The Ben & Jerry's founders knew nothing about making ice cream—so they took a $5 class

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield at The Ben and Jerry's One Heart, One World Festival in 1992.
Tim Mosenfelder | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Ben & Jerry's is a staple in the ice cream aisle with best-selling flavors like Half-Baked and Cherry Garcia. The company also operates more than 550 scoop shops worldwide. But when Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started out, they had no experience running a business — or making ice cream.

Neither Cohen nor Greenfield went to business school. In the late 1970s, Cohen was attempting to make a living as an artist, while Greenfield aspired to become a doctor, the Washington Post reports. But when Greenfield didn't get into medical school, and Cohen struggled to get by as a potter, the childhood friends decided to start their own company.

To learn how to make ice cream — the core of their business plan — the pair split a $5 correspondence course from Penn State. "They sent you a textbook in the mail, we read through the chapters, and all the tests were open book, so we actually did pretty well on those," Greenfield said.

A scoop on Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream on Free Cone Day in 2016.
Source: Ben and Jerry's

The first iteration of the Penn State course was offered in 1892, when the university's school of agriculture developed a class on dairy manufacturing. Tuition was free, but students had to pay $5 for incidentals and lab fees.

In 1925, the school began offering a separate class devoted entirely to ice cream, which it still runs every January. Cohen and Greenfield aren't the only industry heavyweights to attend: Representatives from Baskin-Robbins, Good Humor, Blue Bell and more have all taken the course, the school reports.

To figure out how to actually run a company, Cohen and Greenfield read through a series of brochures from the Small Business Administration, available at the post office for 20 cents apiece. "One would be about how to calculate your break-even point, another would be about how to manage your books," Greenfield told the Post. "That was pretty much our business education."

As far as why they chose ice cream, it came down to a matter of cost. Initially, they considered a number of various snack foods, including bagels and fondue.

"We actually priced out bagel-making equipment from a used restaurant equipment supplier, but we realized it was more money than we had between us," Greenfield told The Post. "When we found out ice cream would be cheaper, we picked ice cream."

We actually priced out bagel-making equipment from a used restaurant equipment supplier, but we realized it was more money than we had between us.
Jerry Greenfield

They scraped together $12,000 — $4,000 each (Cohen got $2,000 from his dad) and another $4,000 from the bank — and opened their first shop in 1978 in a run-down gas station in Burlington, Vermont.

Cohen and Greenfield didn't expect to be so successful. "We thought the odds of us staying in business a year were slim, so at the beginning we said, if we're in business for a year, we'll open our doors and serve free ice cream to everybody on our anniversary," Cohen told the Boston Phoenix in 2003.

"The original thought was, we'll do this for a few years and then sell the one shop and with the money we get, we'd buy a tractor-trailer and become cross-country truck drivers," he added. "Didn't work out that way."

Ben & Jerry's grew in popularity, expanding to wholesale delivery in 1979. The company went public in 1984, and by 1987 it was worth $30 million, selling ice cream across 35 states. As Ben & Jerry's became a serious competitor in the world of luxury ice cream, it also sparked a series of legal battles with Häagen-Dazs and its parent company Pillsbury in the late 1980s.

In 2000, Cohen and Greenfield sold the company to Unilever for $326 million, although they remained involved in a diminished capacity.

That's not bad for what started with a $5 ice cream course and a $12,000 investment.

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