Food & DrinkFood Features

Cold Hearted Gelato Arrives in a Rapidly Changing Plaza Midwood

Scoops of gelato in a waffle cone
Creme Fraiche Thyme and Blackbery gelato, created by Cold Hearted Gelato in Plaza Midwood. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The air is crisp as the streetlights turn on in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. Twilight runs across the horizon as intrigue strikes a solemn, local traveler.

They turn right onto The Plaza from walking along Central Avenue, and peer into a small shop dimly lit by ceiling lights. The long, curved-white countertop illuminates the minimalistic decor and makes the gelato display shine. 

There are only a couple people inside, as the hour is late. The buzzing of fast cars turns into subtle hums created by indoor conversations. The shop’s subtle glow falls onto a neighborhood that’s fallen asleep, but eager to wake.

This gourmet gelato shop locally sources its ingredients and rotates its flavors on a regular basis. The scoops of frozen dessert are served in a bowl or house-made brown butter waffle cones. 

Cold Hearted Gelato is a female-owned, chef-driven shop opened by Elinn Hesse on Aug. 20. The shop is located in Midwood Corners, in the heart of a neighborhood that has lost many such businesses in recent years, leading some longtime residents to believe it is losing its spirit. 

Hesse thinks otherwise, and she’s betting on it with Cold Hearted Gelato.

Replacing Rita’s

Before Cold Hearted Gelato, there was Rita’s Italian Ice. 

Rita’s closed its doors in October 2020. A sign posted on the door noted, “It is with a heavy heart that we have CLOSED our Plaza Midwood location permanently because we were unable to come to an agreement with our new landlord.” 

It was one of multiple businesses in the Midwood Corners shopping center to be forced out, including popular indie bookstore Book Buyers, which moved in early 2022 to Eastway Crossing on the corner of Eastway Drive and Central Avenue. 

Rita’s had stood in the spot for 10 years, but failed to overcome the rising rent and redevelopment of the neighborhood, as has been the case with many other businesses along the Central Avenue corridor including Dairy Queen, Reggae Central, Elizabeth Billiards, Soul Gastrolounge and most recently Coaltrane’s Char Grill. Reggae Central has since moved to The Shoppes at Citiside, a large and diverse shopping center located at the corner of The Plaza and Eastway Drive, and Dairy Queen relocated to Eastway Crossing.

Eastern Federal, a real estate and private equity corporation, bought the 23,000-square-foot Midwood Corners property for $8.5 million in early 2020, according to Mecklenburg County property records. 

In an article by Charlotte Axios,  Eastern Federal EVP and COO Josh Page said, “We felt that owning Midwood Corners in Plaza Midwood was a perfect addition to our existing portfolio of quality Charlotte infill retail in neighborhoods like Myers Park, Eastover, Elizabeth and South End.”

While some of the new tenants in the neighborhood are chains that can afford the rising rent, like Hesse’s new neighbor Dave’s Hot Chicken, Cold Hearted Gelato is one of the rare occurrences in which a locally owned business has replaced a chain. 

“I was so happy when I saw this location and was like, ‘I want to look at that one.’ I love this area,” Hesse said. “Even when we were in construction, I would always sit out here and do my work because I would just see the neighborhood walk by and they would wave at me. People were excited about this location and the spot, and I’m excited to grow my business from Plaza.”

A woman makes a waffle cone on a waffle iron inside a gelato shop
Cold Hearted Gelato owner Elinn Hesse makes a waffle cone at her new Plaza Midwood shop. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Hesse has strong hopes for the future of her business, and one of her priorities is to cultivate a community with her customers and the neighborhood. She’s sees the changes that Charlotte has gone through, but believes the sense of community that Plaza Midwood is known to have remains strong.

After originally moving to South End from New York five years ago, Hesse quickly decided that area wasn’t for her and moved north of Uptown to Villa Heights.

“I think Charlotte, since I moved down, has changed so much. Plaza is going to be changing, but it’s going to be for the good,” she said. “Plaza is very community-based and I love that. If anything, it’s going to get stronger because a lot of small businesses want to open up here. Even with big developments coming in, it still has a very community-based feel to it.”

Building a base

Hesse understands her gelatos aren’t for everyone, as some of her flavors — some examples since her opening have included horchata chai tea, apple cider ginger sorbet, and Old Bay hot honey, for example — can be a bit niche. 

Hesse knows Two Scoops Creamery has much of the ice cream market in the neighborhood cornered since Dairy Queen left, but she’s betting there’s plenty of room for innovative gelato flavors

“I tried to come in and do something a little different,” Hesse said. “I’ve already started picking up regulars that are excited when I announce a new flavor,” she gleaned.

Hesse hopes to work with other local businesses, partnering with restaurants to serve her gelato.

“I worked in restaurants for 15 years, so leaving it has been kind of hard for me. It’s definitely something I’m going to miss,” she said. “I want to get connections with all of the chefs that really want to make or have custom gelatos, sorbet ice cream, whatever for their menus. That realm is growing in Charlotte, and I want to be part of it.”

Before moving to Charlotte, Hesse lived in New York City staging with Michelin-star restaurants.

“I worked in New York for about three or four years. I worked at a one-star Michelin [restaurant] called Betony. Then I’ve worked at a few other ones, some of them just staging because I was there. Why not get as much experience as possible?”

She describes staging, the restaurant industry’s version of interning or apprenticing, as a working interview — free labor, but helpful for young chefs to get into fine-dining spots to see what’s happening. She attributes a lot of her current practices to what she learned through staging — things as simple as towel-folding techniques or cutting tape on labels rather than tearing it.

“[Betony] was my first experience at that fine-dining level that affects me to this day. Like, how I fold my kitchen towels, even in the gelato shop, is the same way because that’s how it was burnt into me. It’s just those little things that really make Michelin, Michelin,” explained Hesse.

Hesse is used to working back of house as the former head chef at Charlotte restaurants Bardo and Counter-, but said opening her own business and being at the forefront of the process has been different and fun.

As for how the community has responded in Cold Hearted Gelato’s first month-plus of business, Hesse said the initial reaction has mostly been surprise.

“I think at first they were kind of shocked. I think they were expecting what was here before, which was Rita’s. I think they were expecting a really traditional gelato shop. I think I’ve surprised them,” Hesse said.

You can visit Elinn Hesse and the Cold Hearted Gelato crew at 1308 The Plaza on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 1 p.m.-10 p.m., and Friday-Sunday from 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

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