• A Convo w/Jeni Britton Bauer •
Jeni Britton Bauer is a revolutionary. A renegade entrepreneur, she’s carried a vision to transform the ice cream industry since she was 22 and in the process, has challenged ice cream makers everywhere to step up their game. Her story starts from humble beginnings- a simple idea to make better ice cream, inspired by her bucolic surroundings in Ohio and former life as an artist and perfumer. Today, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is a bonafide ice cream empire- with over 30 brick-and-mortar locations and a thriving online, direct-to-consumer business. What's more, she reminds us that ice cream is a product of agriculture. Her closeness and commitment to her producers - or as she says, “ice cream farmers”- with whom she works both strengthens our food ecosystem and creates a superior scoop of ice cream. From farm to cone, Jeni's philosophy on life, leadership, work, and food is everything we pine for.
How has your role as a founder/Chief Creative Officer evolved since 2002?
“As an entrepreneur, you feel like you know everything when you first start. I started my first ice cream business when i was 22 - half my life has been dedicated to ice cream. And then you just get your ass handed to you literally every day for the rest of your life. And you realize that you don’t know anything. So, each day instead, I remind myself to wake up, and fight and learn and face all of the challenges head on. I think of it like the scene in The Princess Bride when they’re going into the forest, and there are challenges ahead and they hit them all at once. Buttercup looks at Wesley and says “We’re never going to make it!” And Wesley says, “No nonsense! Now that we’ve gone through it, we know how to solve the problems ahead.” So I think of challenges in that way.
On top of that, I think you start to crave it. You crave trouble. The idea of sitting still and not being challenged just doesn’t happen. Today, I know how to be better tomorrow. I know what I need to do. I may need more resources, but I have a plan on how to get there. It’s always problem solving and creating a calalus. Like I may need to sell a little more ice cream, and if I do, tomorrow I can get that special homogenizer with more pressure on it that will create this new body for the ice creams that’ll give that special tweak. Little iterations that make things better. You’re constantly challenging yourself and pushing. In that way, things haven’t changed at all since the beginning. It’s the emotion of the job that is the exact same. You get into it with all of this enthusiasm of you what believe is possible. This vision that no one else believes except you. And then every day that vision grows a little bit. It keep getting bigger. Now when I look back, I remember how much i stressed about getting a permit, or getting my taxes done, or who was going to do what. I realize that I was stressing out in the same way for those small things as I do now about things that are so much bigger and different. But it was the exact same feeling.
I’ve learned so much about leadership, too. Our team is everything. And our ambassadors at the stores that serve ice cream, they are transferring the energy of all of these amazing people that worked to create that product. When you work here and you see what we’re doing everyday, you know that if it’s fake, it doesn’t work. We show and not tell. When people start here they go through a rigorous training of how we do things. And that is important and inspiring. And, as a leader, being here for people is so important to me. I’m available at all times for my team. I send letters saying to my team to show them that I love & appreciate them. We’re in this together. It’s all about being close to people. We have 1,070 employees, but that intimacy and emotional connection is real. We have a screen print in each shop for our ambassadors that says “You are loved” because I want people to know they’re appreciated and serve that love back to the customers.
What is your perspective on failure in general and also because you're at the helm of a large company?
It’s funny, every day I wake up feeling - this could be the last day. All of this really could unravel in one day. I don’t ever wake up thinking “okay, I made it”. You just gotta get up and go and appreciate and be grateful for everything you have. I’m a sci-fi buff, so I like to think of like a quest - like in Lord of the Rings. That’s why we call our business model the fellowship model - it’s people working together, collaboratively. People who are experts in whatever they are experts in, coming together with their talents and strengths. None of us are all that great alone. But when we come together we’re bigger than any one person individually. You only get one life, why not be on an adventure?! Entrepreneurship is an adventure. It’s cut throat. Highs are really high, lows are really low. But that’s what makes it really fun. The emotion and challenge never goes away. It doesn’t get easier, but you get better. And then you look at the little problems that came before that were so horrible in the moment and then you realize how tough you are. And then throw motherhood on top of all that! You see that you are invincible. You are superhuman. Now matter how bad it gets, you have to get up and start again every day. You’re really defined by your worst moments and your biggest failures. It’s weird that you’re propped up by your failures, not your success. That’s truly where you learn how to handle hardship. That’s what super power is. It’s handling hardship. You carry your failures with you and they become you. And you never forget them. Success is not possible without failure. It’s like trying to travel the world without leaving your house. You can’t do it. You have to not overthink and over-question. If I had known what was required in making ice cream beforehand I never would have done it. It’s too complicated. Everyone thought I was an idiot. People said that no one would want my product, and it’d be impossible to make. But sometimes you just have to try it for yourself and allow yourself to fail. Sometimes people believe there’s a brick wall that you won’t be able to get over, and then when you walk up to it, it disappears. I found that to happen a lot actually.
