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August 2006
Who’s Ready for Vegan Gelato?
The Satya Interview with Marcia Blackwell

Vegan gelato! You heard right. Marcia and Tom Blackwell of Blackwell’s Organic embarked on the adventure of their lives last year when they decided to become organic vegan gelato and sorbetto entrepreneurs. Based out of their solar powered New Jersey home, Blackwell’s Organic is committed to using the finest organic and fair trade ingredients. Their products are finding their way to local, independent natural food stores and restaurants throughout the Northeast, and are also available through mail order. What’s more is they provide a prepaid return shipping label to send their packaging back for reuse. Waste minimization is integral in their business operations.

More importantly, how does it taste? Simply delicious. The gelato comes in chocolate, coffee, real vanilla, peanut butter and peanut butter chocolate swirl. Yum. The mango, strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, pineapple, orange and lemon sorbettos are also a refreshing treat for hot summer days.

Frozen dessert connoisseur Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to ask Marcia Blackwell about what it’s like running a business in sync with her personal ethic.

When and why did you decide to pursue this vegan gelato and sorbetto venture?
My husband Tom and I love to experiment with different types of food and flavors. We had been making dairy-free gelato and fruit sorbettos at home for a few years, and our family and friends would often request that we bring them to special gatherings. Then the company I was working for closed in the spring of 2005 and I was at a loss for what to do next. When I was in the unemployment office, I noticed a brochure for the Self Employment Assistance Program. My husband said, “When will you ever have a chance to do this again?” So, I applied to the program and was accepted. All I needed to do was determine the type of business I wanted to start. We knew that whatever we did would need to reflect our lifestyle choices and promote our commitment to the environment.

Several people said, “Why not make your gelato?!” After some soul searching and research, we decided that our organic vegan gelato and sorbetto was the way to go, and we jumped in with both feet.

We knew we could adapt the Italian gelato process to include soy, and chose to fashion our products in the Italian tradition, with a healthy twist. Our sorbets include organic fruit, filtered water, organic evaporated cane juice, a splash of lemon and a pinch of sea salt.

I understand Tom is the master recipe maker. Tell us about the trial and error experimental phase.
When Tom puts his mind to perfecting a recipe he goes all out. Then look out because you are going to be eating a lot of ‘something.’ Once he went through a meringue pie phase and you can’t imagine how many pies we ate, gave to neighbors, composted, etc. So when it came to gelato, gallons of product were tasted, both the good and the not so good.

Overcoming the organic certification hurdles was my job. That included finding suppliers who met our standards and the National Organic Program rules. Who had the best sugar? Who had the best chocolate? That meant more taste tests. Our neighbors and family stood by us giving their honest opinions. It was actually a fun process having everyone sit around our dining room table comparing desserts.

Your commitment is to create a product that is “better for the body, the soul and the planet.” What do you mean by that?
It is better for your body because each of our ingredients is a ‘true food’—nothing artificial, no preservatives, no additives and no extracts. Gelatieri (gelato masters) began making gelato before there were chemicals and we wanted to bring that back. We even chose to use evaporated cane juice because it was an ingredient used to sweeten frozen desserts for hundreds of years. We also sweeten with maple syrup and agave nectar. Our agave nectar comes from a cooperative run by native Mexicans who harvest the syrup without destroying the plant.

It is better for the planet because our ingredients are organic. That means less pesticides and herbicides go into the planet’s ecosystem, in turn making the world a better place for all creatures, including us.

It is also better for your soul because as a company we try to use only high quality certified organic ingredients and certified fair trade cocoa and coffee. We made the decision to go fair trade because we did not want to contribute to the child labor and poor working conditions often associated with conventional cocoa and coffee plantations. Our organic fair trade coffee is also certified bird friendly and the beans are imported from a cooperative in Mexico.

So, environmental sustainability is important to you. What are some of the other ways you incorporate this is into your business?
First and foremost, we try to keep our waste generation down as much as we can. We use the web and word of mouth as our key advertising tools and use only recycled paper products for our brochures and sales kits.

We also share our manufacturing facility with other local businesses using less fossil fuels to keep our product frozen and our ingredients cold. Our office is located in our home, which is powered by solar electricity—again, using less fossil fuels. Our container manufacturer has waste water and other recycling programs in place.

We order our ingredients in bulk so that our truckers don’t come as often and use more fuel. We also ship our products across the U.S. using reusable insulated shipping containers, and provide a prepaid return label for our customers to send back the empty packaging, so we can use it for another shipment. We want our customers to know they can trust that we are making the best possible product with the least environmental impact.

What’s your favorite flavor?
My favorite is coffee. It has an outrageously great flavor like an espresso with a twist of lemon.

Tell us about Lucy, your “director of stress management.” What is her favorite flavor?
Lucy is more than a golden retriever; she is the third leg of the Blackwell’s Organic triangle. She is always willing to listen to the trials and successes of each day without judgment, never tiring. Lucy knows when to remind us to play and not to take the day’s events too seriously. She does not get to eat gelato very often, but she is fond of the homemade organic dog food we make for her each week.

You have said, “I want to run our business the way we run our lives. They’re synonymous.” What advice do you have for vegan/eco-friendly entrepreneurs or aspiring ones, to run their business in tune with their ethical beliefs?
Tom and I have high personal values, which we do not like to compromise. As I mentioned earlier, we live in a solar home, we organic garden, compost and eat organic. We would not feel comfortable running a business that was contrary to these beliefs.

Our advice to any business owner is do not compromise your beliefs. You may run into roadblocks with vendors who cannot provide you with what you need, but keep persevering. When I heard “no” I always asked, “If you cannot help me, do you know someone who can?” It is such an amazing question to ask and more often than not, you get an answer. Each referral leads to another, and finally you will have what you need.

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