Bar Ape: What Summer Tastes Like
It was a Friday in June, on one of the hottest summer days I could remember. While it was already past 5:00 PM, the sun was still strong and no matter how many times I changed positions, I could feel the imprint of my sandals being burned onto the skin of my feet.
The Three Spoons were sweating buckets and our meeting with Bar Ape had barely begun. Despite how much I looked forward to talking to owners James Carnevale and Nick Genova about their thriving gelato business, all I could think of was the exquisite Guava-Passion Fruit soft serve I was going to devour after our interview.
We met at Bar Ape’s storefront window. Standing in the middle of an organized chaos, it was the most unusual interview experience we’ve had so far. It was conducted entirely while standing to the side of their walk-up counter, amidst consistent orders and an Instagram photo session. All in all, just an average day at Bar Ape.
The reality is that we were lucky to get any time with them at all. Outside of working evenings and weekends at Bar Ape, Nick has a full-time job, while James is busy with production from early morning, all the way up to doors open. Still, they were gracious enough to carve out some time for us, even if it meant interviewing them separately as they tag teamed the front-of-house and back-of-house operations. Creating opportunities from limitations is, after all, the hallmark of their success.
It All Started with a Truck. Sort of.
Bar Ape is named after their three-wheeled Piaggio Ape (pronounced ah-pay), an Italian import that James bought on Craigslist. “We’d always talked about doing it. I had bought the truck, it’s going to be almost seven years ago in October. [...] There are so many times when it would stall in the middle of nowhere and (I’d) have to push it home in the middle of the night,” said James.
“He used to drive us around,” Nick recalled. “It was his winter motorcycle. I thought it was the craziest investment. I would always say ‘this thing is stupid’.” But James had big plans for the small, but mighty little engine that could.
James is a graduate of both George Brown’s culinary, and food and beverage management programs. After a two-year stint working in restaurants, he knew he wanted to do something else - he just didn’t agree with the lifestyle. He’d always enjoyed making ice cream at home, so enrolled in the ice cream technology and production course at Guelph University.
After completing the course, a trip to Italy enabled James to enrich his tastebuds, travelling from town to town, tasting gelatos. He could identify the great from the imposters and returned with a heightened sensitivity for higher gelato standards: something he felt strongly about.
A friend recommended he try Il Gelatiere Artigianale, a new and authentic gelato place on Mount Pleasant. “Well, I’ll be the judge of that,” James responded. He later applied for a job there, and within a month was producing their gelato.
When one of the owners left to open his own shop, he took James with him. A second location soon opened in Yorkville, with James managing and producing gelato for both shops. At the time, he already had the truck and - as Nick recounted - had pitched his ideas about using it to sell their gelato, to no avail. The owner had no interest. After three seasons, James left.
James enlisted Nick, a longtime friend from high school, to see his vision through. Despite his initial feelings about the truck, Nick had unwavering confidence in his friend’s talent: “The best gelato I’ve ever had is my friend’s and now he’s not making gelato. He should be making gelato.”
It would take three years for the truck to take off. The now 35 year-old vehicle would need extensive restoration, but the real roadblocks stemmed from ever-changing and complex city regulations in a time when food trucks were just beginning to trend. After endless back-and-forth with the city over classification and licensing issues, and multiple plan revisions, Bar Ape finally launched July 2014.
The challenges didn’t end with a food truck license; they were just beginning. Owning a food truck license in Toronto is a cruel exercise in persistence and resilience. Securing a regular weekend spot at Trinity Bellwoods alone entailed a series of complicated maneuvers by the Bar Ape duo that resulted in more hours spent getting parking than selling.
“We’d show up at 7:00 AM, but you can’t start paying for parking until 8:00 AM,” James explained. “So he (Nick) had to sit in the car for an hour. So what he’d do is we’d be producing, say, Friday night. He’d take his bike (he was at Dundas and Ossington) to his parents house over here (at St. Clair West), get the car, put the bike in the back, take it to his place, pay for parking overnight. Wake up in the morning, while the bike was still in the car, drive it to Trinity Bellwoods, sleep for an hour in the car, pay for parking at 8:00am, put his bike together. Either he’d go back to sleep, or come straight to the shop and we’d fill the truck. We’d both go down or I’d meet him at the car. He would then put his bike in the car, drive the car out of the way, I would park the truck and then he would take the car back to wherever it needed to be and bike back downtown. That’s just to sell at Trinity Bellwoods.”
This weekly ritual earned them three hours of selling time. Over a season and a half, frustrations with a city that was ill-prepared and unwilling to better accommodate food trucks escalated. Mobile start-ups began turning on each other. “It got to the point where I nearly got run off the road by another food truck,” said James. “We were just done with it.”
Bar Ape 2.0
The truck was where it all started, but it was by no means where the story ends. Their experience on the road and their evolution towards their current storefront offerings was riddled with constraints that would’ve caused anyone to throw in the towel without shame. But, instead, James and Nick overcame each challenge with not just persistence and resilience, but ingenuity.
The idea for their signature gelato bars, for instance, came about from the simple lack of space to install the necessary infrastructure to serve scooped gelato from the back of their minuscule motorcycle-truck hybrid. The result was a unique, high quality packaged product that minimizes wait times, leading to more customers served faster.
Their consistent price point - $5 for everything, taxes included - was set primarily with efficiency in customer service in mind, rather than profits. While serving customers during our discussion, James would intuitively have change in hand while customers were still rummaging through their purses and wallets. “The dollar amounts of everything are essential to how the efficiency of the system works. [...] People laugh because they give me money and I’ve already got my change in their hands.”
