Words By Eden Raskin Jenkins, Photos By Jeff Martin
For the second installment of DC Dream Jobs I sat down with the dynamic husband and wife duo behind Dolcezza, Robb Duncan and Violeta Edelman. What I find the most inspiring about their story is that they have created a lifestyle they believe in and at the center of it is their family, creativity and passion.
Robb and Violeta are the vibrant team behind the gelato empire dominating the hand crafted, homemade gelato-coffee scene with their beautifully curated gelaterias and stunning factory whose products can also be found in the freezer aisle of Whole Foods. I have never met two people so complementary of each other, and it is clear that the success of their Dolcezza kingdom wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for both of their unique set of skills and extreme dedication to producing experiences, supporting their employees, and for creating a lifestyle that allows for freedom, innovation and strong family values. Their story is the ultimate “roll up your sleeves,” hard work prevails tale and at the root of it is confidence and you guessed it—their family.
Brightest Young Things: How did you meet?
Robb Duncan: We met in 1999. I was living in Portland, Oregon, and she was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina and we met down in the Brazilian Amazon at this conference on shamanism with all these ethno botanists and pharmacologists and anthropologists. Essentially it was a conference on Amazonian shamanism and the use of a particular hallucinogen Ayahuasca and it was….
Violeta Edel: Mind blowing to say the least.
RD: Transformative. Essentially we met looking for what the fuck is going on on this planet.
VE: Who we are and what are we doing here. It was a very bonding experience. You are extremely exposed.
RD: It resets your whole compass for what life is about, who you are, who we are, what are we here for and what’s important.
Violeta: We were defined by that hardcore. We’ve always been really intense and have always been searching.
We met again six months later. And I convinced Robb to travel with me after the conference for three months.
RD: We went fifteen hundred miles down the Amazon River, and then travelled about thirty-five hundred miles down the Brazilian Coast.
VE: That’s how we fell in love.
BYT: What made you fall in love with gelato?
VE: After we finished our trip from Brazil we went to Buenos Aires and I took Robb for a walk and we went to a gelateria and that’s where we had gelato. There is a huge Italian community in Argentina so there are a lot of gelaterias. Robb was blown away and said “we should have a gelateria in the states.”
RD: This was back in 1999. There was no gelato in the states and there was nothing that was really homemade and hand crafted.
VE: So that was the beginning of the idea.
RD: Then a year later I moved down there. I went back to Portland, Oregon, packed up everything I had, sold, gave away, and moved down to Buenos Aires, and lived down there for a year before everything crashed.
BYT: What were you doing in Buenos Aires?
RD: I was teaching English.
VE: I was producing documentaries. That’s what I did until I moved to the US seven years ago.
BYT: Robb, what were you doing in Portland before moving to Buenos Aires.
RD: I had studied engineering at Georgia Tech. So I was doing software installation. I moved from Atlanta to San Francisco. I lived in Brazil for a while and then up in Portland, which is where I was based out of and then flying out and doing installations.
BYT: How did you end up opening Dolcezza?
VE: We didn’t have any background in food.
RD: It was just an idea. It was nothing more than an idea without any previous training or anything. It was just a roll up the sleeves and just totally jump into it and figure it out.
VE: After 2001 the economy collapsed in Argentina, so we decided to come back to the US because the economy was better. Robb went back to consulting and hated it. He knew he wanted to change his life and that he wanted to do something else.
RD: I was at the center of not liking what I did but was doing it because I had no other choice. I hated it.
VE: Eventually Robb was sent to do a project in D.C., and we were in Georgetown walking around and Robb saw this little spot that he liked. We started talking to the owner and said we wanted to open a gelateria. Called my parents in Argentina and told them we had found the spot, and my stepfather had just been with a friend who had a gelato machine factory. My stepfather believed in our idea and said he could help us.
We were trying to replicate the exact experience we had in Argentina. We ended up buying the gelato machines in Argentina, the furniture, the marble for the bar, hired architects from Argentina.
BYT: How did you finally open?
VE: It’s a very funny story. In 2004, my parents took a one-week course on how to make gelato, and they came and helped us open the shop. We completely just jumped into it and struggled for a long time, because it was trial and error, and we didn’t have a lot of money. It was hard. Robb was still consulting.
RD: I was the only one that had an income to support the family. It was kind of like my task at the time to make sure we could pay for the rent.
VE: We were doing everything, of course. We were cleaning, we were scooping, producing…
RD: Hiring, firing…
VE & RD: (in unison) Everything.
VE: People tell me now it must be so difficult you have eight locations. And I’m like no, what was difficult was to start. The first year was really difficult. Now it is much more manageable for us.
When Robb was finally able to quit consulting in 2006 that was when he was really able to get into the recipes.
RD: That’s how I discovered the whole kitchen. I went full time into the kitchen and that is when the whole thing opened. We would always go to the Dupont Farmers Market. We loved eating, cooking, food. That’s when it all clicked and we went, oh strawberries are in season and tried to really just use what was in season. We went from 42 flavors to 300 flavors in a couple of years.
VE: Once Robb came to the business full time, I actually went back to National Geographic. I was like I’m a producer, I’m an independent woman, and this is what I want to do. I worked there for a couple of years.
RD: I went mad for a couple of years. I was just obsessed about recipes and combinations the whole time. They called me the tyrant.
BYT: When and how did you decide to leave National Geographic for good?
VE: At one point we decided to have kids. And I was like this maternity leave thing is bullshit and I hate working 16 hours a day and being underpaid. One of the things that makes our job ideal is that we can have family and work balance. There is nothing more important than our family.
