Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, absolutely loves ice cream. As you'd expect. Who doesn't?
After nearly 25 years in the business, making and selling ice cream has been hardwired into her very essence. And that's due, in part, to her upbringing. "I grew up loving ice cream because I'm from the Midwest," Britton Bauer, tells CNBC Make It.
"We don't even think of ice cream as dessert here," she says, adding that it's practically its own food group. Certainly something that you eat every day. Just like drinking coffee in the morning is a sacred ritual, so is enjoying ice cream in the evening. And Britton Bauer's journey toward building a thriving ice cream business started early in life.
Britton Bauer vividly recalls the moment her grandmother put her on the path to becoming an ice cream entrepreneur at just 10 years old. "She was standing in the kitchen stirring a pot, and she stopped me in my tracks and said: 'Jeni, you're so lucky because you can be whatever you want to be. You can be a doctor, lawyer, an astronaut. It wasn't like that for me.'" At the time, Britton Bauer simply responded with a "Thanks, Grandma," and darted off.
"But I remember, when I when I ran outside — in that moment — I thought, Well if that's true then I'll be an ice cream maker," she recalls. "Ice cream has always been a part of my life, and I think it was meant to be."
Even if Britton Bauer was destined to create ice cream — and selling a stunning 2 million pints last year alone suggests she was — that doesn't mean building her business from the ground up was easy.
Seven years before Britton Bauer started her own business, she got her first taste of the industry when she took a job at a local ice cream parlor when she was just 15.
"I loved it," Britton Bauer says of that first job. Yes, her arms hurt and she got blisters from scooping. "I had to wear gloves the first few weeks," she says. "To this day my right arm is bigger than my left arm, and it all started back then."
The part-time job did more than just introduce Britton Bauer to the ice cream business, it acquainted her with the concept of service. "I felt like I could put all of my nervous energy aside and put all of my focus on someone else," she says. "I really believe that's why I make ice cream now. The way that I approach everything in my life is from that point of view of service, because it's where I feel absolutely comfortable."
It was while she was attending Ohio State University as an art major that she had an epiphany that would officially lead her down the path to starting her own business: Scent is a vital component of ice cream. "Scent and flavor sort of blooms in ice cream," she says. Once she realized that, she became obsessed with making ice cream at home, blending together essential oils like rose and cayenne with a vanilla or chocolate base.
She eventually quit art school — just walked out of art class one day — and started a small shop called Scream Ice Cream in Columbus' North Market in 1996. Britton Bauer spent each day learning on the job, working out of a tiny freezer to create flavors that combined ingredients from other local vendors in the market.
One of the first flavors Britton Bauer offered was a salty caramel. She had mastered the art of caramel making while working in a French bakery. And it proved to be a winning recipe for her. "People would drive in from the surrounding states to get it," she says. But the popularity of one flavor did not turn Scream Ice Cream into an instant business success.
"We were a little bit on hard times when I was starting my first company," she recalls. In a typical month, she says she took home $600, charging just $5 for pints and roughly $2 for a scoop. "We were losing money," she ruefully admits.
"I barely made it. I only ate because merchants in the market would help me. I'd trade ice cream for food. I didn't have a car, I took the bus every day or I rode my bike," she says. "But nobody told me to go back to school. Nobody told me to go get a real job."
And so she pushed forward. Eventually, she closed Scream Ice Cream in 2000 and spent the next two years fine-tuning the business. Britton Bauer opened a revamped shop simply called Jeni's at North Market in 2002.
Starting at a farmer's market in Columbus, Ohio, turned out to be one of the best things for Jeni's, Britton Bauer says. Not only was the rent cheap, but she had direct access farmers and a wider community of specialty chocolate and spice vendors who had all the ingredients she could ever need for her bespoke flavor combinations.
Columbus is also conveniently located within a day's drive of roughly 60% of the population in North America, she says. That allowed Jeni's to grow a shipping business just two years after opening, which led to interest by the national press. "We were doing all the food magazines," she recalls. "They were all very interested in what we were doing there in Columbus, Ohio."
Even as the company grew, Britton Bauer knew she wanted to stay involved with developing new flavors and serving customers. "I was behind the counter every single day for eight years straight. I made ice cream in the morning and then I helped customers all day," she says.
In 2009, seven years after opening Jeni's, Britton Bauer brought in former GE Aviation corporate counsel John Lowe as the CEO. "I am a communicator, and I like making ice cream and being on the ground with our team," she says. "I'm not the HR, organizational, structural, legal, financial wizard, and I needed somebody who was awesome at that stuff so that we could become what we needed to become," she says.
Bringing in an expert proved critical because, as it turns out, ice cream is not an easy business. "It looks easy — we want it to look effortless," Britton Bauer says. "But it is really a very complex business to be in."
It takes a lot of effort and a lot of people and a lot of work to do this — whether it's opening up new shops or jumping into the grocery store market, she says. Or dealing with a listeria crisis, which the company had to navigate in 2015. Jeni's overhauled its food safety program as a result and now checks every single batch of ice cream to avoid an outbreak happening again.
Today, she and Lowe work together in a system Britton Bauer refers to as "the two-headed monster." She's not in every meeting, but she admits it takes an "enormous" amount of trust. "I understand it's not right for everybody, but it was absolutely the best thing I could have done for the company."
Over the past 17 years, Jeni's has expanded to 36 scoop shops across the country, from Los Angeles to Atlanta. And yes, there's still a location at North Market. Last year, the stores sold 4 million scoops and 1 million waffle cones, helping Jeni's surpass $42 million in overall sales, according to the company.
Part of the draw of Jeni's ice cream is that the company is committed to using high-quality, sustainable ingredients from local farmers and producers. This takes more work, and can be more costly (Jeni's sells its pints for $12 through its website), but not taking shortcuts differentiates Jeni's ice cream, a company spokeswoman says.
Britton Bauer credits the success of the scoop shops, in particular, to the atmosphere Jeni's fosters. "People identify with flavor. If you're a cookies and cream person, it's like you know you're that. Or you're a mint chocolate chip person or a chocolate person." But then they stop in a Jeni's scoop shop with friends or family, and people learn a little bit about each other, she says. "You come in and you taste something you've never had before. And even if you end up getting your old standby, you still have this adventure at the counter."
Despite her two decades of experience, Britton Bauer says she feels like Jeni's is just getting started. "People think that I've gotten good at ice cream. Well yeah, it wasn't that hard [to learn]," she says. "But what I've really gotten good at is resilience. You get better at resilience the more you practice it."
With that in mind, Britton Bauer says Jeni's will continue to employ a "shoot for the moon" kind of attitude — working to create inventive flavors such as Brown Butter Almond Brittle and Bangkok Peanut. Or, as with the March launch of four new vegan flavors, creating flavors with no dairy at all.
"We are challenging ourselves every day," Britton Bauer says. And don't expect that to stop any time soon. "I just think your life should be an adventure. I like being an explorer and I'm OK in uncharted territory. I'm OK being a little bit scared, I like it."
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