The creator of Jeni's Ice Cream on unexpected flavor combos and how to respond when someone calls your ice cream orgasmic.
Jeni's Ice Cream founder Jeni Britton Bauer is proud of the science behind her beloved brand. Melting points, precise flavor interactions, the exact number of scoops designed to be extracted from a pint—trust that she has scrutinized each element of the ice cream-eating process. But when it comes to deciding on a new flavor for Jeni’s Ice Cream, science and spreadsheets take a backseat to, well, interpretative dance.
Take the brand’s new Everything Bagel flavor—cream cheese ice cream mixed with a streusel laced with seeds, onion, and garlic—which scandalized and interested the internet in equal measure. Britton Bauer explains that she and her staff tried it for the first time in 2013. “The first recipe we made for it seemed like it would taste too much like garlic and onion. But then we took a bite and we were all just dancing. We started moving, like when you’re a kid and you eat a candy bar and you just have to twirl around and move. It’s the shoulder shake, like, ‘Oh, that’s good.’”
She tried tamping down the garlic and onion, and when the batch came out, there was no dancing. “It didn’t make us smile. It wasn’t as fun. It just didn’t click.” The team reverted back to the old recipe.
Since 2002, Britton Bauer has been in her test kitchen, rooting around for flavor combinations that make people want to get on their feet. It has won her some prominent fans. In 2012, Joe Biden made a campaign stop at one of her stores. In April 2020, Nancy Pelosi went on The Late Late Show with James Corden and showed off a freezer packed with no fewer than 10 pints of Jeni’s. And in March, the brand unveiled a collaboration with Dolly Parton called Strawberry Pretzel Pie. The flavor is said to have “timeless appeal” and “deep American roots” just like Parton herself. The same of course could be said of Jeni’s.
Here, Britton Bauer talks entrepreneurship, her go-to ice cream sundae, and the customers who make her blush in a Target aisle.
Her first childhood dream job
When I was a kid, my grandmother would say to me, “Jeni, you’re so lucky because your generation can be anything you want to be. You can be a doctor or a lawyer or an astronaut.” I was like, “Cool, thanks, grandma.” I remember running out of her kitchen and running out the backdoor of her house, and I remember thinking, “If that’s true, I don’t want to be a lawyer. I want to be an ice cream maker.” I just figured if I really can be anything, why would I want to be an accountant? I’ll do ice cream. That’s the truth.
Her first actual job
I got my first job at an ice cream shop that happened to open up in my neighborhood. I was their first employee. That was when I was 15, and I had to get a work permit to do it. Seven years after that, when I was 22, I had my own ice cream shop. I’m 47 now. So this really has been a life-long career.
The hardest lesson she's learned at work
I started that first ice cream business in 1996. I left art school to do it. Like, I walked out of art class because I had been making ice cream at home and I'd realized the power of ice cream to tell stories. It just clicked that ice cream was my calling and my passion. So I left. I was like, “I’m going to tell all these ice cream stories. It’s going to be great. I’m going to do it like we’re in a theater and people will come watch.” I called it Scream Ice Cream. And of course, no one goes to a business because of that. People come to a business and expect consistency. When you hit on something that people love, which in the case of our ice cream is Salty Caramel or Gooey Butter Cake, you have to have it every single day, all the time. That was a big lesson. Later, when I started Jeni’s, that was the biggest lesson that I took with me. Passion is not enough; you have to be in a two-way conversation with your customer. You have to be making someone else happy.
The most misunderstood aspect of her job
That entrepreneurship is about getting money fast. Winning pitch competitions. That kind of thing. I was on Joe Biden’s small business council, and I’m very much an advocate for main street businesses. It’s about starting small and building. Of course some people have to go for big money, fast growth, all that. But so much of the conversation around starting a business is about looking for VC funding and raising capital. We don’t talk a lot about true small businesses, which should be accessible to anyone in America, who has an idea.
I just don’t think we should even use the word “business” for a long time. I think we need to teach kids, especially kids who may not be super resources either when it comes to education or network, that starting something can be an option for them. We should be teaching them to use their imagination, to see the world around them, whether it’s on their street or in their community. The whole world is full of opportunity to make a difference and to make a change. It’s a lens we have to offer people—that you can do this. You don’t need to have an idea for an app. You don’t need to go to Stanford or even Ohio State, which is down the street from me. You don’t have to learn how to “be an entrepreneur,” just like you don’t have to learn how to become a mother. You just do it. Start where you’re at and go.
A piece of professional advice that’s stuck with her
People ask me what my favorite business book is. I often say, “The Lord of the Rings movies,” because I do think about work like that. It’s a fellowship, right? Everyone brings their awesomeness and then together we make something greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s what building a company is or at least what it should be.
