Local Lady Gets the Scoop on Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
For over 20 years, Jeni Britton Bauer has crafted frozen desserts from grass-grazed dairy and combined local ingredients to bring out the full flavor in every scoop. Beginning in her native state of Ohio, Bauer sold her creams at North Market. The look and taste of Brambleberry Crisp, Sweet Potato with Roasted Marshmallows & Butter Pecan Almond put store bought Neapolitan pints to shame. In October, Jeni's opened a 16th location in Atlanta's Westside Provisions, shortly after a third location in Nashville. In my Q&A with Jeni, she shares a little bit about her journey to mixing the perfect ice cream and owning a business that understands quality taste and texture.
Q: What elements (artistic, culinary, personal, etc) have inspired your marketing?
A: We are inspired by our work—making ice cream. We just tell that story. Our ice creams are inspired by art, travel, pop culture, music, people, and the growers and producers we work with.
Q: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home cookbook encourages your customers to follow special culinary techniques and explore new flavors and textures.
A: Why do you think it’s important to share those techniques and recipes with others to make in their own kitchen? Because I have never had good ice cream made in a home machine. It’s always too icy, crumbly, soupy, or greasy. I wanted to give home cooks a new recipe based on the science and techniques that we use in our kitchens everyday and that works in a home setting - without requiring a $50,000 ice cream machine or a homogenizer.
Other ice cream makers haven’t developed home recipes that work because, the truth is, most people who make ice cream use an ice cream mix—all you have to do is add a flavoring and freeze it. Almost every other ice cream cookbook has the same recipe in nearly the same proportions, an egg custard recipe that has never worked for me on home equipment. I wanted to give people a new recipe for Jeni’s Ice Creams that could be made int their home kitchens, not just recycle that same old recipe with my flavors.
It was a challenge that I was excited to take on—to give home cooks a base recipe that could be used to make any flavor that they could dream up.
"It means that everyone can have as much fun as we do at Jeni’s everyday."
I am so glad I did, the feedback from people around the world is so wonderful to receive. My home recipe is completely different from the recipes we use in the Jeni’s kitchens. It’s designed to work on home equipment, but produces the same texture and body of Jeni’s ice creams.
Q: What advice can you give small business owners in the process of molding their brand and marketing strategies?
A: You have to earn the right to have a “brand”. That takes years of boots-on-the-ground experience. Nothing can substitute for time—not a business degree, not a boatload of money, not a marketing plan. You have to have the guts to begin on a shoe string, learn about your product and your customers, build your team slowly over many years, and to not ever give up. No matter what. Even when everyone around you tells you that you’re an idiot for going your own way. Then, after many years, when you’ve built your recipes, your team, and you’ve refined your vision, you can start to understand and use words like “strategy”—which is rarely, if ever, uttered at Jeni's.
It took me eight years of making ice cream and helping customers before I understood how to make ice cream and help customers. Those thousands upon thousands of customer interactions that I had, listening directly to feedback about the flavors I was producing, was and continues to be invaluable to me. It made me into an ice cream Jedi.
One last thing, be original. Find something that no one else is doing. It’s the joie de vivre, the je ne sais quoi that you can’t copy. That comes from years of original thinking and hard work.
"You can do it. Just don’t ever cut corners. And don’t try to build a “brand”. That happens naturally with time."
Q: How have you evolved as a business owner since your days as a vendor at North Market?
A: I wake up everyday expecting to learn something new, to make better ice cream. I’ve been evolving from the very beginning. When I first began making ice cream in the North Market in 1996, I had a lot to learn. I didn’t really even know how to make ice cream, or how to pair ingredients together, or what ingredients were even available to me, let alone how to run a business. I learned very slowly there, and I continue to learn from my rockstar team here everyday. I work with about 50 people who are way smarter than me in lots of different ways and I keep my eyes and ears open.
Q: What were some (if any) of the challenges you faced when you first began Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams?
1. My shoes wouldn’t fit in the mornings, they were too swollen from the day before.
2. A freezer was always out of commission.
3. Paycheck? What paycheck?
4. Our accounting system, well, there wasn’t one. Sometimes we lost an entire days worth of cash (okay, once).
5. No insurance.
6. Couldn’t get the dairy we wanted (grass-fed)
7. 18+ hour days
8. I neglected all my friends
"But, that’s what entrepreneurship is about—challenges. It’s never-ending. As soon as you get comfortable, you’re through. Each challenge makes you better equipped for the next one."
Q: How has food photography and production shaped the way you showcase your collections?
A: We are artists. We make beautiful ice creams. We make beautiful art to compliment the ice creams. It’s not just about making another pretty photo, it’s about putting our money where our mouths are—using photography, to bring you into our kitchens and show you how we do it.
Q: What made you choose East Nashville as your first out-of-state location? How does it feel expanding your stores across the U.S.?
A: I like service. To offer up our shops where we can serve our ice cream at the peak of perfection is important to me. I also like to help design our shops, it’s all part of the fun.
East Nashville was just where we fit in best. We like to hang out there and we like the people there, so we didn’t give it another thought.
Q: Which flavor pairing are you craving right now?
A: I would like to have a hot fudge sundae with our Ndali Estate Vanilla Bean, Extra-Bitter Hot Fudge, too much whipped cream and a lot of smoked almonds. A good fall combo—actually, the more I think of it, I might get that with a scoop of our Cinderella Pumpkin, too.
Q: Reasons why farm-to-fork ingredients matter? (In light of Local Matters) Why do you think local has become popular again?
A: Because people matter, community matters. If you want to make great ice cream you need to know where your ingredients come from.
"A relationship with the person who grew, produced, roasted, or brewed your ingredients helps immeasurably."
We think of our company as a community that includes growers, producers, artists, athletes, chefs, servers, drivers, and, of course, our customers.
People don’t want “local” or “organic” or any of the branded “good things”. We want genuine, well-made, excellent food. It shouldn’t have to be branded as “good”. It should all be good. By that I mean: fairly traded, well-grown, healthful, honest, wholesome —for all involved.
Q: What do you love most about owning your own business and promoting use of local ingredients?
A: Owning a business is like living in a parallel universe. You get to follow slightly different rules, make up your own techniques and methods, and generally live outside protocol. You create your own world and live in it completely. Of course that’s awesome!
I love working with talent and I love promoting local ingredients. Just because it says “local” does not mean it’s good and visa versa. I want to work with passionate, driven people because they make and grow beautiful things and because they inspire me. So that’s what I do, whether it’s locally or internationally sourced. Many ingredients, such as strawberries, don’t travel well, so we need to get them locally. We also like to support people who share our food philosophies.
Be sure to check out the new Holiday in the Alps Collection including flavors like Pumpernickel and Cloverton+Red Currant Sauce!