By Stephanie Smith
Pink hair. Bubbly personality. A love of all things ice cream. Jeni Britton Bauer seems born to run a dessert empire. But behind the sparkly eyes and beaming smile is a story of true grit. The Columbus, OH native studied fine art and art history at Ohio State University, but left sophomore year to partner with a friend to launch an ice cream shop in Ohio. They dissolved the business after four years, but Britton Bauer was not willing to let her ice cream dreams melt away. She continued making her own inventive flavors for friends and family, then selling them out of her home, eventually drawing enough demand – and financing – to open Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002 at Columbus’ North Market. Today, Jeni’s now comprises more than 34 stores, dozens of decadent ice cream flavors like salted caramel (yum!), churro (delish!) and goat cheese with red cherries (yes, please!) $40 million in revenue, and a community of growers and independent food vendors in the Jeni’s family. Britton Bauer has also written two best-selling cookbooks: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts. We recently had a conversation with the founder about her unorthodox path to creating an ice cream empire, and why growth doesn’t always come when you want it, but it comes in relation to when you and your business are ready for it. Below, some key takeaways from the ice cream queen:
ON THE VISION FOR JENI’S:
[Launching Jeni’s] was never about being small. It was about setting the standard for American ice cream. I loved art, perfume and scent, and those things came together in ice cream. It was never just about being a single store, it was about building a community.
ON WHY GROWTH DOESN’T HAVE TO HAPPEN OVERNIGHT, OR BEFORE A CERTAIN AGE:
When I was 22, I thought I was old. There’s this idea that you have to do everything when you’re young. And that’s not true. It’s easy to make something look like a success, especially now with Instagram and social media. But what is the definition of success? It’s a little grittier than what it looks like on the outside.
My advice to young people would be to get those years in. Get that time in. When I made my ice cream flavors and served them over the counter, I got immediate feedback, and I got to know how people’s preferences worked from spending eight solid years working 10 hours a day, in the indoor public market. Those eight years were brutal, but I needed to learn all of those lessons.
ON CREATING NEW FLAVORS:
I still create all the flavors. We still have a test kitchen, and we make a lot more flavors than we put out in the world. Each year, I might launch three flavors. One can be challenging, one can be based on the classics, and one can be something I’m trying out that can be a blockbuster, like our strawberry buttermilk. This year, we launched a non-dairy version of chocolate— that’s a classic, but pushes it further. The more challenging flavor might be something like salted licorice, where l know some people are really going to flip for it, and others won’t.
ON OPENING NEW STORES:
Most of the time we have experience in the neighborhoods we open in. In Atlanta, I was on a book tour and I have a friend there. It’s not a science. We could just look at demographics—let’s just look at wealthy neighborhoods—that isn’t the right strategy, because it doesn’t necessarily mean the people in the neighborhood will want to have an adventure with ice cream. I love a neighborhood where people actually live. We want people to be happy that they’re there, and be the place that [reflects the neighborhood we’re in].
We built our brand on collaboration. I’m doing a collaboration with [French-inspired fashion designer] Claire Vivier. We were having coffee one day, and I asked her ‘if you were a flavor of ice cream what would you be?’ She said, ‘an almond milk cortado.’ So we created a non-dairy version of that flavor (it’s on sale now). Estée Lauder found me, and we did a sundae inspired by one of their fragrances that had orange blossom notes. It lived in our stores for a month. In May, Goop and Cointreau had an event based on the original margarita, and invited Seamus Mullen to do the food and we did the dessert. I’m a big fan of Goop. I love bad-ass women who are succeeding in business.
ON NEW PROJECTS BEYOND ICE CREAM:
I can’t tell you how many satellite businesses I want to do. Whether it’s an artisanal product or a time-traveling sandwich shop. One of the things as a team we’ve done well is focus on what we do well, and edit those daily. Our next book project will happen at some point, and when it does it will be exactly the right time for our company at that stage. This year we’re focusing on our waffle cone. I’ve been wanting to do my own recipe for 10 years. Things take a long time and there’s a good reason for that. Sometimes it feels slow, but when I look back over decades I realize how far we’ve come.
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