A detail she’s a total perfectionist about
In our ice cream, we don't use stabilizers, emulsifiers, or even egg yolks. It’s a very delicate balance, and we’re obsessed with how it melts. The flavors are fun and wonderful, but I’m fixated on the science behind it. It’s designed to melt on your tongue. We make it to be licked, not eaten with a spoon. This is an aside, but this is why I’ve said for years that ice cream is a great date. You’re a little bit vulnerable when you’re eating an ice cream cone. No one looks too cool with a cone in their hand. It makes you kind of feel dorky! You’re licking a cone, but you’re a grownup. It’s humbling. It’s the great leveler.
How she knows she’s crushing it
From the beginning, we would get fan mail that relates our ice cream to an orgasm or a first kiss or something sexual. I mean, it’s even been in newspapers. It sort of makes you blush a little bit, especially when you’re standing in Target and someone comes up to you to compliment your ice cream. It’s like, okay. But it’s high praise! So we must be doing something right.
Her favorite “desk” snack
I do eat ice cream every day. Once or twice a week at least, I’ll eat it in the test kitchen with a critical hat on. But then every day, I also eat it just to enjoy it with my kids.
But however or wherever I’m eating it, I have a specific process. The scoop matters. I scoop “around the world,” so the scoop goes down and around at the same time, which guarantees that I get four scoops to a pint. Then I like to put toppings on. I’ll have, like, our Brown Butter Almond Brittle with caramel sauce—not the real caramel even, but the 365 brand caramel sauce from Whole Foods. Then I will put cashews on it or more almonds, depending on whatever nut I’ve got and then whipped cream. I need that a lot. Sometimes that’s not the snack—that’s just dinner. The last couple months, I’ve been baking a lot from the Petee’s Pie cookbook, which is fantastic. So sometimes I’ll have ice cream with a piece of pie I’ve made from one of their recipes. It’s so good.
A project she’s still tinkering with
There’s a flavor we’ve had for ages. I put it in our cookbook, and we called it Ylang Ylang with Clove. Ylang-ylang is so beautiful. It has this great scent, and it’s off the charts in ice cream. In the last couple of years, I made this honeycomb candy and threw that in too. So we eventually tweaked the name and called it Nectar Honeycomb—like nectar of the gods. When you put this flavor in front of someone, they love it, but we need a name that makes them want to try it. So we just have to figure out how to explain it and connect people to it. It’s the same with our flavors that we make with yogurt and buttermilk. If the flavor has the word “yogurt” in it, people don’t want it. But these flavors are so good! It’s almost more like sherbet—just very tart and creamy. Once we took “yogurt” off and just called them “parfait” or “chiffon,” they started selling out completely. A lot of times it really is about the name.
It matters in ice cream, but it matters in so many different industries. I know as a lifelong Democrat that the Democrats are terrible at this! So many of their messages are not connecting with people. Being in ice cream means people have to want to buy your product whether or not you’re there to sell them on it. It has to be appealing. That’s what we need in our government too. Because of the work that I’ve done over the past year, I know that there are so many really, really smart people who work on small business policy. But policy needs to be felt in communities. The first thing I did in my committee that I was heading up was tell people to go talk to small business owners. Like, don’t even come here until you have three stories from actual people. We need a lot more of that.
Her five work essentials
Flower pins. I make them and have worn them for years. I’m really particular about the flowers I choose. They have a certain “look”—not too fake. And then I soften them by washing or massaging them and glue a brooch pin to them. I like making things and exploring, and I think that’s a part of being visionary. Entrepreneurs should nurture their imagination and vision because everything else is trainable and hirable.
Crystals from Rock Candy Healing Stones. In particular, I am drawn to yellow jade, yellow calcite, and citrine, which reminds me to be the light. Rose quartz keeps me focused on the absolute power of love—given and received. And black tourmaline because I am not about to take any bullshit. It helps me set my boundaries and deflect.
Moon Juice Plump Jelly—in the morning and all day. It actually plumps my skin through surface hydration and I love it. I get mine from Fine Feather, a boutique in Columbus.
Moon Juice Plump Jelly Hyaluronic Serum$58Sephora
Roots & Crowns Pillow Mists. The woman behind these is a magical healer, and I love her. I spray them with mantras. I say “you are loved” each time I spray over my kiddos' beds.
Roots & Crowns Rest Well Essential Oil Pillow Mist$28Roots & Crowns
Zeroll 1020 Original Ice Cream Scoop
Zeroll 1020 Original Ice Cream Scoop$18.69Amazon
Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Mattie Kahn