Ice Cream Impresario Jeni Britton Bauer Gets Her Best Business Advice From ‘Lord of the Rings’

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, interpretive dance.

Take the brand’s new Everything Bagel flavor—cream cheese ice cream mixed with a streusel laced with sesame and poppy seeds, onion, garlic, and even cayenne—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 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 lifelong 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.

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