The gourmet ice cream brand is taking new ground and stealing more hearts across the nation.
What's the big news out of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams? Franchises from coast to coast? Production and scoop shops overseas? None of the above.
Jeni has created her own sprinkles.
They're multicolored—as in each tiny, individual sprinkle has several hues. And two types are set to debut in May: Punk Rock, which are your standard rainbow colors, and another she calls Pop Rock, which are described as more neon.
Columbus' favorite ice cream—for seven of the last 10 years, according to Columbus Alive reader polls—is taking on a bigger national profile as it marks 15 years since Jeni Britton Bauer hit the scene in 2002. Over three straight days in mid-April, Jeni's opened its fourth Atlanta scoop shop, announced plans for its first shop in Washington, D.C., and opened its third in Los Angeles. Jeni's ice cream has been served to first-class passengers on Delta flights since July 2016, and it has been named the best ice cream in Chicago and Nashville.
But all the growth that has accompanied Jeni's stature as creator and still champion of a market category called super-premium ice cream isn't the kind of stuff that Britton Bauer and President and CEO John Lowe brag about when discussing the company, whose saga over the last two years has careened from the best-seller list to a near-fatal recall and back. It's seemingly tiny details—silver tasting spoons, the flow of customers through a scoop shop—that excite the two leaders.
It's things like sprinkles, that afterthought of a topping, that are their Goat Cheese With Red Cherries on the Ndali Estate Vanilla Bean Tin Roof Sundae.
Britton Bauer bristles at the thought of an image she thinks people carry of her, one in which she's “squishing blueberries all day in a kitchen.” Her craft, after all, has included innovations in applying heat to milk proteins, negating the need for egg yolks or stabilizers. But she still describes the new wafer cones she's buying from an Ohio producer the way other connoisseurs might wax about a fine steak or bottle of wine.
Lowe boasts of staying “the heck out of the way” creatively, but he talks about the Jeni's experience as a modern Norman Rockwell scene in which the family heads on over to the neighborhood shop for a post-Little League scoop of Juniper & Lemon Curd.
And both describe the company's success—5.5 million scoops and 2.6 million pints sold last year, $30 million in sales projected for 2017—not as the final score of some super-premium ice cream throwdown, but as the way they and their 750 employees get to stay in the game.
“The key is to build more resources to make more ice cream.” Britton Bauer says.
“Getting it right is the goal,” says Lowe. “When you get it right, then you've got to go do it more because it's exciting and fun.”
The debut of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams was called an “opening of note” on the front page of The Dispatch Food section for Nov. 27, 2002.
Not a whole lot of note, though, mind you. The Jeni's opening in North Market five days earlier was the fifth of six items in Food Editor Robin Davis' weekly column, after tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving, wine suggestions to pair with leftovers, a temporary German-themed holiday market at Easton Town Center and a new Williams-Sonoma at Polaris.
Twenty-five flavors were on the menu, including white chocolate-peppermint, cranberry and black walnut.
“I first tried Jeni's at a lunch meeting with Dave Wible, then executive director at the North Market,” says Davis, who's now the spokeswoman for Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther. “The first flavor I tried was Mango Lassi. I loved her creativity with flavors, and of course, the local connection.”
“Jeni's has smartly evolved over the years,” Davis says. “She grew the business first as local, then ultra-premium, expanding it nationwide. She was on the forefront of the $10-plus-a-pint ice cream trend—even when the economy was in the tank. But it was an affordable luxury, an indulgence people could justify when maybe they were otherwise worried about finances.”
For Britton Bauer, it was the second stab at making a go of her idea for a whole-ingredient ice cream that explored new territory in flavors and didn't rely on industry crutches like synthetic flavoring and commercial mixes. The failure of attempt No. 1 was no deterrence.
“Not knowing where your future is going to be is part of that journey, and it's really fun,” she says. “When you look at entrepreneurs, most people are like me. They get in there and work really hard every single day.”
