6 minute read 26 Jul 2021
Cloud ice cream

Ingenuity in Action: a scrappy ice cream entrepreneur on building trust

By Lee Henderson

Americas EY Private Leader; Executive Sponsor, EY Entrepreneurs Access Network

Fervent supporter of young entrepreneurs and their businesses. Connector of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Self-proclaimed sports fanatic.

6 minute read 26 Jul 2021

An interview with Jeni Britton Bauer, the creative force behind Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.

Jeni Britton Bauer is an award-winning cookbook author and pioneer in the artisan food movement. As the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Columbus, Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, she started her company with raw ingredients and a vision to optimize the taste and quality of the ice cream itself and offer one-of-a-kind flavors. Now Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams has more than 50 scoop shops in 16 cities, is available in multiple grocery chains and ships nationwide from its online store. The company is also a Certified B Corporation, known for its environmental, social and corporate governance.

A self-titled “start-small-and-build entrepreneur,” Jeni funded the start-up through a combination of meager savings, SBA loans, small funds from friends and family and bartering. She scaled the Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams brand through vision, scrappiness, creativity and community. She curated her menu and kept it consistent, to the delight of repeat customers. Word of mouth led to her opening more shops, and she enlisted her husband into helping her build an e-commerce website. Three years later she created a wholesale business and brought in a CEO to run the company while she focused on product innovation and nurturing key stakeholder relationships.

Recently, I sat down with Jeni to talk about the lessons learned in her career as an entrepreneur and the values that drive her business.

How did your experience starting at a farmers’ market serve as market research and shape your business?

JBB: There’s no better place to learn about flavor in all of its forms than a farmers’ market. We learned from other merchants who were really good at what they were making and displaying and serving people, and from our customers who gave me their honest feedback. It was a test market where I got to learn about what people love, the standards they have and how to craft our ice creams.

Working at the farmers’ market also allowed me to understand the value of community building in using pure ingredients. It takes a community of people to build ice cream from the ground up: growers, makers, producers, suppliers, customers. I wanted to honor and recognize that, and to this day we know the people we’re buying from.

We use fresh produce and milk from pasture-fed cows, never using stabilizers or emulsifiers — which is almost unheard of in the ice cream industry.  

You created an ice cream in honor of President Joe Biden’s inauguration and had a recent collaboration with Dolly Parton. How did you decide that these moves were right for the brand? And what advice would you have for other entrepreneurs thinking about strategic partnerships and engaging openly with public figures?

JBB: We don’t pay anyone for collaborations. We have worked with Tyler, the Creator and now Dolly. We made our own ice cream for the White House, but that wasn’t a collaboration — Joe is a huge fan of our company and all ice cream across America.

When we reached out to Dolly, her answer was yes. That shocked us. We went to the top and just asked. We knew that if we could make her really happy, she had the power to make everyone else happy. I would just say: Be the company people want to work with. Make sure people know who you are and that you’re being real and authentic.

When I went to your website, I really connected with it. I saw the story of the farmers, the community, the fellowship, and of giving back. It helped me see what you and your company stand for. Can you speak to those values you have as an entrepreneur and business leader, and how they shape your company’s brand?

JBB: I love storytelling. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorites, and the concept of fellowship resonated with me as I was building my business. I have my place in the fellowship, and it’s very specific — the vision and the ice cream. And I need all of the other people in the fellowship — leaders, operations people. Together, we make something greater than the sum of its parts.

Trust is everything. I see business defined in the media with an emphasis on unicorns and strapping a rocket to your back. But nobody’s talking about building community. Anybody can plug a bunch of money into an idea and make it go to the moon for a minute. But to sustain it really takes a lot of trust.

I built the company that you would build if you were 12. We built the company we wanted to work for and that we wanted to visit. If you get that right, everything else falls into place. There is a real value in creating a place where people want to spend time, whether it’s working or eating ice cream. Everyone in our company is passionate, because it isn’t just ice cream. We are here to constantly get better. We have become this community that is constantly moving and shaking and going forward.

How did the pandemic impact your business and your approach to leadership? What lessons and strategies are you implementing for the future?

JBB: Any time you get to the other side of something like this, you are a changed person. One of the best changes is that you have a little more faith, both in yourself and in humanity. We had to decide early in the pandemic to stop making buckets of ice cream and start making pints so that we could shift to pure online and delivery sales. We created a new council to meet every day at noon and work on this challenge, but we were flexible, and it worked. We actually had a good year last year in spite of everything.

I read a great story about your grandmother telling you that you could grow up to be anything you wanted, and that you wanted to be an ice cream maker. Now, you can walk into a grocery store and see a product with your name on it.

JBB: I’ve had the extraordinary gift of knowing you can do anything you want to do. You can use your creativity to create value in your community, to make something better. And I want to give that gift to everyone I meet.

I think entrepreneurs can get hung up on this idea of not having higher education or not being good at public speaking. I was a deep introvert, very shy, and to this day I don’t think I’ve ever done a pitch.

I want all our kids, especially the ones who struggle in schools, struggle with families, struggle with anything, to know that you can start where you’re at and put one foot in front of the other. Just start small and build slowly, which is exactly how Jeni’s came to life.

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Summary

Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, spoke with us about lessons learned in her career as an entrepreneur and the values that drive her business.

About this article

By Lee Henderson

Americas EY Private Leader; Executive Sponsor, EY Entrepreneurs Access Network

Fervent supporter of young entrepreneurs and their businesses. Connector of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Self-proclaimed sports fanatic.