What has Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams taught you about women and food?
There’s something so special about the connection between women and food. It’s funny because if you look at pictures of me at the beginning my style has changed dramatically. The women in food that I respected the most were the tomboys. Like April Bloomfield, Ashley Christensen- women that could run with the guys. I worshiped and adored them. I always like to think that I could’ve been a soldier. I feel very connected to our soldiers, and I think being an entrepreneur, and being in food you need that personality of a soldier to get through it. It’s a tough business to be in. And I idolized these women. As a woman I never wanted to be put in the other category of women who wore a lot of makeup and always wore the perfect outfits. When I started there were really two categories of women the ones that could hang with the chefs and hold their own, and then the one that were entertainers, and great at being on TV- which was not me. For most of my life I didn’t wear make up, and got into tomboy mode. Same outfit every day for 12 years. Only a couple years ago was I like “okay, i can back now”. I’ve always loved clothes, but didn’t want to wear frills to work. I’ve only now got back into fashion. I love indie fashion designers and small brands. But it was an interesting complex… The world has changed now. We now respect women as women. There’s an open middle ground now between the beautiful TV people and the beautiful in a different way, badasses. Now, finally, women can be themselves. I would just say that being able to look creative and be sexy as a women and still be respected is new. And it’s awesome.
How is Jeni's reinventing the traditional ice cream experience? Can you describe that and how you plan to continue transforming it?
The most notable revolution is that we never use ice cream mixes. Traditional ice cream makers get an ice cream mix from the dairy that already has the sugars and stabilizers in it and so it makes it easy to make ice cream. You add strawberry paste, you have strawberry ice cream… But then if you actually want it to taste more like strawberries it upsets the texture balance and makes really icey ice cream, or if you want to make a more chocolatey ice cream by adding more chocolate, the ice cream gets dry and it’s un-scoopable. Every ingredient you add upsets that perfect balance. It’s really tough to add real flavors and ingredients while maintaining texture. That was one of the things that Jeni’s did that was very different. We created these ice creams from scratch every recipe is different to support the flavor and texture. We get more peanut butter in our peanut butter flavor, more chocolate in our chocolate ice cream. We add buttermilk! Which is something you can’t do in a traditional ice cream making way. We rearrange the molecules, take out the stabilizers and add in milk proteins to build texture and, by creating a new recipe for every flavor, we get more flavor in the ice cream. From the experience perceptive people get really tied to our ice cream because it just tastes better. It tastes stronger than what it’s supposed to taste like. And that’s because of that awesome molecular stuff.
And I think from a service perspective- we love ice cream, but we love service even more. We know that the reason why we do what we do is to get people to build community and bond over ice cream. The Jeni’s way is to elevate the ice cream experience, from the store, to our design, and photography. It’s almost more like a fine dining/culinary experience. Service is everything to us. Putting that energy in the work we do behind the counter into bringing people together around the way we make ice cream, incorporating all of our growers, producers and farmers, coming together with our dairy farmers to make this incredible ice cream and then we serving that energy it over the counter. We bring together flavor, people, culture, and celebrate what makes people different and interesting. Our hospitality and service philosophy is not just with our customers- it’s with our team, our vendors, our product. It all goes back to this- company is community. A lot of times entrepreneurs don’t think about their suppliers or even their customers as a part of their community. Any person that our business reaches is a part of the Jeni’s community. We call our Jeni’s farmers “ice cream farmers”. Ice cream is a product of agriculture. Ice cream is art, science and agriculture.
Can you tell us about your process raising money and using that funding to take over the world? How have you developed your game plan?
Know who you think you can become. When you have an idea of something that’s different and new you’ve gotta just get your vision and understand what is possible. Think big. Like I knew that ice cream could be a lot bigger, and if that was the case then the opportunity was huge. I knew that we could go there. We’re in Ohio. We’ve got amazing dairies around us, amazing produce. We could make good ice cream here, and people aren't really doing that. If we could open on Jupiter, let’s do it. Set your vision as far and big as the eye can see. And then you just start going. Through the process, you know you have to learn more - about your product, about finance, managing people. And then as you grow, it’s recognizing where you need help. Like who can I bring on the team that are experts, people that have studied business, who love that stuff and love to support the founder’s vision and mission. You bring people on board who are so much smarter than you in every other way.