Fifteen years, 200 to 300 flavors and 27 scoop shops later, the e-mail box fills with requests for new locations. Those with the best chance of landing a Jeni's are neighborhoods most like the home of its second standalone shop—the one considered the Jeni's flagship—in Columbus' Short North. The area Lowe considers “the best strip of retail in a five-state radius” is high-earning ($61,000 median household income, according to Community Research Partners), well-educated (71 percent have at least a bachelor's degree) and young (55 percent are between 18 and 34).
Tom Bauer, who's a partner in the company and Britton Bauer's brother-in-law, suggested the first location for expansion outside Ohio. In 2011, East Nashville was emerging as a sketchy-turned-trendy neighborhood of coffee shops, locally sourced restaurants and young creatives.
Lowe recalls: “It wasn't until I flew there and walked into the coffee shop next to where we were thinking about putting a store and I saw all of these people with their Mac books up, working in the music industry, that I realized these are our people. These are the creatives who get Jeni's. Just like the designers at L Brands and others, they get what we're trying to do, what we stand for as a company.”
Columbus' Easton Town Center and Atlanta's Avalon, where the latest scoop shop opened in April, are as close to a shopping mall as you're likely to see a Jeni's. More likely, according to Lowe, are neighborhoods such as Wicker Park in Chicago, the Central West End in St. Louis or Los Feliz in Los Angeles, all of which have added shops in the past two years. Lowe says Jeni's now will aim to open six to 10 new scoop shops annually.
“We want to get as close to the Short North as we can. … The combination of great food, great clothing stores, art, we love that,” Lowe says. “We're often standing on street corners trying to compare (a potential new location) to what we know is our ideal.”
Lowe says he jokes with Charly Bauer, Britton Bauer's husband and another Jeni's partner, about a “proprietary method” they've developed for selecting new neighborhoods for Jeni's scoop shops. It involves “counting hipsters and high-end strollers.”
Whatever the method, it's working. Opening-night waits are measured in hours. Jeni's ice cream gets descriptions that range from “mind-bogglingly delicious” (Chicago Tribune) to “fantastically top-notch” (LAist). Jeni's has been named the nation's best ice cream by U.S. News & World Report and as one of the best in the world by World Travel Guide (No. 3), BuzzFeed (No. 5) and The Daily Meal (No. 12).
Scoop shops are the background of paparazzi shots in LA because of visits from celebs such as actor Bradley Cooper, and Jeni's was the focus of a short shtick from comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Kristen Wiig during a January episode of Seinfeld's web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In the show, Wiig stopped traffic to run across the street into a Jeni's in Los Angeles.
“I want Jeni's to be seen as the world's greatest ice cream,” Lowe says. “That is genuinely the goal. I want us to have the success that is due her and this team. I don't know how many scoop shops that is, but … it's a testament to the experience people have when they go in a scoop shop that they then say, ‘Bring one closer to me.'”
The “experience” is as much a part of the company's vision as its flavors, partnerships with suppliers and commitment to social justice. Britton Bauer says she's guided by lessons learned while doing the scooping herself.
When the Short North shop reopens in May after a four-week remodel, customers will have a different experience as they sample ice cream, place their orders and pay. The scenes that the new design will change are familiar to anyone who has stood in line for a scoop of Salty Caramel.
First of all, and this comes from the very top of the Jeni's hierarchy: Sample away. “We never want to speed anyone up or rush anyone,” Britton Bauer says. Says Lowe: “A third of our customers want to sample to their heart's content, and we want them to. It's part of the Jeni's experience.”
But, according to Lowe, another third of Jeni's customers is made up of people who know exactly what they want and walk into scoop shops ready to place their order.
“Forever, we've tried to sample and serve and accept payments in a 3-foot space,” Lowe says. In the redesigned space, “We're trying to disconnect the sampling from the service, which we think will make everyone enjoy that experience more.”
It's another little detail, but it's one Lowe calls “transformational.” “If we get it right,” he says, “then we'll see about where else to take it.”
