Jonathan Rosati is in two very different lines of work. By day, he is a lecturer at Cleveland Institute of Art. By night (and, to be honest, by day too), he manages the Honey Hut in Brecksville.
At CIA, Rosati teaches English with an emphasis on critical thinking and philosophy. Scooping ice cream, though, is his "real job." The two provide a nice balance. "One exercises my brain," he quips. "The other exercises my biceps."
Rosati credits his ice cream gig with helping to relieve some of the pressures of teaching at the college level. But he'd do it either way. "I don't really have the option to walk away," he says. "I was born into it."
He means this quite literally. Rosati's grandfather founded Honey Hut, and all five of its locations are owned and run by members of his family. The business model — making honey-sweetened ice cream with ingredients that are "as fresh and local as possible" — remains virtually unchanged since the '70s. In an era of rapid restaurant expansion and franchising, Honey Hut is part of a dying breed.
Honey Hut's gourmet approach to frozen treats seems like an assured hit in the current artisanal food climate. But it was far from a sure thing in 1974 when, as Rosati reports, his grandfather Frank Page "literally woke up one day" and told wife Marianne, "I want to make my dream happen."
Page's dream, it turned out, was to run a family ice cream shop, which, after 20 years of marriage, was a surprise to Marianne. The fact that they had five children and that Page worked full-time as a firefighter to pay off the mortgage could not have made the proposition all that enticing.
But Page already picked out a location: a shoe repair storefront down the street from their Old Brooklyn home. He made an offer and started building the next week. The first Honey Hut opened that same year.
It started "real basic," Rosati recounts, just chocolate and vanilla. As Page experimented with different flavors, his coworkers at the firehouse proved to be more than willing taste-testers. And his family — willing or otherwise — proved to be a great source of labor.
More than 40 years (and four family-run locations) later, the operation has proved to be a success. Rosati credits this to his grandfather's prescient vision. "It's like he foresaw the local, fresh, anti-additive mindset," Rosati explains.
A lot of that comes from the commitment to using local honey. "You can taste the difference," Rosati says, particularly in honey-forward flavors like Honey Pecän ("We're snobs," Rosati jokes about the umlaut) and Honey Vanilla.
Honey Hut has gained some prominence as this summer's official supplier to Cleveland Metroparks' ice cream stands, including the just-opened Edgewater Beach House. (They have not, despite a popular misconception, opened an Edgewater location.) They did, however, create a special flavor for the Parks' centennial: Metroparks Bark, featuring chocolate bark from Lilly Handmade Chocolates in Tremont.
Since the 1970s, ice cream makers like Ben & Jerry's and Mitchell's have followed a business plan similar to Honey Hut's and have gone on to become much larger. Rosati bears them no ill will. The Mitchell brothers, he says, have mentioned eating Honey Hut products in the 1980s in interviews. "Their success is flattering," he says.
Would Honey Hut want to expand in a similar way? "We're happy staying a family shop," says Rosati. "If we had to open more locations, we'd have to have more babies."