The aftermath of their foray into the food truck world not only provided learnings in best practices, but opportunities to expand into soft serve. This eventually led to their opening a storefront.
“We had a customer at Trinity Bellwoods who was a junk removal guy,” Nick remembered. “And he had a soft serve machine and we were like: ‘Hey, we'd love to test it out’. Because a soft serve machine is essentially a small version of what are gelato machines. It’s just smaller barrels and it’s making it fresh. The whole thing was, whenever we make gelato, it’s a lot softer. When we first make it, it's like soft serve and it’s so much better. And we’d love to be able to serve it that way.”
Soft serve presented another opportunity; the ability to expand into vegan flavours. Serving their gelato without the chocolate coating used for their bars also meant that their sorbets would now be available to more people.
“We can serve those and they're vegan,” said Nick. “So, more people can have it and there's no compromise. [...] We’re not trying to be a vegan place, we just happen to be able to make really really good vegan flavours.”
They cleaned the old machine and tested it out. It functioned for all of 20 minutes; just long enough for James and Nick to decide that this was something worth pursuing. They purchased a new soft serve machine and did a pop-up at a friend’s coffee shop, and the rest is history.
They decided to implement soft serve the following year, so needed a production space and thought, “if we need a production space, let’s get a storefront to go with it so we can produce and sell at the same time”.
They opened their production facility and shop in Summer 2016 on Rushton Road, off of St. Clair West - the neighbourhood where they grew up.
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
For the past hour that we’d been standing there, hot and sweating, ogling other people’s delectable frozen treats, I noticed the large amount of customers who interacted with James and Nick with a sort of pleasant familiarity. Sure, the truck is what started it all and the shop was somewhat born out of necessity, but I think this place is where they truly belong. Bar Ape is the neighbourhood gem that James and Nick deserve.
James is a tells-it-like-it-is, no-nonsense kind of guy. He speaks quickly, mostly of operational effectiveness, jumps from one topic to another, often live comments our observations as a means to express his views on best practices. But more important than his evident mastery of the production and operations side of the business, what shines through is his incomparable passion for an uncompromised experience. The best quality gelato in imaginative flavours, using the best ingredients, served without the trendy pretense of a long lineup.
Nick is more of a storyteller. He elaborates with his thoughts and the details surrounding events. A full-time videographer by day, he moonlights at the shop every night after work and on weekends. He doesn’t have to be. While he is true to his vocation as a videographer, no amount of sleep or free time will question his devotion to Bar Ape. I was initially moved by Nick’s loyalty to his friend and his willingness to sacrifice a less neurotic lifestyle for him, but this isn’t the case at all. It may have started with his friend’s idea and his friend’s talent, but Nick is personally invested and shares equal passion for the business. “It's just something to be proud of. I mean we built it from nothing.” Nick regularly uses his skills to create stunning videos and photos of their product, a unique advantage in promoting on social channels.
No matter when you come in for a visit, you’ll always be served by James or Nick. While they’ve hired an employee to help with production, they feel very strongly about working the front lines: “A huge pet peeve I have from working at other gelato places, or in general when it comes to ice cream places: do you want to be served by a 17 year-old who doesn’t give a shit?,” asks James. “And that's why it's always going to be me or Nick serving all the time. [...] We have reasons and influences and stories behind everything that we're doing.” Nick shares this opinion wholeheartedly; it is mainly the reason behind his sacrifices; “The people at the front should be the people who know what’s going on. It's our place.”
Their strong sense of community goes beyond serving their neighbourhood. Collaborations with other like-minded artisans across the city is very important to them as well. In fact, it was the catalyst for launching a new line of tasty treats this year - sundaes.
That day, one of the sundaes featured a black currant caramel, made by our mutual friends at East side pastry shop, Roselle. Kitten and the Bear, Parkdale’s beloved purveyors of quality preserves, are another collaborator they mentioned working with.
“Especially with the truck, you make enemies so quickly for no reason. It's unavoidable,” Nick explains. “So, it's one of those things where, it's nice when you meet another business, everybody’s cool, and you kind of do something nice with them.”
It’s Here and Then It’s Gone
With our interview drawing to a close, like a bunch of kids being rewarded for good behaviour, we each picked a treat and sat nearby in the shade. I had the Guava-Passion Fruit soft serve swirl I had long committed to, Nick (our Nick) picked the Strawberry Black Pepper bar, and Abhi chose the Black Currant Caramel sundae.
I could describe the delightfulness of the taste and texture, and unique flavour profiles of each of our choices. But really, what strikes me most is the feeling of eating a Bar Ape creation. Simply put: it’s the perfect embodiment of the meaning of summer. A series of sweet, joyful, sun-filled, yet fleeting moments we hold onto long after they’re gone. Before I knew it, I finished my soft serve and I wished I had just one more bite.
When you find something you like here, make sure to really take that moment to savour it. Their menu changes constantly, so you never know if and when you'll get to enjoy it again. “All our flavours are limited, but they're also limited to us," said Nick. "I’m only going to get to have my favourite flavour for like maybe a couple days and then it's gone. So, I’ve gotta wait till next year too. But that's a good thing for how it works here; people almost have to fear what they're going to miss. It’s here and then it’s gone.”
I sat there and watched as seemingly all the neighbourhood stopped by with their children and their dogs. The kids were the best - the excitement of getting to choose their flavour, the wide-eyed delight in which they received their treat, followed by the inevitable mess of digging in with abandon, all smiles.
Through the countless trials and tribulations, James and Nick never gave up and never compromised. Led by their passion and conviction, they adapted, they innovated, and when necessary moved on. They may have strayed from where they started, but in the end, Bar Ape is the cherished neighbourhood gem that James and Nick deserve.
Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.