Jeni Britton Bauer on the business of creativity: 'I didn't identify a trend, I created a trend'

Chloe Teasley
CCAD President Melanie Corn, left, and Jeni Britton Bauer on stage at CCAD the evening of April 11.

What is so special about your new book?

The new book is both of my earlier books in a smaller format. … It’s everything you need to know about ice cream—literally everything you need to know—but it’s in a small book. You can make all these wonderful ice creams. You can customize your ice cream, so I’m excited to get this in the hands of kids. I think it’s a really fun way to teach entrepreneurship. That lens of entrepreneurship which is, “I can put my stamp on what this ice cream is and put my name on it, and I can tell the stories of my neighborhood or my city or whatever,” and then sell that. Like the idea of an ice cream stand, which a lot of kids are doing. There’s all these other things I feel like we can do with this book that we hadn’t done entirely with the first one or the second one. My goal is that everybody sees ice cream-making as a fun project to do and we can get as many people making ice cream across the country. … The recipe is very different from other ice cream books. It has this long life—it’s not the standard old recipe that a lot of other books have, which is that crème anglaise recipe. It’s won state fairs, blue ribbons.

What did you work on in the winter? What are your plans for summer?

It’s thinking, but it’s a lot of doing actually [in the winter]. We start with thinking, “What went wrong, what went right, how do we want to change?” Every corner of the company is impacted by this. We spent a month thinking about it and then we spent four or five months drilling and doing it, finding the budget for it, assigning everybody jobs, checking in on those and getting it done. Everything from what we’re selling in our shops—we wanted to have more of a robust merchandise system in our stores and we were never able to totally tackle that, so we have some really fun stuff coming out. I designed a ‘flight’ bag that’s really cute—it looks exactly like a Pan Am [styled] bag but it hold pints of ice cream and dry ice. It’s gorgeous and adorable and I carry it everywhere as a purse. It takes a lot of people to organize these things [but] we just kind of do it ourselves.

For flavors, our flavors this year are really cool. It’s a lot of listening to customers, adding our own spin, and then the non-dairy stuff, which is absolutely game-changing—it’s not game-changing because we have discovered how to mimic milk in the vegetable world. I will argue to my death that that’s not possible and it’s proven in a way because everyone who makes that claim, you don’t get dairy eaters eating non-dairy ice cream that claims to be like dairy. You just don’t. But in ours, with the coconut cream … we have a lot of our dairy eaters—including myself, which is really crazy—actually ordering those before the dairy ice creams. To me, that is game-changing in the business.

We’re going to be all over America this summer. … Tons of stuff going on. We’ll see where we’re at in September. It’s going to be a great year. We opened two [stores] last year and this year we’ll open a few more. We’re opening West Loop in Chicago—that’s the one coming up we’re really, really excited about. There are other ones that are deck. The West Loop one is really cool because it’s two floors. … It’s cute.

How did you identify the artisan ice cream trend so early on?

I didn’t identify a trend, I created a trend. There wasn’t a trend. I studied art, I was very into scent and pastry too, and I just started making ice cream. I will say that because I had worked at an ice cream shop I knew how people used ice cream and I worked at a very conservative ice cream shop—or more conservative than I was, and I’m the least conservative person. I knew that grandparents and grandchildren really loved to get to know each other over ice cream. … I thought, my friends want to get to know each other over ice cream too, but we’re not interested in cookies ‘n’ cream. What I was really doing was making ice cream for everybody else. I felt very strongly that if I could create a place that felt more new, more modern, more of our generation; better lighting, where you’d actually go on a date. And where you can give people ice cream they will actually talk about. … We’re still the only one who does it the way we do. We’re working with grass-pastured milk, we’re working very closely with almost everyone who grows, makes or produces something for us. If you actually want to learn how to make ice cream then it’s very complex. There’s not very many people who really know how to do that in America. It’s a lot of business people who buy a mix and flavor it and put a name on it and call it artisan, instead of really, truly making ice cream as a community. We don’t use stabilizers. We make it from the ground up—we take milk apart and put it back together as ice cream.

How have you seen others become inspired by the Jeni’s brand?

I know a lot of other ice cream companies internationally that we’re inspired by us. I’ve visited some of them. When my [first] book came out it inspired a lot of people all over the world. I know of ice cream shops even in Indonesia, definitely in Capetown, in Germany the book did really well. … When Ben & Jerry’s became a trend [in the early ‘90s], mom-and-pop ice cream shops began to open up all over the world. You could see that they were directly from the Ben & Jerry’s family tree. Even though they felt that they were very creative and they were putting their own spin on everything and they looked really different, when you put them together they still had clouds, and they had cows and they had like those bubble letters, and the flavors that were all about chunks. Even though they were putting their own names on them or they were doing it their own way. Now what you see is people on this Jeni’s tree. There are many, many ways to decorate a shop. There are many kinds of ice creams to make, but there are people who are specifically using the kinds of tile we use, they’re describing flavors the way we describe flavors, they are making flavors the way we are making flavors.

On the dangers of making (real) caramel:

In our kitchen we caramelize sugar, which is slightly burning it—over fire. The only way to do it is like that. For whatever reason, it’s OK for people to put a flavoring in ice cream and call it caramel. That doesn’t fly by us, but anyway, most ice cream companies don’t do that because it’s too hard to get it right. There’s only a small window when the caramel is the perfect flavor. When you get it right, it doesn’t just taste good, it feels good. There’s something about caramel more than anything else—someone ought to study this—that is like, cozy. … It burns at almost 400 degrees Fahrenheit and sugar sticks to you. If you get it on your skin, which I have enough to learn to not to do that, you can’t just get it off. It solidifies on your skin and it’s hard and it sticks to you and it burns straight through your skin. A caramel burn, you get like a pinpoint of sugar on you and it’ll turn into a nickel. So we are suited-up and very safe in our kitchen, but when we think about the things that we do well from a business and production—from that perspective—it’s stuff like this.

On making mistakes:    

I’m the kind of person—I think all people who are entrepreneurs are like this—I have to make discoveries by myself. If you tell me it won’t work or that you already know how to do it so I should follow your way, it’s like a compulsion that I have to figure it out myself, which means most of the time it doesn’t work. But that’s when you learn the nuances of why it doesn’t work and you can make an assessment for what next. It’s the annoying part of my personality, but the breakthroughs are worth it.