Mike Guerriero, 31, is the owner of the long-established and award-winning Guerriero Gelato in Caldwell. He is also the new owner of Mark & Julie’s Homemade Ice Cream in West Orange. Both establishments recently received kosher certification from Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest, delighting the local Jewish communities. Read our exclusive interview with Mike Guerriero.
You own Mark & Julie’s Homemade Ice Cream in West Orange and Guerriero Gelato in Caldwell, both under certification of the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest. Can you explain the difference between gelato and homemade ice cream?
All frozen desserts are considered gelato, which is the Italian word for frozen. In the United States, only frozen desserts that exceed 10% or more in butterfat with 50% or less air, can be considered an ice cream. Traditionally, gelato is much lower in fat and air, resulting in a smoother, denser, more flavorful product, although in our shops we blur the lines. In my shop I just explain it as the Italian flavors we call gelato and the American flavors we call ice cream.
The kosher community is ecstatic about being able to eat your award-winning Guerriero Gelato. What are some of the accolades you have received?
I hold over 100 awards and accolades for best ice cream and gelato in New Jersey, the USA and worldwide. I have been featured in major media such as ESPN, Food Network, The Washington Post, The New York Times and many more. I have been doing this since I was 14 years old. I am now 31. In that time, I helped rewrite the book on ice cream and gelato. Many awards also come from community missions, giving back, and supporting kids and families.
Speaking of giving back, during the pandemic, when many businesses were closed, you used your kitchen in Caldwell to help feed more than 60,000 people struggling with food insecurity. What motivated you to do this?
I grew up on the streets of Paterson as one of five kids. My mom relied on government assistance, my father was never part of my life, and I went to school with holes in my shoes, not enough to eat, never being able to fit in and assimilate. When I was 10 years old, my mom struggled with addiction, and she planned to move to Florida to start a new life. I was able to convince my uncle and grandmother to adopt me and keep me here. When the pandemic began, we were trying to keep our business afloat. We saw firsthand the pain, the struggling, things that I knew all too well. I knew at some point the government would step in and help small businesses, but the suffering was right in front of us, and we had the means to help, so we did.
How did you go from holes in your shoes to successful business owner?
When I was 14 years old, I started working as a dishwasher at Gelotti Ice Cream in Paterson, New Jersey, my hometown. They always had a second location in Caldwell, where I would also help out. I had moved up quickly from dishwasher. After almost 10 years of working in Paterson, I felt integral to their business. I helped develop many of the flavors and systems that they still have in place today. But while the business thrived financially, I was unable to afford basic necessities. I quit and within a few months, while I was in a college class, I got a phone call from a gentleman who knew my work. He offered to put up the money for me to buy the Caldwell location that was going out of business. I left class that day and never turned back. I recruited my now wife, who I just started dating, my best friend and my stepbrother, and we got to work rebuilding the business.
You have employed many family members, and your wife Breanna is integral to the business. How did you two meet? What is her role in the business now?
I met my wife one day when she came in for ice cream, and then I went and found her on Facebook through mutual friends. I gave her a free Italian ice when she came in, and we have been together ever since. She was the head cake decorator, when we took over Caldwell she was just 19 years old and rebuilt a department that was lacking for many years. Today she is my HR person and the secretary for the business, taking care of payroll, compliance, and the heir to the throne, our baby Vincenza.
Have you noticed an increase in sales since receiving kosher certification at Mark & Julie’s?
We have absolutely seen an uptick in sales due to kosher customers, and we can see it in Caldwell, too, with customers coming from Teaneck and all over. In West Orange, we run out of products all the time before and after Shabbat and the kosher customers are some of the sweetest, most patient customers. It’s a pleasure to now be part of the community.
By Talia Liben Yarmush