The founder and the CEO of Jeni's both pride themselves on getting it right. Two years ago, when listeria was discovered in a pint of Dark Chocolate bought in Nebraska, they had no other option.
Jeni's shut down production at its plant on Michigan Avenue in Columbus for three weeks. The company recalled all of its products, closed its scoop shops for a month and destroyed more than 265 tons of ice cream.
Part-time employees were paid 25 percent of their wages during the shutdown, and full-time production workers were paid half their normal income. The company spent $200,000 on physical changes at its plant and revamped processes to enhance food safety.
“We will spend whatever it takes,” Lowe said in a public statement released on May 6, 2015. As the losses mounted to $2.7 million, though, he privately worried. “A number of times I was staring at the ceiling, thinking, ‘I get paid to have backup plans. I'm out of backup plans. I don't know what our next play is,'” he says. “We found our way through, but boy, it was so ferociously difficult.”
Britton Bauer kept a journal during the recall and during a second shutdown weeks later when listeria was discovered again at the plant. “I feared it was over until…,” she says, pausing to think during an April phone conversation. “Not too long ago, actually.”
“If I had lost this business, it would have been like losing my life,” she says. “It is me, and I am it. It is in my DNA.”
Experts in food safety, public relations and crisis management all praised Jeni's response, although the US Food and Drug Administration was critical of conditions and standards at the plant. Customers rallied by posting notes of encouragement on the door of the Short North shop, and #Love4Jenis took off as a hashtag on social media.
“I'll tell you one thing that we had kept a secret,” Lowe says. In his Arena District office, he has just finished sharing a story about an autographed basketball on his bookshelf, about the collapsed lung he suffered three days before the start of his senior season in high school. The ball with get-well wishes reminds him “to play every day like it's your last, because you don't know when your last game's coming.”
“Two weeks before we received word about listeria, I told my assistant that I was going to take a nap. ... She said, ‘You don't take naps. This is the second day in a row you're taking a nap. What's going on?'”
Lowe went to the doctor, who feared he had lung cancer. Subsequent tests, including a CAT scan the day the recall was issued, seemed to bear that out, even though Lowe is not a smoker. He told his wife and parents. He shared the news with Britton Bauer and her husband, but he kept the news from most Jeni's employees and the public. As Jeni's was winning praise for its openness and transparency, Lowe quietly prepared to hand over his duties to the company's CFO as he steeled himself for surgery and chemotherapy.
“We spent a lot of time joking about transparency and how we weren't transparent on this,” he recalls.
On May 13, 2015, Lowe entered OSU's James Cancer Hospital to have lymph nodes removed from his chest cavity. One and a half hours later, the surgeon rushed out tell his wife the good news: What doctors thought was cancer was actually a lung infection called histoplasmosis, which sometimes mimics cancer in X-rays but is easily treatable with medication.
Lowe woke up to two happy developments. Jeni's also had resumed production that day.
“I look back on that now, two years later, and I don't know how… much time that took off my life,” Lowe says. “But it was a whole bunch.”
Britton Bauer looks back at the recall and is convinced it made Jeni's a better company. “You don't wish it on your worst enemy, but crisis is not tragedy,” she says. “You get to rebuild, in a way.”
About two miles up the road from the Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury, Vt., Pete's Greens sells organic produce, Vermont cheeses and pints of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. Since upscale New York grocer Dean & DeLuca began stocking Jeni's in 2006, it has become a staple at Whole Foods stores around the country, as well as in Kroger and Meijer stores in Ohio and Michigan. In every state except Alaska and North Dakota, at least one shop stocks Jeni's; mail order takes it to all 50.
“We could have sold the rights to Dubai or England or Tokyo,” Lowe says. “We haven't done that. I want to sell a lot of ice cream in Des Moines, Iowa, before we worry about what's next.”
In March 2016, Jeni's accepted an undisclosed investment from Castanea Partners, a Massachusetts privateequity firm. Castanea says, although not particularly about Jeni's, that it typically invests between $15 million and $150 million in companies.
