Sunday, February 26, 2012

An Ice Cream Social With Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

Article by Sarah Davis 
Photography by Rose Davis

"Every person we hire here at Jeni's Ice Creams needs to fit into our our two missions.  We have two missions that we achieve every day, the first is to the sell the best ice cream, which means learning new things every single day.  Our other mission is to make people feel good," says Jeni Britton Bauer, author of the book Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home and co-owner of the national ice cream brand, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. (Jeni, the namesake founder, owns the business with her husband and his brother.) I wanted to start this article about the guidelines that each employee follows each day at Jeni's because because every ounce of ice cream you purchase, whether it's a sundae from one of Jeni's ice cream shops in Columbus, Ohio or a pint from your local grocery store, has been prepared by hand by someone who has your best intentions in mind.  There are no mass production lines to make packaging easier. None of the ingredients come in powder form, it's all done by hand, made by hand, melted down by hand, mixed by hand, etc.  Every batch of caramel (found in the popular salty caramel flavor) can only be made by three people on staff (one of which is Jeni herself) because the only way to know that they caramel is done is by looking at it and smelling it.  Salty caramel is the brand's most commonly purchased ice cream and accounts for 25% of the sales, and can only be made by three people on staff.  

Each scoop of ice cream found in each pint has been scooped in by one of Jeni's staff members, often times has layers of different things like jam or lemon curd.  The name of the ice cream inside of a pint has been written on the container in black marker by one of Jeni's staff members. In fact, there are ten people on her team that have one job: to write the names of each ice cream on the pints of ice cream.  

And, all of the ice cream has been made with ingredients that Jeni knows the story behind, which part of the world it comes from, and can talk about the people who make the ingredients like they are her closest friends in the world.  Her vanilla extract, for instance, Ndali Vanilla, comes from a small town in Uganda that only ships to one American company, which is Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. It's a fairtrade vanilla extract, which Jeni takes pride in. The dairy used in each of the ice creams and frozen yogurts is strictly Snowville milk and cream, which comes from cows that eat only grass.  I don't know about you, but I love to really explore what ingredients are found in a product that I'm putting into my body.  There are very few companies out there, today, that will sit down with you and not only tell you about each ingredient that can be found in their product, but actually know the story behind each company that supplies the ingredient. 

Each pint might be around $10, but not only are the unique flavors certainly impressive, you are paying people who truly care about what you're eating and are using part of what they earn to give back to the community.  By purchasing this ice cream, you're acknowledging that you are a consumer who cares about what you eat, and it's good to know that your ten dollars becomes part of a chain of people who care about food. Jeni notes that a lot of her competitors aren't always selling ice cream in this manner. "I have mixed feelings about some of the frozen yogurt chains out there," Jeni says of the quality of the frozen yogurt she sells, for example. "A lot of their frozen yogurt comes in dry mixes that they add water to and freeze. There is an art to making yogurt, you allow cultures to bloom and it's a process.  I think when we say no to this process by accepting bland foods that come from dry mixes, it takes away from the heritage of pleasure that food is supposed to be to humans."

With flavors like Thai Chili, Gooey Butter Cake, Lime Cardamom Frozen Yogurt, one can only imagine that one of my first questions for Jeni was to find out how she gets inspired to create such unique flavors of ice cream.  "Well, when I first started out, I just had an ice cream cart in the North Market (which is a giant open market where merchants come and sell fresh food) in Columbus, OH.  I was around the best of the best merchants with ingredients and they would suggest things to me. I was "ice cream girl", and there was a dairy guy, a thai girl, etc. We all knew each other and they would bring me their best bacon and say, hey, you should make an ice cream with this in it.  So, it gave me a lot of room to explore."  To this day, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams is still a key merchant in the North Market, which is open every day in Columbus and holds a big part in the community.  

But, back to some of the history of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.  After she made a strong presence in the North Market, her business then was known as Scream, she took a few years to create a business plan, before finally opening Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.  She owned Scream while still in college, studying Art & Art History at Ohio State University. "What I took away from studying art and art history is really the way that art affects you.  It really prepared me to see the way that ice cream affects you, it's a multi-layered sensory experience." After working on Scream for a few years, she finally opened Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, which she co-owns with her husband and his brother.  Now, Jeni's is sold all over the country and is one of the most creative ice cream brands out there.  I think it's really interesting though that she studied art in college, because you can really see the roots in her ice cream creations.  "I think that to be a strong entrepreneur, you have to be a creative thinker.  You have to use both sides of your brain", she says of her business, which is as equally creative as it is business oriented, as well as scientific.  

The success of Jeni's didn't come without hardwork and developing a strong relationship with the community around the business, however.  Jeni instills in all of her employees that giving back is one of the biggest parts of entrepreneurship.  She even has project in the works right now to mentor young girls on how to be entrepreneurs.  "I think there is something very crucial about reaching girls who are twelve because twelve is the year before you start to wear the weight of the world on your shoulders.  If we can teach girls strong values at this time, we can get a lot of them to avoid the hardships of their teen years." Aside from her mentoring group for young girls, she is the co-founder of Local Matters, an organization that helps people in Central Ohio eat more local vegetables and overall better quality food in public schools and at home.  "So even though our ice cream is $10, you're helping us fund projects like this and we give a lot of it back", she says.  

I wanted to know what the best part of her success has been for her.  "Choosing who you get to work with everyday, from your suppliers, to your consumers, to your partners.  They all offer expertise and they all have positive energy.  Likewise, surely she experimented with a few flavors along the path to success that have totally bombed, right? "Well, most of the flavor combinations work eventually, so there haven't been too many flavors that didn't work at some point or another, except for smoked banana.  We tried it out ten years ago, and in theory, it works, but when executed, the smoked banana always turns into turpentine,"she laughs. Luckily, literally every other flavor seems to loved by the public.   

Finally, what is Jeni's FAVORITE ice cream to eat?  "Lemon Yogurt.  It's been my favorite for the past fifteen years and I think sometimes it gets overlooked in the book because its so simple.  It's a little bit of cream, a lot of lemon juice.  Sometimes I like to mix the Lemon Yogurt with Dark Chocolate, which is really good."  

For more on Jeni's ice cream, visit her website here.

{Dry ingredients line the walls in Jeni's test kitchen, located in Columbus, Ohio}
{Ndali Vanilla Extract, a fairtrade Ugandan vanilla that is used in Jeni's ice creams}

{Flavored syrups in Jeni's test kitchen}
{Sampling a new flavor of ice cream the Jeni's team is currently working on, I believe was vanilla ice cream with scoops of lemon curd in it, which was more than amazing.  We also tasted Tcho chocolate that Jeni had just got in to try that day.}
{Chalkboard with ice cream flavors in one of Jeni's stores open to the public in Columbus, OH}
{Preparing the famous "One Night in Bangkok" ice cream sundae}
{Wowza- "One Night In Bangkok" sundae, complete with a fortune cookie with a fortune inside written by the Jeni's team.}
{Counter space and all of Jeni's ice cream ready to go for the public to come snag a sweet treat.}
{Sampling the Orchid Vanilla macaron, which has gobs of brambleberry jam inside.  This was probably our favorite item from Jeni's.}
{A creative display that showcases some of the treats that Jeni's has to offer, including the famous ice cram sandwiches, or macarons.}
{Fun light fixtures}
{Some of our favorite flavors from Jeni's in the case.  What a fun day!}

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