There’s a reason most of us shouldn’t own bakeries or pizza shops or ice cream parlors—we simply don’t have the self-control. However, this former art gallery owner and Washington D.C. transplant has found the perfect balance of indulging while also keeping his family fit and healthy. Hugh H. Balthrop, 48, owns Sweet Magnolia Gelato, and they do things a little differently. The product is made using milk and cream from grass-fed cows that are local as much as possible. Flavors come from natural ingredients from farmers he knows by name. The result is an award-winning sweet, creamy dessert that most people find irresistible.
Starting a risky venture is never easy, but Hugh has had a great support system: his wife Erica of 21 years, and three children: Ayinde (18), Mhina (15), and Emeka (12).
As someone who’s focused on health, what made you want to open a gelato shop?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, developed at an early age. I saw an opportunity with gelato where no one else was in the market and I decided to dive in after lots of research, and there were a few things that I decided to do differently. On average, our gelato is right at 8% fat and our sorbets are fat and dairy free. It’s a great alternative to traditional American style ice cream where the fat content is 10%–18%.
Describe your journey with health and fitness.
I started smoking cigarettes as a teenager and noticed this was affecting my health negatively. Instead, I went to my local Boy’s and Girl’s Club and started boxing. After this, I joined a local tennis team then started swimming and jogging regularly. In my early twenties, I joined a cycling group, and I continued jogging until I suffered a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery.
What do you typically eat (besides gelato)?
I have a gluten allergy so there’s that. I try to eat clean and organic, free range, and local as much as possible. Our manufacturing facility is in walking distance to a great farmers market, so I’m in there practically everyday. I usually shop there for Sweet Magnolia and my family. I eat smoothies, fresh juices, lots of cruciferous veggies, tropical fruits, free-range chicken and beef, wild caught fish, and gelato everyday!
How do you stay fit with all of the temptation?
Extreme discipline! I exercise every day and do a variety of biking, elliptical, push-ups, sit-ups, and heavy bag cardio. I also play basketball, baseball, and soccer with my kids.
How do you keep your family healthy despite being around gelato all the time?
My entire family is pretty active. All of my kids play multiple sports, and my wife runs marathons. She’s an OB-GYN and is in the O.R. two to three times a week at 7 am. When she is not doing surgery, she running or exercising at 5 or 6 am. Therefore, I am the home chef and love to cook and entertain. I just try and make sure we eat balanced meals.
How did you come up with the name Sweet Magnolia?
One day, my daughter and I were walking holding hands in our front yard and it was that time of year when the fragrance of the Magnolia flower was in full bloom. The name hit me like a ton of bricks at this moment. It was divine inspiration.
How do you go about choosing flavors?
I have to always keep the basics in stock: Vanilla, Chocolate and Cookies and Cream, and traditional Italian flavors such as Stracciatella, Tiramisu, and Pistachio. We love putting a southern twist on our flavors, such as Banana Pudding, Whiskey and Pecans, and Muscadine Sorbet. We do not have a set flavor list because we are always experimenting with new recipes. We have made 300 flavors and counting to date!
What are your favorites?
Pistachio, Lemon Custard, and Vanilla Cherry Chocolate
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
Our wholesale business sales decreased by 70%, and we had to pivot to selling primarily retail to-go pints.
Check out Sweet Magnolia at Puck Food Hall on: Wednesdays and Thursdays (noon–8 pm), Fridays and Saturdays (noon-10 pm), and Sundays (noon-5pm). For more information on Sweet Magnolia, or to find a pint, visit Sweetmagnoliagelato.com. @sweetmagnoliagelato
By Halle Griggs
Photo by JoLaura Bell