A Perfect Marriage Between Wine And Ice Cream
A conversation with the lawfully-wedded pair behind Caleta.
By Gaby Scelzo
Photography by Belle Morizio
Caleta is a bar on Avenue A in the East Village where you can eat small piles of mortadella and sip tart, sparkly natural wine. It's also an ice cream parlor that churns off-beat flavors like hojicha and roasted banana caramel, which you can take home in pints or asas scoops to carry across the street to Tompkins Square Park. Caleta's owners, Javi Zuñiga and Jesse Merchant Zuñiga, are not just business partners — they’re husband and wife, too. “It's been fun to sort of marry everything, legally and otherwise,” Jesse told me over a sweet corn cone. I spoke to them about how exactly they wed two completely different restaurant concepts, their personal relationship with a business partnership, and of course, each other.
How do you two meet?
Jesse: We met in 2019. I worked at a restaurant in the Lower East Side that was nearly nextdoor to where he worked — there's a hat shop in between, which really just adds to the charm of the story. We met through work, honestly, I guess, formally. And then one night we got drinks at a dive bar in the East Village. And yeah, honestly I think the first time we had ever even really spoken was the first time we went out to get drinks. So it was very unexpected. Neither of us at all were expecting literally anything other than killing an hour, and then we closed out the bar. And I guess the rest is history, as the saying goes.
That's so sweet.
Jesse: A very industry story.
Where are you both from originally?
Javi: She's from L.A. and I'm from Venezuela.
When did you move to New York?
Jesse: I moved here six years ago in 2017 when I graduated. And you've been here almost ten years?
Javi: Almost ten, yeah.
Have you always cooked, Javi?
Jesse: Well, when you were younger, you were studying law.
Javi: I did go to law school, I almost finished it. But it was just one of those things that at the last six months I decided just to start cooking.
How did that happen? What made you want to cook?
Javi: I don't know. I just wanted to do something different. I grew very bored of the whole routine of being a lawyer, wearing a suit and going to the office.
Jesse: He used to go surfing before his law school classes. That was the level of contrast.
Javi: I just wanted something completely different and my dad always liked to cook at home. And that's something that I saw and I thought, hey maybe I could do this, and I tried it and I just really liked it and I was like, yeah, okay.
And how did you two start making ice cream together?
Jesse: Well we had just gotten engaged and one night after service we were randomly eating a pint of ice cream, though that part's not random, we did that and still do it very frequently. We were just talking and watching a movie and we were like, should we just make ice cream? I was throwing it out there, half joking, half serious. We thought our futures were in restaurants. But that night within, like, a half hour of coming to that epiphany, we had a name, a list of starting flavors, a concept for the types of recipes we would pursue and branding — he drew the logo. We had layouts designed for pints. It was really, really quick that we kind of came up with everything, which is sort of a throughline in our entire relationship, how organic everything has unfolded and how intensely and unexpectedly.
A couple weeks later, we got a good home machine and started making small batches and within like a week we were already hearing from stores. It was kind of a crazy turnaround. And then we got to a spot where we were also working full-time as chefs, 60-hour weeks, coming home and making ice cream until three in the morning and waking up at the crack of dawn to deliver all the ice cream. During our family meal breaks I would be drafting invoices. It was a chaotic time. And yeah, that's the origin story.
Oh wow, so you were both still working in restaurants at that point?
Jesse: Yeah, we were sort of in different worlds at that point, which was interesting because when it came time for us to open up Caleta and we were playing around with our initial menu ideas and approach to food, it was bar bites. But it also kind of embodied both of our different perspectives on food, mine being much more rustic and yours being much more fine dining. So yeah, it's been fun to sort of marry everything, legally and otherwise.
What kind of ice cream were you eating when you decided on all of this?
Jesse: I think it was a chocolate rocky road situation, which ironically is one of Javi’s favorites and a few months later we ended up doing our own version of it.
Where did you guys usually get ice cream before you started making your own?
Like, Ben & Jerry’s from the bodega?
Javi: Yeah, I mean Haagen-Dazs Rocky Road is the king of all ice cream. Like, I have no problem saying that. It's just so good.
Jesse: I had never really found ice cream from a store that I particularly loved, but from a restaurant I had. I think that was interesting for us what we really wanted to lock down were flavors that were high quality and interesting and delicious enough that you could find them on a tasting menu, but not so out of this world that you would never want to eat a whole pint of it because for us individually, a pint is a portion. So that was the sweet spot we wanted to find.
Cup or cone?
Jesse: I’m a cup, no I’m a pint.
Javi: I’m a cone, 100%.
Same. So, how do you develop your own ice cream flavors?
Javi: Our ice cream menu changes every day, sometimes even during the day. Honestly, inspiration comes from everywhere. Jesse has the most amazing ideas and she's like, Hey, why don't we do this? And I'm like, Oh, shit, yeah, amazing. Let's do that. It's how we communicate as partners. It's my job to figure out how to make her ideas into ice cream. I think that whole dynamic is really, really fun and it's really interesting. That's a huge part of where our flavors come from. And they come from memory, from trying things, from just experimenting, you know? We don't really have a script or anything, and I think that's what I like so much about this place.
