Founder of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, Jeni Britton Bauer, says that if her business was a flavor it would be Dark Chocolate: "Complex and game-changing, hard to replicate."
With over two decades dedicated to the scoop game, Jeni knows a thing or two about packing a pint, but hitting the sweet spot didn't come easy. There were learning curves, major lessons and hard, trailblazing work.
We checked in with Jeni who shared about ups, downs, her entrepreneurial vs. business spirit (yes, there is a difference), and which pint she would choose to eat fooooreevvver.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into the scoop business?
I grew up wanting to be an entrepreneur. My grandmother is an art teacher and because of her, I learned to constantly create and make things. Yet, we have two very different views on how to best craft an item. As an artist, she never wants to make the same thing twice, but I relish in it. When I hit upon something I love, I want to replicate, build a process and perfect the item until it’s flawless. And as a child, I started more businesses than I could count. So, it was inevitable that I would find something that I loved to make and run with it. I studied Art and Art History at The Ohio State University. I was also interested in pastry-making and working for a French bakery. I very seriously considered switching over to perfuming. I have always been led by my sense of smell so I wanted to go to Grasse, France and become a nose or find a way to incorporate scent into art.
One day I had the idea to use ice cream to carry scent, and that moment changed my life. It was precisely where all of my interests intersected and I knew in an instant that American ice cream could get a lot better and more interesting. So I set sail -- and the rest is a crazy ass history of ups and downs and hustle like nobody's beeswax.
Ups and downs. You were living out of your car during the first months of operating your first ice cream stand, Scream. You’ve come a long way. What’s some advice you have for a scrappy entrepreneurial spirits?
I'm an adventurer. I wasn't bothered a bit by living out of my car or hustling. I have so much energy and excitement for what's possible and very very few resources to make it happen -- I have found that my hands, feet, brain, and friends have been my greatest resource.
Every entrepreneur has a very different experience, but one thing is always true: you get a wacky idea that becomes a vision and then you start working toward that vision and never quit. No matter what. Entrepreneurship can be extraordinarily isolating; the better your idea is, the more people will be repelled by it. When I started, no one wanted spicy ice cream, or flower petal or herb ice cream. It’s about getting help from anyone you can and proving yourself over time. You are the only one who will champion your idea, and in some ways, that never ends. It's always about seeking great people to help. And to do that, you have to get really fucking good at what you do. You have to earn your teammates because they make all the difference.
"Entrepreneurship can be extraordinarily isolating; the better your idea is, the more people will be repelled."
What kind of learning curve did you experience between opening shop number 2 and shop number 10? [Ed note: there are currently 23 scoop shops.]
Suuuuuch a huge learning curve. But again, it's about my teammates. They would never take on something they can't knock out of the park - give or take a few snafus. We always push ourselves to try something new in each store and we learn from that experience.
We must get used to seeing great companies embarking on controlled growth. It's impossible to survive and truly build demand for the ingredients we want or build a safe and secure community of jobs without the resources to sustain it. The 21st century is very different from the 20th century, where we saw great little companies explode and just go downhill. It's not only possible to grow and get better, it should be expected. We look up to trailblazing companies like Patagonia for this reason. We will get better as we grow, not the other way around.
Is every pint still hand packed? How do you scale and business while remaining committed to local and quality?
We haven't hand packed every pint for a long time. And we determined that it’s no longer a safe way to pack pints, by our safety standards. It took us a long time to figure out how to get our ice cream to work on a pint packing machine because our ice cream is more viscous than others as it comes out of the ice cream machine.
We're building our company as a community of people and many are not local to our kitchen. We work with a 5th generation peach farm in Georgia, a vanilla farm in Uganda, and various makers and producers locally, nationally, regionally and internationally. We believe in each other and we believe that by coming together we make better ice cream. That’s how we’ve approached it from day one.
Quality is a choice every company makes every single day. And it begins with your values. There is no reason a company can't grow and maintain quality, but we also know that as we grow we can actually improve quality from the perspective of ingredients, molecular science, safety and direct partnerships. In many ways it’s the only argument for growth at all. Scale is important in ice cream unlike some other food products. You can't even begin to impact dairy quality unless you have scale to support it - which is why we love Ohio so much. But the same is true of direct trade vanilla or fair trade cocoa. We can all order ingredients from a catalog, but we want to be more than that.
You’ve talked about the difference between entrepreneurs and business people. Have you grown to understand and be more interested in the business side of things?
The short answer is no. I retain too much “artist” in my heart. In fact, I have less and less interest in the business stuff as I learn more about it. I like to create experiences, and to do that I need resources and a great team. That's what motivates me. The older I get the more comfortable I am in admitting that.
"I have less and less interest in the business stuff as I learn more about it. I like to create experiences."
The long answer is yes. I am inspired by my teammates who are so flipping brilliant at everything from leadership and org stuff, HR, R+D, Art and Design, and our finance team kills me—some of the most creative people I know. They find stories where I see a paper full of digits.
The truth is that I have so much belief and trust in these people and our talents work really really well together. I have the luxury of being able to purposefully remain blind to many business details. Not to say that I don't keep up, I absolutely do, I just keep my head very squarely on creating the best ice creams I can imagine and making great places to eat them in, but always with great reverence for the resources we've built and how to do the most with them.
What are some lessons you’ve learned about rapid growth?
We have 23 stores. I've been at this for 21 years (I have had two ice cream businesses). Jeni's is almost 15 years old. We've stepped out our growth. As we get more great people and knowledge and dairy we apply it. Every single day is challenging in business. That's what makes it fun.
Still, if you want to do something new it's often difficult to know how to do it. You can hire the top consultants in the world and you'll still fuck up somehow. You get really really tough blazing the path through the forest.
----And you make it a lot easier for the copycats who benefit from your blood, sweat and tears.
If you had to eat one of your pints from now until forever, which would you choose?
Lemon buttermilk frozen yogurt. It's perfect. And I say that after making it for 20+ years - with tweaks along the way. Perfect texture, body, and flavor. I think this is one of a handful of our flavors that really sets us apart from all others in terms of know-how. Plus, it's so simple: fresh lemon, cultured buttermilk, bio-dynamically raised yogurt, grass-pastured milk and a nice dose of cream. You can't ever tire of it. It would sustain you for forever, too - the right combo of protein, fat, carbs.
OK. Truth: Is the dessert business sweet? What parts are more like veggies?
The highs are really high. The lows are really low. But they balance each other to become a great adventure.
But I have a very strict policy: if I'm going to eat ice cream daily (which I do) then I have to balance that with lots of veggies (which I do).
It works the same way.
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