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Why Joe Biden's presidential debate prep may include artisan ice cream

Key Points
  • Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams has surpassed $50 million in revenue and is on track to reach 50 retail stores nationwide.
  • Founded by former art and design student Jeni Britton Bauer, the company has a combination of wild flavors and collaborations, like its new Pluto Bleu with Tyler the Creator, and classics that consumers crave and keep them coming back.
  • Biden tweeted before a recent debate in Ohio about Jeni's being among his pre-game prep before squaring off against President Trump.
  • Britton Baeur, who is chief creative officer, said learning that what people want is not always what is new was an important success lesson.
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The Mighty Middle: Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams Founder at CNBC Evolve

Jeni Britton Bauer is not a politician, nor does she opine on elections, but she does know a thing or two about how giving people what they want is a key to winning their loyalty and affection. And that includes some powerful people.

Among the big-name fans of Ohio-based Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams is a figure of political prominence who is today attempting to figure out a winning formula for both a Democratic Party base looking for stability and more progressive voter set focused on new ideas for the future: presidential candidate Joe Biden. Biden tweeted before a recent debate about Jeni's being among his pre-game prep before squaring off against President Trump (the debate was held in Jeni's home state of Ohio).

Biden, ahead in the polls, could turn to Jeni's against the president for some general strategic thinking. In at least one major way, as Britton Bauer recently laid out to CNBC, the difference between success and failure in her ice cream business is similar to the road a candidate for public office has to walk between catering to what an existing base of support wants and appealing to new fans at the same time.

Jeni's Splendid is now north of $50 million a year in revenue and on pace to hit the 50 store mark next year (it has a little under that number of stores currently). The business has grown so much it outgrew its original source of SBA and bank loan funding. Since 2016, it has been back by private equity because the bank partners said it was growing too fast. But her first ice cream business, Scream, founded in her college town of Columbus, Ohio, was a failure.

When she opened her first ice cream business, Scream, in the North Market of Columbus, Ohio, she thought of herself as an ice cream artist. Britton Baeur was an art and design student in college.

The thing that brings us back are the flavors we had last time, even if we change our minds when we get there.
Jeni Britton Bauer
founder and chief creative officer, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

She made the flavors she wanted to make each day, inspired by stories she wanted to tell, like a local farmer or a book she was reading. She though artists can make whatever flavors they want and everyone will be, "super-excited. ... But it doesn't work that way in business (or in art) ... and once I closed and thought about what brings me back to a business where I go every day I realized it was consistency and whatever I had the last time I was there," she said at the recent CNBC Evolve Spotlight virtual event focused on middle market companies.

"Turns out, the thing that brings us back are the flavors we had last time, even if we change our minds when we get there," she wrote in a follow-up email to CNBC. "So if I hit on something a lot of people loved, like Salty Caramel, I learned that it's a craveable reason to return. So I had to keep it on the menu. "

Where Scream failed, Jeni's Splendid would ultimately succeed by accepting that every one of her own wishes or creative ideas was not better than the existing ones that led consumers to return.

"It took a while and a lot of introspection to realize that entrepreneurship is a two-way conversation with customers. You have to give people what they want, listen and try to make things you think they will love, as well as continue to make the things that inspire you based on the things you know and are learning," Britton Bauer said.

In addition to the retail stores, Jeni's Splendid flavors are now in supermarkets including Publix, Amazon's Whole Foods Market, Kroger and Giant Eagle. And her pints command a premium: as high as $10 to $12 a pint for some flavors, while grocery store pricing is $7.99, but still higher-end for ice cream.

"When I reopened as Jeni's after Scream closed, I set up two dipping cabinets — one for customers' favorites and the other for experimental and seasonal flavors. That way people could taste new flavors, but order their old standby if they wanted. To this day, our lineup follows this model with a mix of signature flavors that will always be there, like Brambleberry Crisp and Brown Butter Almond Brittle. But also limited-edition flavors that reflect what's inspiring us in the R&D kitchen right now. Some might be such hits that they become signatures. Others might only live for a month or even a few weeks."

Jeni Britton Bauer at the original North Market location in Columbus, Ohio.
Source: Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

Brown Butter Almond Brittle is its biggest-selling flavor and was inspired by children's author Roald Dahl.

It is a tight-knit group of the company's team that decides on new flavors, comprised of Jeni, as well as the R&D chef, who helps formulate the concepts, prepares tasting samples; chief commercial officer, who ensures the flavor fits with the brand plan, will drive revenue; and an editor, who develops the flavor description/copy and ensures the company can talk about the flavor in a creative way.

She told CNBC that "it's important to be that tight," and that for every flavor invented, the creative process might start with as many as 15 ideas, but only a handful of flavors make it further into the process, and on average, she estimates that it is only two or three flavors that are rejected for every new flavor that makes it to consumers.

"Everything you read or experience, whether a pint container or photography in stores or what people are saying to you, was written by the team that created the ice cream."

Britton Bauer also stressed that choosing a new flavor requires knowing that you are not matching some existing market version of the "best."

"We have our own production plant where we can make anything else someone can't do better ... better than best is the way we think about it ... Whether caramelizing sugar over an open flame to get to the right toast level or making strawberry sauce or cake or chocolate, or any ingredient, praline or marshmallows."

In addition to the four "deciders," there are eight staffers in all involved in taking the creative prices to the consumer.

The experimentation continues to this day. While Jeni and her team have not yet made a Green New Deal take on mint chocolate chip, she recently unveiled a new collaboration with hip-hop icon Tyler the Creator, Pluto Bleu: "Think of a blue raspberry slushie — except fruitier, less sweet, more tart, actually refreshing. Then imagine an orange push-pop that's been working out—the orange flavor is stronger with a deeper citrusy pop."

The company also is bringing out a flavor with Napa Valley sparkling wine vineyard Chandon for the holidays. 

She continues to derive inspiration from local sources as well, such as Buttercup Pumpkin flavors, which originate with a local Ohio farmer who has supplied the company with pumpkins for years.

U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden laughs after getting served ice cream during a campaign stop.
Nic Antaya| Boston Globe | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Britton Bauer's relationship with Biden, meanwhile, goes back to the Obama presidency.

"Biden really became a friend, a pal in ice cream," she said. Britton Bauer first met the presidential candidate in 2012 and said, "I've gotten to know him over the years since. We just love ice cream."

Britton Bauer grew up in Ohio, one of the key swing states for Biden in the 2020 election. She lived in Columbus from the age of 12, and before that, Peoria, Illinois.

"Ice cream is an important part of the culture here," she said. "I always knew my first job would be an ice cream shop, which it was, at 15, and I walked out of art class at Ohio State with the idea ice cream could be more interesting."

For more on iconic global companies and executives who are embracing change and transforming for the future, register for the CNBC Evolve Summit on November 10, 2020. CEOs from IBM, Visa, Ocean Spray, Bayer North America, Shipt, Honeywell and more will share strategies on how businesses and brands can evolve and win in an age of disruption.