet Magnolia Gelato’s Delta Gravel aren’t made in-house, but owner Hugh Balthrop knows exactly where to find the crème de la crème of ingredients.
“I get my blueberries from Mrs. Peggy and my honey from Mr. Powell,” Balthrop said. “I had someone call me today to say they’ll have some fresh muscadines soon. I know I can make something delicious from that.”
Using seasonal, local ingredients has given Sweet Magnolia a cool seat at tables across the country, but the flavor combinations inspired by those ingredients are what bring people back for seconds. In the last decade, he has grown from his kitchen in Clarksdale to a commercial space where his four gelato machines can crank out eight quarts each in 16 minutes.
He has created more than 300 flavors, although his passion for using seasonal produce and herbs means many flavors are not available all the time. Brown Sugar and Bourbon, Peppermint Bark, Strawberry Champagne, and, of course, Delta Gravel, are just a few that melt in the mouth.
Sweet Magnolia’s headquarters is near the Clarksdale-Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, and Chamber Executive Director Ron Hudson and his staff occasionally serve as taste-testers.
“We’re glad to go to work for him on that,” Hudson said. “Once he brought over some bacon-flavored gelato. I was a little dubious, but it is really good. When you think about it, there’s not much you can mess up with bacon.”
Balthrop grew up near Washington, D.C., and his wife, Erica, spent her childhood summers visiting grandparents in Mississippi.
“She convinced me to move here in 2000,” he said.
When their kids were younger, he stayed at home while Erica worked as an obstetrician. It was then that he
started playing around with ice cream flavor combinations.
He gradually started reading more about how ice cream is made, eventually enrolling in classes in Pennsylvania and studying with gelato masters in Chicago.
“These classes broke down the science,” he said.
His commitment to using local ingredients is more than just a business deal. It’s personal, and he considers his relationships with the farmers the key to his success.
“We have to support our farmers,” he said. “I need to do a better job at getting the message out there and explaining why it’s not just about Sweet Magnolia — it’s about these farmers I deal with.”
People are eating up the fruits of his labor.
“Our footprint goes from Nashville to the Gulf Coast and all the way over to Atlanta,” he said.
Chefs from Mississippi to New York City often place special orders.
“We really love the chefs,” he said. “They’re the most challenging for us and keep us on our toes.”
Sweet Magnolia is sold in nearly 40 grocery stores, restaurants and bakeries in Mississippi and in five other states, not including the chefs who place orders. The Chamber’s Hudson said entrepreneurs like Balthrop boost the local economy through sales and employing locals.
“In addition to the jobs he provides, I think it speaks well for our community to have entrepreneurs who can make an investment in the community,” he said.
For Balthrop, that local economy boost is important on many levels.
“One, we’re employing folks from the community we live in — in a community where jobs are rather scarce — and we need, outside of security of a community, we need jobs, particularly for these young folks. They’ll become statistics. They get in trouble, and we have an opportunity to give them something to be proud of.
“On another level, it’s more than just fruit or milk or eggs,” he said. “The farmers and I have gotten to know each other over the years, and we care about each other. I take my kids when I pick up my food, and we catch up.
“People from Mississippi love getting behind a Mississippi product, and we use as much Mississippi as we can,” he said.
Luke Heiskell, who owns Woodson Ridge Farms in Oxford, said that relationship is what makes the food more than just a meal.
“Of course, it benefits our company — selling fruits and vegetables to well-known businesses such as Hugh’s,” he said. “They use our name in some of their advertising and that makes other retail users want to buy from us.”
Balthrop does not consider himself a chef, but his growing track record would prove otherwise. Sweet Magnolia is a constant in the Mississippi Delta at such festivals as the Delta Supper Club and regionally at the Memphis Food and Wine Festival. He will return to the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival this year.
In October 2016, Balthrop was invited to participate in the Southern-inspired Taste of the Delta dinner at the James Beard House in New York.
“That was really big for us,” he said. “Last year was really a big year in terms of national exposure. It’s a great feeling, particularly when you’re recognized by your peers.”
Now Balthrop is looking for just the right spot to open a retail store or food truck.
“Another restaurant called this morning with some flavors that I can’t wait to get started on. I’m headed to three places in Memphis and I’ve got to get to Oxford and Tupelo with pints soon,” he said. “We have a quality product, and people love it.”
A list of locations where Sweet Magnolia can be found is at www.sweetmagnoliagelato.com.