Don’t dare call Bonta’s creamy Italian gelato, ice cream, or suffer the playful wrath of owners Jeff and Juli Labhart’s precocious young son and daughter, who are quick to point out the differences while welcoming you into their scoop shop.
Bonta, which translates to goodness in Italian, has recently settled into its new brick-and-mortar location on Minnesota Avenue in downtown Bend and smoothly transitioned from a familiar vendor wagon at summertime food events, music festivals and farmers markets to a sit-down dessert destination in the heart of old town. Its superb brand of natural artisan gelato is an addictive treat that, before this spring, could only be discovered in supermarkets or by attending Central Oregon’s multitude of outdoor festivities.
“It’s been our dream to open up a scoop shop and the fact it’s finally become a reality is amazing,” said Jeff. “The whole Bend community has been fantastic in supporting us.”
Their new industrial-edge gelato parlor is spacious and bright, all the more to view the rainbow of delectable flavors like Vanilla Bourbon Pecan, Tumalo Lavender and Honey, Rainshadow Mint Chip, Oregon Strawberry Rhubarb, Coconut Lime Sorbetto and Peanut Butter with Theo Chocolate Fudge.
Started in May of 2011, Bonta’s first big festival was the Bite of Bend, where they ran out the first day and spent the entire night making more batches.
“I was worried that I’d made too much and didn’t know what we were going to do with it all if it didn’t sell,” said Juli. “People totally love it. I’ve had women do a happy dance they were so excited. They’re so conditioned to artificial colors and flavors and I think they were amazed by the taste.”
Jeff grew up in Tillamook dairy country, where cows feasted on the green grasses of Oregon, giving their milk and cream a distinctive freshness. Juli, whose family also has connections to the dairy industry, was raised near the berry fields of Lyndon, Washington where she worked as a picker growing up. After a year-long trip around the world, the Labharts wanted to capture the colors and flavors of exotic locales like Thailand, India and Africa and began their Bonta enterprise after studying under two Italian gelato masters. The creamy concoctions created from their home-made recipes are more dense than traditional ice cream and carry far less fat.
“When we left Bend we weren’t sure we were going to come back but realized it was special,” said Jeff. “The rest of the world eats gelato for a reason and we thought Bend was a perfect connection for artisan gelato. We spent a couple years experimenting with different natural flavors and ingredients, so it wasn’t a shotgun approach.”
Originally, The Labhart’s plan was to just sell at farmers markets served straight from the cart, but people soon started asking for it packed in pints to take home.
“That next summer we started selling it wholesale at Newport Market and Central Oregon Locavore and it was pretty successful right out of the gate,” they added. “Now our premium gelato is in 25 restaurants and 70 grocery stores throughout Oregon and Washington, which is really exciting and the new shop is the culmination of all that work.”
Minnesota Avenue just west
of the Oxford Hotel
(Photo above: Bonta Natural Artisan Gelato owners Juli and Jeff Labhart | Photo courtesy of Bonta Natural Artisan Gelato)