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How the Founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Plans to Make 2017 the Best Year Yet for Her Growing Business

What's fueling Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream's growth this year? Daring to think inside the box.

For more than 20 years, Jeni Britton Bauer has immersed herself in all things ice cream, weaving her love of decadent scents and passion for unique flavors into delicious, one-of-a-kind emulsions.

Today, as the owner of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, many would argue that Bauer has paved the way for today’s artisan ice cream scene, and her creative vision has served as the blueprint for many newcomers on the block that have followed in her footsteps (with flavors like juniper and lemon curd, Thai curry pumpkin and wildberry lavender, it’s easy to see why). As a New York Times best-selling and James Beard Award-winning author, Bauer is not only an emerging authority on homemade ice cream, but an inspiring force to be reckoned with, too. And, with more than 20 Jeni’s locations in the U.S. and counting, one thing is clear—Bauer’s business prowess and knack for flavor runs much deeper than just a perfectly packaged pint.

That’s because the 43-year-old entrepreneur has devoted nearly half her life to the art of ice cream. At the age of 21, Bauer was studying art history and fine arts at Ohio State University. But where she found her true passion was in natural perfuming, and she often spent her free time blending expensive and inexpensive oils into new and exciting scents. Then, one day, she decided to mash cayenne essential oil into chocolate ice cream. The first bite was cold, sweet and decadent, tasting like rich chocolate. Then, the flavor seemingly burst in flames, filling her mouth with a contrasting warmness. It was the best thing she had ever tasted.

“I quit art school almost immediately after that experience. All I could think about was ice cream. I left all of my art materials in a figure drawing class. I opened my first business six months later,” Bauer told 1851 Magazine.

That was in 1996, and it was called Scream Ice Cream—a little shop in Columbus, Ohio’s public market. The business venture was a failure—except for the ice cream. Bauer decided to go back to the drawing board and start again. Jeni’s Ice Cream was later born in 2002. Today, she boasts shops in eight cities—all of which serve as many as 30 unique flavors on any given day.

Fueling her business is a fairly simple belief—Bauer is committed to making better ice cream and bringing people together. She’s tackled this head-on by using super-fresh dairy from grass-pastured, Ohio cows—sourced by Smith’s, a 110-year-old dairy in Orrville—and by sourcing whole ingredients that are often grown specifically for Jeni’s. Being better in every way also meant that Bauer practiced responsible sourcing and worked with small local farms; she wanted a premium product that didn’t rely on emulsifiers and stabilizers like other ice creams on the market. The company was also structured so that it could secure certified B Corporation status, meaning it meets certain social, employment, and environmental standards.

“We want to get a little bit better every single day, because we think it’s fun. And when we make great ice cream, we bring growers together with ice cream makers, grandparents together with grandchildren, and we help create lasting, loving relationships over ice cream cones,” Bauer added.

But Bauer admits that building a superior ice cream product is no easy feat. In the beginning, when such unique flavor profiles were nearly unheard of, people would scoff at her ideas and recipes. Those nay-sayers have taught Bauer a lesson that she still applies to her business every single day.

“As an entrepreneur, you’ll be the only one who ‘gets’ your idea. You’re always going to convince others of your vision—nobody will get it as deeply as you do and very few will think you’re on to something in the beginning. The first thing they’ll do is tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Bauer said. “But here’s the thing—once you have that vision, you will dream about it every single night. It will not let you go. It’s already written in the stars that you’re doing it. What helped me turn that dream into a business is the idea of thinking inside the box. Get to know every boundary, every corner of your idea. A creative entrepreneur sees opportunity using the same set of resources and demands as everyone else. So work your ass off to make it happen.”

Today, Bauer’s ongoing pursuit to create the world’s greatest ice cream has also presented a new set of challenges. Her goal isn’t to be better than the next best brand, but to be better than her own best.  Over the years, this has meant working with six different dairy companies, eight chocolate makers and using vanilla beans from five countries; she’s used white sugar, dark brown sugar, light brown sugar and beet and cane sugars to make Jeni’s infamous Salty Caramel ice cream; she’s used seven varieties of pumpkins, five brands of yogurts, six varieties of fresh mint and four varieties of cinnamon; and her base recipe has been reworked and recalibrated at least 20 times. Put simply, the search to be better isn’t always easy—in fact, it’s a never-ending work in progress. And Bauer wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The challenge now is that our pursuit to be the best is an extraordinarily elusive target. The only way we will ever get there is by tweaking our ice creams constantly,” Bauer said. “It can be really hard some times. But it’s so important to always be open to what’s possible—to identify the opportunities that are in front of you and to not be afraid to go after them, even if it means taking a risk or making a change.”

Bauer faced those risks head on in late 2015, when she had to completely halt her company’s ice cream production due to claims of a Listeria contamination. Nearly six months of ice cream was voluntarily recalled, and in that moment, Jeni’s Ice Cream was suddenly left in ashes. What they later found was that no outbreak of Listeria was ever tied to their ice cream, but the idea of waiting 72 hours for test results—and putting people at risk—was a far scarier scenario than temporarily putting her business at a standstill.

“Through that experience, we learned that we have to work together as a team. With 20 of our stores shut down, we worked around the clock for weeks on end to survive. Above all else, we had to maintain our values and our quality,” Bauer said. “It took us a long time to get back on our feet. It wasn’t easy. We rewrote every single process that we created over all of those years in less than one year. And through it all, I’m proud to say that we didn’t lay off a single person. It was a Herculean feat—and something I can look back on now as an important lesson.”  

Today, Bauer is pleased to say that 2016 was an incredible year—both personally and professionally. She’s opened new stores in new cities as far reaching as the West Coast; she received her honorary doctorate from Ohio State University; she went on a nationwide tour to promote her ice cream; Jeni’s reached an important milestone by sourcing a majority of its ingredients from Ohio agriculture; and she even spent 40 minutes chatting up Joe Biden. Now, as Bauer’s rapidly expanding business enters 2017 with even more growth, innovation and delicious flavors on the horizon, her goal is to continually inspire—and ultimately shift—the industry in a more advanced direction.

“We live in the 21st century. None of the old rules apply. We are free to break things apart and put them back together in ways that we couldn’t do before. Transportation, communication, and equipment are better now than we ever could have imagined. It is still true: nobody else can make our ice cream but us. But our company is not just one ice cream production kitchen. Our company is a growing community of people devoted to making better ice creams and bringing people together, and we are achieving that mission better today than ever,” Bauer said.