If you’ve never been to a Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams shop, I’m going to go ahead and encourage you to close your computer, hop in your car, and get yourself to one ASAP — the artisanal ice cream shops are changing the name of desserts (and snacks, and treats, and midday pick-me-ups…) forever, and Jeni Britton Bauer (the founder, CCO, and namesake) is at the helm.
With equal passion for ice cream and amazing service, it should come as no surprise that Jeni has become such a success — she combines her impeccable nose for scents (literally), her strong values, and her love for people into one amazing entrepreneurial journey. If you’re in need of some career motivation, read on. If you’re in need of an inspiring story about hard work, read on. If you just like ice cream and want to know which of Jeni’s flavors is her favorite, read on (So basically, everyone should read on.).
What was your first job, and how did you land it?
It must have been written in the stars, because when I was a kid, my first job was actually at a small, local ice cream shop in Upper Arlington, Ohio. For some reason, I always knew that my first real job would be at an ice cream shop, so when this scoop shop opened up in my neighborhood, naturally, I was pounding at the door before they even opened asking for what turned out to be my first part-time gig as a scooper.
You haven’t always been in the ice cream game — tell us about your early work experiences (and how they led you to where you are now!).
In some ways, I actually always have been in the ice cream game. I’ve been making ice cream for more than half my life. Unlike many other entrepreneurs, I really haven’t worked for anyone else professionally. I quit art school to go make ice cream!
Right across the street from that same ice cream shop was a French bakery where I ended up working through high school and college. And while I was attending Ohio State University studying fine arts and art history, I began experimenting with scent. I was so sure I was going to become a perfumer. All my spare time was spent playing around with pure essential oils.
Artisanal ice cream is a HUGE thing now — and you basically pioneered it. How did you discover this passion?
It started with scent. During that time I had hundreds of scents in my drawer. I couldn’t get enough. I was studying art, and also pastry, and trying to incorporate scent into both. One day, just by chance, I thought to blend the essences of plants into ice cream. It was that aha moment for me. That lightly scented ice cream changed everything for me. That’s when I realized ice cream is the perfect vehicle to carry the magical relationship between scent and taste.
Upon discovering your passion, how did you go about making a career out of it?
I put in the hard work, the long hours, and listened. I listened to my heart and gut, believing in my big vision and burning passion, but I also listened to the people I was serving every day. I was making and serving ice creams in a small two-gallon batch freezer in a tiny space I rented in Columbus’s North Market. The knowledge I gained working in the shop for eight years informs everything I do today. I learned how to connect with people, which is the most important thing. I got immediate and indispensable feedback from people at my counter all day long. That gave me an understanding of the kinds of flavors that work. And informed every bit of my quality standards that I abide by to this day. I use all of that knowledge every single day.
I think people often want to skip that part of building a business, but nothing can give you the tools you need better than on-the-ground experience. My idea isn’t a PowerPoint business plan used to convince people to invest in an idea. It was forged and honed by brain and brawn and friends over years. It’s proven.
My idea isn’t a PowerPoint business plan used to convince people to invest in an idea. It was forged and honed by brain and brawn and friends over years. It’s proven.
Tell us about the process of expanding your business into what it is today.
You have to start by building a unified community of people in it for the right reason. It’s the mission-driven people with heart and a sense of urgency who bring the most to the table, helping us push forward our beautiful vision of the future. But it’s not easy.
It was, of course, easier when it was just me. It gets harder when I’m not everywhere every day. But at the same time, if it wasn’t for these people and this team I’d still be in the kitchen changing every recipe every time I made ice creamv— I’m too curious. My team has helped me create patterns and consistency for our company. Every person is here because they bring something amazing and necessary to the community. And we are stronger and better together, there is no doubt.
What sets your company and its product apart (aside from being SO delicious!)?
There is nothing cookie cutter in what we do, and it starts with the ice creams we build from the ground up, literally, with grass-grazed dairy — never a generic, commodity ice cream mix. No one else does it this way.
That also applies to our scoop shops. Each time we open a store, it is a new design. We spend time in the neighborhoods; we want residents and visitors to be our partners. We think of our company as a community. Every pint of ice cream represents the work of hundreds of people in our network. That’s why we say flavor is everything. It’s about how it tastes, and who made it, why we made it, and how.