How did that shift from owning an ice cream business to opening a bar/restaurant/ice cream shop happen? Was that always the plan
Jesse: No, I mean, by no means was any of this planned. But when we saw that the [Bad Habit] wholesale business really had legs and was also something so wildly different than working in a restaurant, we realized that it would be really challenging but also really rewarding, so it was something that we wanted to pursue. And so when the business got to a spot where it was profitable on its own and we could pursue it, that's when we took that jump. It was still scary and nerve wracking, but being able to work just as hard if not harder than we were already working as chefs and on top of it being able to spend time with our family and build something for ourselves was really paramount.
Does it ever feel crazy that you guys own a restaurant in NYC?
Javi: Every day.
Jesse: Yeah, of course. But actually, you know what? It really doesn't. We have to make an effort to stop each other and be like, this is crazy. Or to be like, wait, we need to celebrate that. I think also for us, we don't necessarily know a lot of people in the city, like our support systems live elsewhere entirely, so we really are sort of like our own little village and it's really easy to get really wrapped up in that and just focus on the day to day and crunching numbers and pushing out ice cream. But it's really important to stop sometimes and be like, Oh, wait, that is crazy. Even if it's someone giving a compliment on the music or the product or whatever it is, having that moment and just stopping to process it.
Do you two work here together every day?
Jesse: We're together 23 hours every single day of the week. And once one of us happens to be out of the state, which doesn't happen very often. So yeah, we're together a lot.
Javi: We’re together all day, every day.
Do you feel like your relationship has changed now that you really work together?
Jesse: Of course, yeah. But not in a bad way at all.
Javi: I just feel like it brings out the business part of the relationship. We’re still best friends, as we were in the beginning. The base of the relationship is still there — we still have fun the same way as we used to, we just have to talk about business sometimes. I think that's how it's changed for me.
Yeah, I hear that. If I told you I wanted to go into business with my partner, what advice would you give me?
Jesse: Make sure you guys are ride or die, because it's not easy. It's not. And I think we both uniquely felt when we found each other that it was not something we were expecting and that we were able to find — I hate this expression — but our twin flame if you will. We grew up in completely different parts of the world with completely different backgrounds, but we really are the same in our core and knowing we had that foundation was paramount. It's definitely not for the faint of heart.
Do you prefer working in your own kitchen or somebody else's?
Javi: Yeah, absolutely.
Have you been wanting to do that for a while?
Javi: Since I started cooking, I’ve wanted my own spot. The vision for that spot changed throughout my career, obviously. But yeah, I’ve always, always that. Every job I took I saw it as training for having my own spot.
Do you both feel like you've learned a ton from working in restaurants?
Jesse: Obviously, yes. But also, like, nothing prepared me better than opening up my own. The things you learn as a cook have nothing to do with opening a restaurant or owning a business. It has a lot to do with being creative and efficient and diligent and really hard working, so we had to learn most everything on the fly. Would you agree?
Javi: 100%. I came from years of experience in kitchens, but you're just executing someone else's ideas, that's all you care about. And here it's like, oh, they graffitti-ed the outdoor space, the sugar didn’t come in, the accountant can’t meet me right now. So it's all these different things that no one can really prepare for.
Jesse: But I do think we were, not lucky, but that it was a great asset to us to have worked at the restaurants we did, which were, without being like over-the-top pretentious, really high caliber spaces that demanded a lot and taught you how to be a productive and positive leader.
What do you want to do next? How do you want your businesses to grow?
Jesse: I think for us next steps are really focusing on business development for Bad Habit itself. Caleta is sort of like doing its thing right now, it's been open seven months. So just focusing on scaling Bad Habit really.
How do you market, not just the business, but yourselves? Does marketing yourselves come naturally?
Javi: We really don’t.
Jesse: We really don't. I think there's something to be said for being good at that, it’s an incredible skill. It's a tool, it's an asset, it's all the things. We're definitely not people to necessarily put ourselves out there or market ourselves. For us I think the most important piece is to let our personality shine through where we can. Putting up posters from our favorite artists and curating playlists and letting that resonate with guests and have that feel personal. The brand is just super authentic. That's at least what we hope. We don't have a PR company, every bit of press we have is just from people reaching out and we could not be more grateful for that. It’s a very unique position to be in and hopefully that is because what we're doing seems authentic. You can tell it's DIY, you can tell it's two people running two companies by themselves essentially.
You guys have never worked in the same kitchen, right?
Jesse: Not professionally. When we do events now, then we work in the same kitchen.
Javi: We do some residencies.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah. We're both very good at knowing each other’s strengths and being like, This is your strength, I'm going to take a step back, this is your strength now, and now I'm going to take a step back. So it's just all about balance. You can't both be the one who gets to decide absolutely everything because then there's no collaboration.
Jesse, do you miss cooking in restaurant kitchens?
Jesse: Not even a little bit, no. I retired, so to speak, from professional kitchens in February of 2022. Is that right?
Jesse: And I literally think I’ve picked up a knife once since, I don't miss it at all. I love eating, I’m an eater, and I appreciate it, but I'm much more in my element when I'm able to work bigger picture. I like the business side of it, and that's been really rewarding to learn — development and growth and what it means to scale products. That's all really exciting to me and I let Javi, you know, do his thing in the kitchen.