James ‘Tondi’ Haskins brings lifetime passion to Tondi Gelato
James “Tondi” Haskins, who went to high school in Italy, experienced strong passions for gelato and photography.
And that’s good news for his customers, including young adults who smiled at the front door of his Tondi Gelato Santa Barbara in hopes he might open early during a News-Press visit.
Mr. Haskins kept to his noon opening time, but the customers didn’t have long to wait. And that’s just one sign showing how, since opening in March at 401 Paseo Nuevo just off State Street, Tondi Gelato has been a hit for people craving gelato made fresh, entirely from scratch on site, with fresh ingredients. Mr. Haskins gets some of the fresh produce for his farm-to-cup or farm-to-cone gelato just outside his door at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market.
“Gelato has something about it. It is so versatile. You can make flavors out of anything,” Mr. Haskins told the News-Press. “Even though I like making new flavors, I’m also passionate about making traditional Italian flavors that have passed the test of time and make them the best they can be.”
Mr. Haskins said that when he makes something like a vanilla gelato, he wants it to be an experience that stops people in their tracks. “It has an effect on your soul.”
For the sake of research, the News-Press thoroughly tested Mr. Haskins’ flavors and found them upbeat, sweet without being too sweet and varied. Or as Mr. Haskins would describe them, an experience.
They range from cioccolato, described by Mr. Haskins as “rich and intense dark chocolate, not too sweet, not too bitter,” to nocciola (hazelnuts), pistachio, crema vaniglia (vanilla cream), gianduia (chocolate hazelnut), stracciatella (chocolate chip) and a classic — caramello salato (salted caramel).
Tondi Gelato also offers seasonal fruit flavors such as limone (lemon), fragola (strawberry), frutti di bosco (mixed berries), ananas (pineapple), lampone (raspberry), mango and key lime pie.
“Half of our menu is non-dairy and vegan,” he said.
“Passion fruit is a fall favorite,” he added. He noted his flavors include whatever he can get from the farmers market outside his door on State Street, including persimmons, pomegranate, pineapples, strawberries and limes.
“We get vanilla bean from a supplier in Los Angeles. It’s imported from Madagascar,” he said.
And you can get cups or cones for just a few bucks.
It’s enough to make customers (and lucky journalists on assignment) cry, “Magnifico!”
And if you’re fluent in Italian, you can chat with Mr. Haskins, who learned the language growing up in Santa Barbara with his Italian mother, Luisa.
“My first language growing up here in Santa Barbara was Italian,” Mr. Haskins told the News-Press after a customer checked to see if his shop was open.
“My mom is from Brescia, Italy,” Mr. Haskins said. “My dad (Scott Haskins), who lived in Italy, spoke to me in Italian.
“We have a long family history. My great-grandmother owned one of the largest silk factories in all of Europe,” he said.
But creating gelato wasn’t part of his artisanal family’s history.
James Haskins discovered the joy of gelato for himself after his parents’ divorce. He was 14 when he and his siblings moved with their mother to live in Desenzano, a town on Lake Garda in Italy. That’s where Mr. Haskins discovered gelato is part of daily life, especially during the summer.
Mr. Haskins graduated from high school in Italy, then worked to figure out the rest of his life.
“Before my passion for gelato, I had a passion for photography. I was learning black-and-white photography and specialized in street photography,” said Mr. Haskins, who finds his photography skills today useful for his business’ website and Instagram. “I traveled around Southeast Asia and lived in Australia for a year. I ended up getting certified to teach English and taught English in Italy.
“I wanted to travel around the world and document people’s lifestyle, culture, music in documentary films,” he said.
He decided to study film. So he returned to Santa Barbara and attended Santa Barbara City College from 2011 to 2013, then transferred to UCLA.
In 2015, he earned his bachelor’s in cultural anthropology, after finally deciding he didn’t need a photography degree to handle a camera or edit film.
Mr. Haskins changed his mind about his career when a friend told him of her plans to open a gelato shop in Hawaii. That led him to an epiphany that he could start a gelato shop as well.
“It hit me like lightning,” he said. “I had to do this. It wasn’t clear why. Now 10 years later, I think I am deeply connected with the concept of the artisan, somebody creating something from scratch. There is a more intimate relationship with the customer with the product. Maybe it’s more romantic than creating something in a factory and selling it wholesale.
“The concept of being an artisan is probably what took it over,” Mr. Haskins said. “I felt like photography was not going to take me down the path where I would have been as engaged and passionate about the rest of my life.”
The gelato shop didn’t happen overnight, though. Mr. Haskins said he found he wasn’t able to immediately create a shop, so in 2016, he created a gelato catering business. He worked in a shared commercial kitchen and booked weddings and other events, where he pulled his gelato in ice-packed carts.
In March, he opened his gelato shop at Paseo Nuevo.
“Everybody thought we were crazy. ‘Why are you opening during a pandemic?’” Mr. Haskins said. “But we had a really good summer. It exceeded expectations.
“There are challenges like hiring right now with the labor shortage, but the overall reaction to our product and our brand of authentic Italian gelato has been overwhelmingly positive from locals and tourists who are finally able to move around and visit Santa Barbara,” he said.
The business involves his family. His wife, Deborah, who’s expecting to give birth soon to their second son, is the taste tester.
“I go to her if I’m looking for a great second opinion or if I’m in doubt of something,” Mr. Haskins said.
And their first son, Zion, 2, is a big supporter of the enterprise.
“He loves gelato.”