In a retail segment as beloved and ubiquitous as the U.S. ice cream space, it can be difficult for startups to grow in the shadow of legacy heavyweights like Baskin-Robbins, Häagen-Dazs and Blue Bell, much less launch a brand empire.
But Jeni Britton Bauer did just that. In less than two decades, the chef has scaled Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams from a single ice cream stand in Ohio to a cult favorite with 34 locations in 10 cities, distribution in more than 3,000 U.S. stores and more than $30 million in yearly sales. The brand is known for its quality, creativity and dedication to the craft of ice cream — diners won't find the chemical emulsifiers and artificial ingredients used by many competitors on its ingredients list.
Restaurant Dive asked Bauer what it takes to maintain brand integrity from nascent concept to fully-fledged chain, the employees and partners to look for when building a team, and how to feed creativity within a company.
Questions and responses were shared via email and have been edited for clarity and brevity.
RESTAURANT DIVE: You have grown Jeni's from a single ice cream stand to a chain with more than 30 locations in 10 cities. What does it take to build a brand that is strong enough to evolve and grow without losing its essence?
JENI BRITTON BAUER: I love to tell the story of how my company was built — with nothing more than our brain, brawn and buds. We all saw the vision and stayed focused on it. My vision was to make Jeni's the next great American ice cream company, and to create ice cream with unique flavor stories ... We knew we could make better ice cream here in Ohio than others could anywhere else, and that people would love it. We were right!
We've kept our goals at Jeni's very simple. We are a community of makers, growers and producers making the best ice cream we can because we know that ice cream brings people and communities together. We are a living example of that mantra each and every day.
My goals were simply to make the best ice cream using the best ingredients — and that takes a village. I wanted to be able to carry our values from the ground up: growers, makers, producers, suppliers, customers. Everything from how we create our ice cream with close relationships to our top-of-the-line suppliers, how we take the closest attention to detail in crafting our ice cream like pieces of art to how we serve it in a sparkling, beautiful space. We believe that what we do when no one is looking is the most important work of the day, and we hold each other to that. When you walk into our stores you are experiencing a living manifestation of the work and passion of many people.
You had to close your first venture, Scream Ice Cream. What went wrong, and what did you learn from it?
BAUER: What didn't go wrong! It was really hard. I worried a lot and we made a ton of mistakes. They were mistakes any 22-year-old would make when trying to run her first business. When I opened Scream, I thought of myself as an Ice Cream Artiste. I made ice creams with every ingredient in the North Market, from exotic spices and flowers to cheeses and pickles. Every day I made whatever flavors I wanted, which was problematic. Because when someone fell in love with Salty Caramel and brought friends back to try it, I didn't have it. It took me a while to understand that entrepreneurship is a conversation with customers. When I opened Jeni's, I set up two ice cream cabinets: one for popular flavors and the other for experimental and seasonal flavors. That way customers could taste new flavors, but also still get what they came in for.
But I would not go back to give myself any advantages or make anything easier. All of those challenges led to us completely transforming the whole ice cream industry. If we had followed the rules of ice cream or the rules of business, then we would be a completely different company than we are. I didn't take the route of trying to find the least expensive way to make ice cream and sacrificing the quality ... We buy direct whenever we can from within our community [from] suppliers that share our values. That means using only grass-grazed Ohio milk, direct-trade chocolate, fair trade and organic vanilla and the freshest, most beautiful fruit we can find. This isn't the easy way to do things, but it is what makes us who we are. It is what helps us do it better than anyone else and it makes us and our customers feel good, so it's always worth it.
My early experiences taught me how to be resilient and how to trust my gut and my vision. I had an impossible idea 24 years ago for what ice cream could look like today and just started putting one foot in front of the other, one dollar at a time. A strong vision is key!
What were the biggest challenges you faced as the company was scaling? How did you overcome them?
BAUER: Keeping our focus on community was incredibly important to me and the company as we grew and it still is! The importance of community can be seen in so many pieces of Jeni's, including the Columbus community where we started, communities where we put our scoop shops and our community of suppliers. A connection and buy-in from our communities is the only way we can scale the way we have. It's the only way we remain ourselves, despite our growth.
The best way to overcome the challenges of growth is to partner with people who believe in the dream as much as you do. Having people who can stand beside you and be all in is a great feeling. We still partner with many of the same farms and growers we have worked with for years. But that doesn't happen by accident. It takes a lot of planning — sometimes a year or more in advance — to make sure we have all the ingredients we need. Take our farm partner, Mike Hirsch. I used to buy flats of berries from him at the market. But that wasn't great for him because he wouldn't have them to sell at market. He now grows entire fields of strawberries, blackberries and pumpkins just for us. Not only that, but he is growing three types of strawberries so that they roll in over six weeks instead of two. It's not easy to process 6,000 pounds of berries in a kitchen in two weeks. In many ways, scaling up has enabled us to truly build our ice cream from the ground up.
"We believe that what we do when no one is looking is the most important work of the day and we hold each other to that."
Jeni Britton Bauer
Founder, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
Throughout Jeni's evolution, did you have fellow women entrepreneurs to call your mentors, and how did those experiences impact you? Have you been a mentor to women entrepreneurs starting out?
BAUER: I looked to women like Bobbi Brown of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics as someone who leveraged her talent and passion into a business. Also, I loved the fictional character J.C. Wiatt from the movie "Baby Boom" for the same reason. I saw these women as finding the ultimate level of freedom through entrepreneurship and financial independence.
I had fewer female mentors locally, but I did have one very awesome person to look up to in my community in Les Wexner, whose entrepreneur story is legendary — starting from almost nothing and building such an empire. (Wexner is CEO of L Brands, whose brands include Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works.)
How did you choose the people you hired and partnered with?
BAUER: I chose them all because they share the values I hold dear — integrity, transparency, community — in some way or another. Most of them actually enhance or enrich those values and bring a new voice and perspective to the group.
How do you cultivate creativity for yourself and for your team?
BAUER: Creativity is solving problems. There are many ways to do that, but ultimately, the most intractable challenges require the most dedicated thinkers and doers across all disciplines at Jeni's. Ideas have to be tested and that means risk. There is not another way.
Really, the very core of what Jeni's is, is a risk. We don't do things the traditional way, but that still means we have to incorporate all the important things in a way that still allows for success. There was no road map to follow here, because no one has ever done it this way. I wanted not only the structure and the values of Jeni's to reflect the things that were important to me, but also the flavors. I didn't set out to re-create the best of flavors that have already been done. I wanted to make flavors that pushed the boundaries of what people thought ice cream could be and incorporate ingredients that would push the industry forward.
We are a company that wants to see new ways to approach our biggest challenges and because of that we expect that there will be failures along the way. Those failures make us stronger, as individuals and as a team, and ultimately lead to successes. Whether it's flavors, art and design, or finance or human resources.
"Creativity is solving problems ... Ideas have to be tested and that means risk. There is no other way."
Jeni Britton Bauer
Founder, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
What advice do you have for women looking to launch their own businesses in the restaurant space?
BAUER: Be there. It's important to know every aspect of your business from the back of the house to the front. To see your customers as a valued part of your company and to know what inspires them each day. To know what to keep behind the scenes and what to put out front. And know how to work in the trenches and what every member of your team experiences. To always be able to relate to them. As you grow, this knowledge is your foundation. I go back to those eight years of the early days at Jeni's every single day. That knowledge is priceless and no one else in my company has that perspective but me. There is no way to get it but to be there every day.