And, of course, service. I can not think of a more important way to start your life than to work in our shop. We care so much about people, and see service as part of our product. Also, it is one of the fastest ways to change a community. Kindness is powerful.
Every pint of ice cream represents the work of hundreds of people in our network. That’s why we say flavor is everything. It’s about how it tastes, and who made it, why we made it, and how.
What do you look for in your team members? What was it like hiring your first employees?
I’m always looking for talent, hustle, and guts. People who are curious and engaged. And own whatever they are doing.
Charly, my now husband, would come by to help close up shop after he got off work at his other job. But I pretty quickly realized I needed more hands throughout the day. I ended up bringing on three people — all high school students, and mind-blowingly awesome. As good as any grownup I’ve ever worked with in my life. I was so lucky to have them. I still know them all. Still rock stars.
You take a very hands-on approach to leadership — you’ve been known to conduct demonstrations, shop openings, and book tour stops. Why is it important to you to be so visible for your customers and fans?
It goes back to when I was working the counter at that first stall in the North Market. You get that on-the-ground info you won’t otherwise hear if you’re cooped up in an office. And, especially with new shop openings, it’s a moment to pause and celebrate the hard work — even though our openings tend to be pretty wild. The last time we did it in D.C., more than 2,000 people came! I love those nights and try to absorb every single moment. I am just as proud now as I was at my first store. And so happy to be sharing this incredible ice cream, made as a community, with the team.
Also, it’s one thing to say it, but I have been there at every level of this company and in every job. I am not a leader who stands up and tells, I am one who gets all the way in it and shows.
We LOVE your cookbooks — why did you choose to expand into the cookbook business? Real talk: will you be writing another?
At the time we had fewer locations and more people asking how they could get their hands on our ice cream. And I love a challenge. Writing the first cookbook, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, I came clean about hating homemade ice cream. The texture was always way off, so I set out to create a better recipe for home ice cream machines. No plans as of yet for more, though.
I have been there at every level of this company and in every job. I am not a leader who stands up and tells, I am one who gets all the way in it and shows.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams has been known to be philanthropic — why is this important to you? Tell us about the philanthropic efforts you’re most proud of.
As ice cream makers, we really love people and believe we can be a force for good. Ultimately, though, we are simply building the company we want to work for. And it’s that simple.
We’re in the middle of a giving campaign now actually, with She Should Run, a nonprofit on a mission to get 250,000 women to run for elected office by 2030.
In February, all Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams scoop shops opened their doors three hours early for our annual Ice Cream for Breakfast Day fundraiser. We donated 50% of all sales made from the hours of 9 am to noon to She Should Run.
Super hard and SUPER important question: Which of your flavors is your favorite?
As you would probably guess, this tends to change often. Today I’ll say our Darkest Chocolate. Making real chocolate ice cream — overflowing with rich, bittersweet chocolate flavor that is dense but still creamy — ain’t easy. It took me five years to perfect this flavor.
What’s next for you, your business, and your career?
More of what I’m good at: hustling, staying laser-focused on making better ice creams that help spark conversations. Right now, specifically, I am learning a lot about the uber-complex land of having our pints in grocery stores. Which is challenging and awesome!
I would not give my younger self any advice. I needed to be scared and take nothing for granted or I would not have made it.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
I’m not one for self-help books, but once someone I worked with at the bakery turned me onto one and one thing actually resonated. The gist was: you never say, “Why me?” Always identify the problem, accept it, make a plan quickly, and take a step forward. I haven’t read one since then, but the idea of recalibrating your compass to go forward, to just look unemotionally and see and go to the next step really stuck with me. Another favorite: those aren’t the bumps in the road, they are the road.
Additionally, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Honestly, the real answer is that I would not give my younger self any advice. I needed to be scared and take nothing for granted or I would not have made it.
Jeni Britton Bauer is The Everygirl…
Best time of day to eat ice cream?
3 pm — I always think you need a little lift by then. I call it spark hour.
Last movie you saw in theaters?
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Ideal weekend activity?
Trip to the library or a museum.
Next vacation you’re planning?
Probably Chile which is part vacation, part Henry Crown Fellowship retreat
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
The Egyptian philosopher, Hypatia. She was a mathematician super genius during the golden age in Egypt — and one example of a woman able to breakthrough throughout history, in particular, ancient history!