Black Dog Gelato, the indie gelato brand that chefs and other Chicago gourmands have treasured for 13 years, has permanently closed two of its three shops to focus operations in at its original location. Owner Jessie Oloroso, a pastry chef who worked at Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s shuttered restaurant Scylla, announced the closure Sunday on Instagram.
Open from spring to early fall, Black Dog Gelato — which debuted in 2010 — will reopen in May in Ukrainian Village. Black Dog Gelato grew from Oloroso’s weekly presence at Logan Square Farmers Market and earned a reputation for scoops with novel flavors like brandied apple pie (using brandy from West Town’s Rhine Hall), blueberry French toast, and ruby chocolate strawberry balsamic. Black Dog also was a vendor at Revival Food Hall in the Loop. It expanded in 2019 to the West Loop, and later that year, Oloroso signed a lease for the former Heavenly Gelato space at 2662 N. Sawyer Avenue.
Oloroso signed the lease just months before pandemic-era indoor dining bans swept the U.S., and by the time mitigations were in place, She says her team was already well into renovations in Logan Square.
“As time went on, we started to understand that this was not going to be just a couple of weeks,” she says. “It kind of just got scarier and scarier as it went along, but we had too much skin in it already to back down.”
Many of the obstacles Oloroso and Black Dog encountered — economic upheaval, staffing issues, and concerns for the safety and health of her team — were universal in the hospitality industry. But pressures at home also grew: Oloroso’s three young children could no longer attend in-person school or group activities because of the pandemic, and her husband’s job in the emergency room at Cook County Hospital meant he faced an elevated risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“That was a really scary time for us as a family,” she says. “We were dealing with what a lot of families were dealing with, where all of a sudden your childcare was just gone or diminished... There was no camp, no daycare. I really don’t know what we did that summer [in 2020], I honestly don’t remember it.”
Beyond the taxing nature of the work and the desire to spend more time with her children, the market of gourmet frozen treats has changed with players like Pretty Cool Ice Cream. But there’s also out-of-town competition from the rapid growth of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, the Ohio-based chain founded by James Beard Award-winner Jeni Britton Bauer. Jeni’s attracted fawning local media coverage and long lines making gourmet ice cream and gelato in surprising, unusual flavors ubiquitous in the city. Jeni’s has also partnered with Foxtrot, the corner store chain backed with deep investment pockets that also pose a threat to local coffee shops.
Jeni’s landed in Chicago in 2013 and operates 11 locations in the city, including a West Loop outpost just a block and a half away from Black Dog.
“On one hand, I’m thankful to brands — specifically, Jeni’s — for helping to advance ice cream culture into the mainstream so it’s not just Dairy Queens and 31 Flavors,” Oloroso says. “What I question is the growth strategy. When you open a high number of stores in a concentrated area, that’s not about market share, that’s about market domination. What does it mean for Chicago, or any place, when all you’re seeing are the same brands that you can find anywhere?”
Oloroso says that business was improving but the shift was too slow for Black Dog to remain viable in Logan Square and West Loop. She also felt that between three locations, she and her managers didn’t have the time or energy to address the needs of each shop. Fatigued after years of fighting to keep Black Dog open, Oloroso decided not to renew the West Loop lease and worked with her landlord to allow her sister-in-law, an owner of a neighboring hair salon, to take the space.
Though she acknowledged feelings of failure on Instagram, Oloroso says that the closures were necessary to save the Black Dog brand and keep doing what she loves — going to work every day and making gelato. Now 47 years old, she says that like many other hospitality professionals, the pandemic created an opportunity for her to reevaluate her priorities and recognize the importance of mental and physical health. But gelato remains an important part of that equation.
“I feel like I’ve come both to a scary new phase and like I’ve come full circle,” she says. “My goal was not to be a fad or trendy thing, my goal was to outlast it all — to be that standby like Mario’s Italian Ice. I’m trying to have the brand survive and be one of those favorite Chicago places to hit up.”