For financing the business what i would say is don’t take money from anyone in the beginning if you can help it. Get it from the bank because if you get it from a person, then he/she will own part of the business and in the beginning it’ll be a large portion of the business. You don’t want to give up ownership, because you don’t know what’s going to happen 10 years later. Go to the bank until they say yes. The money is the least of your worries. Entrepreneurship is a fundamental human activity. Trade, barter and support each other. You can always start without much money, and then you plug it back in until someone listens to you. Only in the last year or so have we brought in outside partners for capital and it took us 2 years to find them. It tooks us a long time to find the right partners rather than going through a big company that would want to grow us and sell us. I just love the shoestring, old fashion way of doing business. Forget about the fast growth model. It’s not the right way to think about business. You can make a business successful by moving one step forward every day and putting everything you can back into it. That's what I did! One dollar at a time. And this is 22 years in the making. You just have to stay focused on what your believe is possible. And get after it. And try to do it right. Don’t cut costs or compromise. Know what you’re capable of doing and don’t bring on funders until you get there. Until you set up that brand and quality.
Tell us your thoughts on collaboration over competition in business. We were so moved to hear that ice cream shops around the country reached out to you after the listeria outbreak.
Collaboration is so important especially when it’s symbiotic. It’s funny because there are industries that are very collaborative -like chocolate, coffee, wine- and there are ones that are very closed off, like ice cream. So by and large, ice cream is a very cut-throat business to be in. Which is what I love. I love to shake shit up. Still, there are really beautiful people in ice cream. When they reached out after Jeni’s was in trouble, it was such a heartwarming thing. When I got the call from ice cream parlors across the country to help, I started to think- how could we do things more collaboratively? Building ice cream from scratch is complicated from every step of the chain. What we want to focus on is the best product, the best ingredients, the best source for each ingredient, and not how to freeze the ice cream or other technical steps. Someone else could do that for us! Our society is built on this now- outsourcing expertise to the experts. As we started to do this, I started thinking about how we can get even closer to our farmers and dairies to make better ice cream in this new model. This is what we call the fellowship model. Working collaboratively with experts to make the world’s best ice cream. We have experts at every level doing what they do best. There are certain things that only we can do. Like our salty caramel - only 3 people in our company can do it- it’s such a difficult process.
Why DC? What does success in this city look like to you?
We’ve been building our community in DC since 2004. We have an incredible customer base that keeps growing year over year - people who order directly from our company. Whether they’re getting ice cream as a gift or stocking their own freezer. DC is one of our top 3 shipping destinations. So we’ve been trying to get to DC for years. And then what happens is that the space chooses us. We had this opportunity with this space, they called us, and we absolutely jumped on it. It’s really hard to get a space as an ice cream maker because it’s $5 every time someone comes through the door. It’s not like a bar…. It also costs us so much to make our ice cream. So it’s an economic challenge that almost never works out for us. But it worked out here. We couldn’t be more thrilled. And then to have a second floor… We can do events up here. I don’t even know how many people are going to meet up here and one day even get married. Because that happens every day in our store. Every weekend, people get engaged in our stores, because they spent time on their first date at Jeni’s. That’s what success looks like to me. It’s amazing. We have people that have weddings in our stores. I’m going to get ordained this year because i want to start doing more weddings in our stores.
I believe that DC is everyone in our nation’s home. We look toward DC for thought leadership, and civic engagement. I do feel grateful to be from Ohio. My whole family is Democrat and very liberal. I’m more moderate. But every issue is different. Spending time with both city and rural dwellers, I understand each viewpoint, so well. And as such I feel like it’s hard to understand the depth of the divide in our country. Being open to all viewpoints means we have to be open to changing our own opinions. I love when people go against something that I say and change my mind. Those things happen over ice cream! It’s something that we’re striving for. We support so many farmers and so I spend a lot of time in rural America and small towns. I feel like I have a really good vantage point. On the one hand hanging out in cities with the creative class, and then on the other hand at home on a farm with a grower. So that gives me a good grasp of both sides of the coin. First understand that one thing we all want is for everyone to be whoever they’re tough enough to become. We all believe that. We want the same thing. How we do that is what we’re bickering about. We’re coming from the same place. And that’s the most important thing for everyone to know. You gotta start with love. We’re all Americans and let’s build from there. Maybe as an ice cream makers, we have a little role to play in uniting the country.
As an artistic person, why do you think it's important to incorporate creativity into business and how has art influenced you in business today?
I studied art, and I believe that that’s where the emotion is. Artists are great entrepreneurs, because they’re strategic, creative and technical.”
- Jeni Britton Bauer
things she pines for:
a restaurant she pines for: Rose’s Luxury!
nonprofits she pines for: local efforts in Columbus, Ohio! I love getting active locally. You have to build the community you want to live in. Columbus College of Art and Design, Besa which connects our company to volunteer opportunites.
her favorite dish to cook: parker house rolls
her favorite dish to eat: carbonara
her can’t-live-without pantry item: Apple Cider Vinegar
women she pines for: April Bloomfield, Kerry Diamond, Clare Vivier