Jeni Britton Bauer: The Queen of Modern Ice Cream
By Lauren Goldstein
When I lived in Chicago, I was walking in Wrigleyville one evening when I noticed a long line wrapped around a street corner on the neighborhood's main drag. Curious, I approached the storefront and realized that the line––the kind you’d expect to see for a Supreme drop or free Hamilton tickets––was simply a gathering of dairy lovers waiting to order ice cream at the newest Jeni’s location on an 80-degree spring day.
Jeni has become the Madonna of the ice cream world. She’s known by her first name alone and can draw hundreds to a scoop shop with the promise of a meet-and-greet. You might not recognize Ben or Jerry if they walked past you, but you’d be hard pressed to miss Jeni with her pink hair and superstar smile.
For Cherry Bombe’s #CBscoop issue, we queried more than a dozen women on the craft ice cream scene and almost all cited Jeni Britton Bauer as a source of inspiration. Women across the industry and beyond admire Jeni’s artistry, passion, and ability to handle adversity with grace. Her two cookbooks, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts are frequently cited as the source of the Bombesquad’s ice cream-making obsession. And the brand loyalty she’s achieved? It’s the stuff business owners dream about.
I had the chance to chat with Jeni about why she got into the ice cream business, how she bounced back from crisis, the virtue of an ice cream date, and her love for Joe Biden.
Why did you get into the ice cream business?
Nobody’s ever framed it to me that way before—why I got into the ice cream business is a totally different question than “Why ice cream?” or “How did you get into the ice cream business?”
I’ve known that I wanted to be an ice cream maker since I was, like, 10. I always knew that I would be an entrepreneur, and I found ice cream through art, pastry, and perfume. Those things crossed over all at once when I was 20, and I really believe that if you pursue your passions, you’ll find the the place where they cross over.
Ice cream was the perfect place for me to express myself. I was a very deep introvert for most of my life and I was very quiet. Now I can stand behind the counter and talk to people, make friends, and build community—it’s a safe place for me to get to know other people.
How did Jeni's become as beloved as it is? Obviously, great ice cream is a huge part, but it seems to go deeper than that.
It’s about belonging. It’s been about belonging since I was young and starting out and searching for belonging myself, and now it’s just how we do things. It’s in how we make our ice creams, why we make our ice creams, and for whom we make our ice creams. That’s why people love our ice creams—when you walk into Jeni’s as a customer, you feel that it’s your place.
When I started out, all of the ice cream companies in America were catering to grandparents and grandchildren. There was a nostalgic theme running through all the decor and flavors, and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make ice cream for everybody else—for the people in the middle, the people who are going on dates, the people who are adventurous. For me, ice cream was about looking forward instead of looking backwards. It’s from that sense of hope that we get that sense of belonging with our community.
It’s funny that the first audience you mention is people going on dates—I’m a huge advocate of the ice cream date because I feel like ice cream shops are microcosms of the real world.
You can tell a lot about people in what they order—and it’s not as easy as saying that if they order vanilla then they’re a boring person. It’s how they interact with the pleasure of a beautiful vanilla, because ice cream is a beautiful moment, and how much they’re willing to taste and push themselves. It’s also how they interact with people—how they treat the person behind the counter, how they treat the other people in line. There’s a lot you can tell about a human being in an ice cream shop on an ice cream date, which is really one of the reasons that ice cream works so well to bring people together. You can learn everything you need to know about someone in half an hour.
What were the early days of Jeni’s like?
When I started Jeni’s, I had already known failure. That’s something that everyone should experience, because failure helps clarify what matters to you and forces you to consider who you’re going to be. I knew I didn’t want to fail again, so I made a hypothesis about what I thought would work. At Scream [my first ice cream business], I made the flavors that I wanted to make and I didn’t really care what anyone wanted—I was still thinking like an artist. When I started Jeni’s, I realized that I needed to put more emphasis on what customers want, but also keep my spark alive with what I wanted to be pushing because I knew that not everybody knows what they want. That’s why at Jeni’s, we have signature flavors that never run out—and that works.
When we opened Jeni’s and were immediately busy, I did not take that for granted after the experience I had with Scream. At Scream, I made $638 a month and I think I worked 80 hours a week. When we started Jeni’s, I made minimum wage and we didn’t have health insurance for a long time—ice cream is a hustle and it’s hard.
Plus, ice cream is different than so many other products—if you think about another product like beer, you can have so many breweries in each city because people will drink 10 beers a week. But most people have one ice cream cone every month and a half— really most Americans only go out to an ice cream shop a few times a year. So you have to have a lot of people to make an ice cream business work.
How did you finance things in the beginning?
I had been working on finding people to invest in the company because I knew I could make really great ice cream and I knew people wanted it—people were showing up with cash at my front door to buy the ice cream I was making out of my house. I had been working as a nanny for a family that I love, and they offered to invest the full $35,000 that I needed. But they said, “Don’t take it from us. Don’t take it from anybody. Do everything you can to get it from the bank, because if you take this money, we’re going to own so much of your company.”
I was devastated, but that’s what I did. My boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, decided that if we joined forces we could do it. We scrounged about $5,000 by asking anyone we knew who had any money at all—which wasn’t very many people, because he’s an academic and I was working at a bakery and as a nanny—and then we started going to the bank. It took about a year to get the loan, and we went to the Small Business Association—it takes a long time to do that. We had to go back several times—we started going in November 2001 and we ended up opening in November 2002. Then we realized that getting the money was the easy part. Once we had the money, we had to pay it back and we had to run the business— then there was no excuse not to succeed.
Jeni’s is no stranger to crisis. How were you able to handle the 2015 listeria situation with such candor and transparency? Was there someone or something that you looked to for guidance?
I can honestly say that we handled it differently than anyone I’d ever seen. We just did what we thought was right, we followed our hearts as a team, and we knew that it was very possibly the end of our company. We closed out all outside communication and put ourselves in a room where we decided who we would become based on what we believed was right.
Now, we all think that we came out better and stronger than we ever thought possible. We also now represent a new standard of food safety—acting in a way that puts customers first, and we’re all really proud of that. Food, especially ice cream, is a very difficult thing to make, especially when you’re bringing in fresh produce.
After we went through that, we realized what we were capable of. It’s easy to think you’re pretty awesome, but when you have a serious crisis and prove yourself, it really feels great.
So many of the women who we interviewed for #CBscoop cited you as their role model or source of inspiration. What advice do you have for women in the industry who look up to you?
It’s amazing that more women are getting into ice cream because almost all sales in ice cream are driven by women, whether that’s in a shop or grocery—but almost all of the big companies are founded and run by men. So it’s very cool to see women rise up in this space, but it’s also a very complicated business to be in and it’s one that looks a lot easier than it is—and every woman who’s in it knows that.
I think my biggest advice is to build community. Ice cream is about community and it’s about how people feel when they’re in your space, and you need a lot of people on your side to make it work.
Who do you go to for advice and inspiration?
Right now, as a company, we have an incredible team, so I go to our leadership team when I have questions. We’re at the point where we’re asking questions that only we can answer—which is a really cool place to be.
For entrepreneurial inspiration, one of my favorite people is Bobbi Brown. I also love what Emily Weiss is doing at Glossier. I often look to people outside of ice cream for inspiration, because I feel like ice cream doesn’t just exist in the culinary world.
I also have pictures of Joe Biden and Lebron James on my wall—those are my two American icons. Joe is in love with our ice cream—he was in our store just the other day. I told him that I would take a year off to campaign for him, which is insane. My dog is named Joe Biden.
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