Lowe says taking on an investor was a frightening prospect that involved three years of conversations. Britton Bauer and Charly Bauer started the business, and Tom Bauer came aboard in 2003. Lowe, a friend who had been working as general counsel for GE Aviation, became a partner when he joined Jeni's as CEO in 2009. The four walked away from an earlier potential deal, Lowe says, because they feared they were “about to get into bed with somebody that was going to screw up the culture.”
But Castanea has been everything they hoped for. Its expertise in areas such as identifying new markets and getting products to existing ones has been invaluable, Lowe says. “They get that there's magic here and we don't want to screw it up. … Literally this morning I was on the phone with them in Boston about getting some outside consultants in to have us look at the way we (supply) our scoop shops.” Jeni's ice cream bases, sauces and baked goods are produced in Columbus, and the ice cream itself is produced in Madison Wis., and the northeastern Ohio town of Orrville.
Britton Bauer, meanwhile, was named by the Aspen Institute in March as one of 21 Henry Crown Fellows for 2017. The group of business people, all 45 and younger, includes the CEO of Pampered Chef, the founder of WordPress and a former White House chief technology officer. They'll meet to explore their visions for a better society and then launch their own new ventures to carry those visions forward.
“My work will center around opportunities for our young people through alternative education, entrepreneurship—a path I know well,” she says.
Those are the type of efforts that come from growth as a company, according to Lowe.
“Whether you have a scoop shop in LA or you don't doesn't affect who you are as a company,” he says. “When we eventually put one in, pick another city, we're still going to be looking for people to work at that scoop shop that are bought in on the mission, that understand the magic that happens when you serve people the right way, when you create moments of ‘wow' and ‘happy.'”
Growth, he says, comes from attention to such details. “That's the only thing it can come from,” he says.
Bob Vitale is the associate editor.
On the Menu
What does the woman who gave the world Salty Caramel do for an encore?
Jeni Britton Bauer has quite a few plans:
A summer lineup called “We're Not From Here. You Belong Here” includes five ice creams that sound exotic but taste familiar. Super Moon, for instance, includes blue violet but tastes like Lucky Charms cereal milk. Genmaicha & Marshmallows is infused with a Japanese green tea that's roasted with brown rice; it tastes like Rice Krispies treats. Other flavors are: Cocoa Curry Coco, a combination of milk chocolate, turmeric, coriander, cardamom, fenugreek and coconut; Osmanthus & Blackberry Crackle, using peach-tasting osmanthus flowers; and Orange Blossom Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt, which is likened to the flavor of an orange push-pop.
Jeni's will expand to Washington, D.C., in August with a scoop shop near the city's popular U Street corridor. The two-level shop will go in a new apartment building where Washingtonian magazine says 470-square-foot studio units will go for $2,300 a month. A gym that will occupy more retail space in the building will go underground. Another Chicago scoop shop, in the city's up-and-coming West Loop neighborhood, will open in 2018. The West Loop, a formerly industrial area west of the Chicago River and downtown, centers around Halstead, Madison and Randolph streets. It is booming with new residential development and trendy restaurants and shops.
Britton Bauer affectionately calls them “tour guides.” They're the folks who bring first-time customers into a scoop shop, place an order while their friends are sampling and are on their last licks by the time everyone else is served. The new design of the Short North shop will keep samplers separated from more decisive customers, but in all scoop shops Jeni's employees will endeavor to serve everyone in a group at once so no one is left holding an empty cup.
“I might write a short one about my life only because the story is so flippin' unlikely and I want to encourage other young people to jump in, stand up and own it,” Britton Bauer says. “This is America. You can go your own way, beat your own path—even if your only resources are your brain, brawn and friends.”
A whole new ice cream?