RD: We leave for six weeks at the end of every year. This is our whole life and it provides for a way of living that we want, which is very different than what is prescribed out there.
VE: Also, when we go on vacation and come back Robb is more inspired than ever. It is very, very important.
When I quit National Geographic, I was like “I’m going to work with my husband, what’s going to happen, am I going to lose my independence?” It was kind of a difficult process for me. I was worried I was going to regret this. There was a lot of defining who I was and what my role was going to be. I never regretted it for a day. I never looked back. I’m like a producer to the tenth degree. I need to be challenged.
I love working with Robb.
BYT: What is it like working with your spouse?
RD: Most people when it is brought up, always say I love my wife, but I can’t imagine working with her, but my feeling on that is that if there is a woman that I couldn’t work with then I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live with her. We are creating a house and a family and a space and a lifestyle. This is our creation that we do together. And it has it struggles just like everything, but it is a really beautiful thing to be able to do this together. We love every aspect of it.
VE: We do everything together. This was also a way for us to work with the family.
RD: It’s a place where we can do what we want. It’s ours. We can do it the way we want to do it—from the tile to the location to the flavors to the ingredients to the music to the training of the employees. It’s ours, which obviously makes you work a lot more. We work 10 million times more than what we did before. It’s a spectrum.
VE: We are on our own terms.
RD: The whole thing of freedom is really important to us.
BYT: What is the hardest part about owning your own business and the most rewarding?
VE: The family, work-life balance is the most rewarding. Working with my husband is extremely rewarding. Being able to bring my kids to work and teaching them work ethic. It’s also rewarding because we are very proud of what we do because we give it 120%. Integrity is all we have. This is a manifestation that makes me proud.
RD: What we’ve done is created an experience through the coffee, gelato, the people, the lights, the music. Someone walks in and they feel something. Giving experiences to people shapes our lives and is what led us to reevaluate our lives.
VE: The most difficult for me is the financials. We’ve been around for more than ten years so it’s a different company. But we had many times where we didn’t know if we were going to be able to pay our employees. That to me is stressful, because I am in charge. I love being in charge, and being able to provide. I feel very responsible for the people working for me.
RD: The difficult for me is the balance between work, creative and play. I need to come back to work refreshed with new energy, inspired.
BYT: Did you have a major “What the fuck” moment?
RD: Oh yeah! Every time we sign a lease, and we’re trying to figure out where to get the funding. It’s a little different now, because we are more established. It all comes from trying to do something that we haven’t really done before and so it’s like going into the unknown. I don’t know we’re going to figure it out but having the confidence to know once I’m in it that is when I’m going to figure it out.
BYT: Where do you get that confidence?
VE: You get the confidence from knowing yourself. From your parents, from school…
RD: From the choices you make all throughout your life. You either run from the challenges or embrace them.
BYT: How do you decide where and when its time to open the next place?
RD: Gut. It really comes down to your gut.
VE: With location we absorb what’s happening around us a lot. We are aware of our environment. So it’s not out of the blue. Ultimately it is gut, but your gut is based on collective experience.
A lot of the ambition comes from Robb and a lot of the execution comes from me. Robb sees things before we see it.
RD: It’s one thing to have an idea but the big work is to have that idea put into reality and I’m not good at that. I’m not great at materializing things and she’s a master at it.
VE: We are a really good team. We also have a lot of people who help us. We are open and we discuss things with our core team. Trust is what defines the circle. It’s not just us.
BYT: How did you find the rest of your team?
VE: Most of the people started with us and moved up. We feel it is extremely important to know you as a person and your values and work ethic. That has been the best way for us to grow.
RD: If you can’t have a beer with someone then forget working together. That rapport, that communication, that fit, that way of seeing things is so important. Because if they live in a different universe and do things in a totally different way then you are going to spend a lot of time and energy correcting that.a
VE: We are still sort of a young company that is growing, and you need to be able to adapt and change, and that is another characteristic that is key.
RD: We are always trying to stay fresh. So you’ve always got to push it and reinvent yourself and be better.
BYT: Where do you see yourself in 1, 5, and 10 years?
VE: One year we’re here, having another baby. Opening another shop.
RD: Pushing the wholesale business.
VE: We’re going to be in 80 Whole Foods in March.
RD: Five years is when we are….
VE: Growing the business…
RD: Whole Foods national, and maybe we will have another shop-kitchen in another city outside of DC. Ten years, I’m on the beach smoking dope, surfing, having chickens and beehives in my backyard, and roasting coffee in Brazil. It’s written in stone. Check that tape in ten years.
BYT: What has been the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
VE: My mom is always the best at giving us advice. My mom always told me I need to be honest.
RD: Just fucking do it.
BYT: Is that the advice you would give your younger self?
RD: 100%. Just fucking doing it. Don’t sit there and talk about. Don’t be afraid to do it. Just fucking do it. And face it.
VE: It sounds a little cheesy but self-esteem is what I want to instill in my girls, and what I struggled with a little, and lack of confidence. That is so sad, and that is what I would tell my younger self. “Don’t worry sweetheart. You are great and awesome. We are all awesome and we are all fuck ups and that’s ok.” And I would just hug myself.
RD: Best advice. Grow your own.
BYT: What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a business with their spouse?
VE: Don’t hold grudges, but that is for your whole life as a couple and in business. It’s intense for sure. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Just let it go and go with it.
RD: Fully appreciate and give freedom to the other person. And do not put judgment on someone because they see things differently.
VE: And if you fight learn how to move on.
RD: Roll with it.