Have hope, vegans. Jeni is working on it. Non-dairy ice creams using soy milk and other plant-based ingredients get the job done if you're trying to find an ice cream substitute, Britton Bauer says. But the self-described “dairy person” is still on a quest to create a vegan ice cream that lives up to her own high standards for taste and quality of ingredients. She calls it her “moonshot.”
Jeni's scoops up exec talent
There must be a million cool things about running an ice cream company. Hiring people to help operate Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams ranks high on John Lowe's list. As Jeni's expands—from 250 employees in 2011 to 750 today—the company has added to its leadership ranks as well:
Poe Timmons Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer
Timmons held the same position for The Dispatch Printing Co., from 2007 to 2016. She previously held senior roles at Tween Brands, Safelite AutoGlass and Deloitte. She joined Jeni's in April. “I've known Poe since 2013 and have been trying to talk her into being our CFO nearly every day since,” Lowe says.
Dan Sierzputowski, Senior Vice President for Retail
Most recently head of stores for The Limited, Sierzputowski also worked for 11 years at Victoria's Secret and was the company's vice president of space optimization. He was hired by Jeni's in February. Lowe says he brings years of store operations experience to Jeni's, which plans to step up its addition of new scoop shops.
Wade Waldon, Vice President of Supply Chain
He has held positions in the food industry in which he drove manufacturing, supply chain and operational efficiencies. Waldon has worked in the Cincinnati area at Garretson Resolution Group, Givaudan Flavors, Wornick Foods, 3M and Corning. He came to Jeni's in November.
Dan Basto, Vice President for Construction
The former project manager for L Brands and Abercrombie & Fitch headed both brands' flagship projects. He joined Jeni's in October.
GerryRodriguez, Leadership Team Project Manager
Most recently head of external affairs and partnerships for Out Leadership, a global LGBT business organization in New York; he also was a consultant at High Lantern Group who worked with Fortune 500 companies on public affairs and social impact campaigns. Rodriguez was hired by Jeni's in October.
Zoe Switzer, Human Resources Leader
The former organization development director at Tween Brands, she also founded her own organization development consultancy serving clients including L Brands and Goodwill Columbus She was hired in January 2016.
Rachelle Lynch, Chief Sales Officer
Lynch, who joined Jeni's in June 2015, is a former West Coast sales director for natural skin care products maker Burt's Bees. She works out of Scottsdale, Ariz.
“I've always viewed one of my most important jobs as having the right brains around who can act on (Jeni Britton Bauer's) creativity,” Lowe says. “You know, we've been fortunate. There is such tremendous retail talent in Columbus. ... If we were in Austin, Texas, we wouldn't have access to all those brains. We've benefited from it.”
Shipping Jeni's on the Road, From Farm to Freezer
“I wish Jeni had become the Jeni's of shelf-stable salsa because my life would be so much easier,” Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams CEO John Lowe jokes.
All customers have to do is get a pint home quick enough to put it in the freezer.
Imagine the logistics of getting 2.6 million pints and enough ice cream for 5.5 million scoops to scoop shops, wholesale vendors and mail-order customers from coast to coast.
Since September 2015, in the wake of the company'schallenges over the discovery of listeria in its plant, Jeni's Columbus kitchen on Michigan Avenue in Harrison West has produced only ice cream bases, sauces and the baked goods that go into Jeni's ice creams.
Those products are shipped to Smith's Dairy in Orrville, and to the Chocolate Shoppe in Madison, Wis., where Smith's grass-grazed milk and cream are mixed in and Jeni's ice cream is frozen.
From Orrville and Madison, Jeni's products are trucked to the company's distribution facilities in Los Angeles, Reno, Chicago, Atlanta and Nashville. And from those places, it's trucked to Jeni's shops, shipped in returnable Styrofoam containers to homes and sent to wholesale vendors such as grocery stores.
It's part of the reason Jeni's costs $12 a pint.
“We need a deeper freeze than most ice creams because we don't use stabilizers,” Lowe says. “And then moving from truck to truck to warehouse to warehouse and into our scoop shops is expensive and logistically challenging.”