Jeni Britton Bauer

[Photo: Darcy Hemley]

“I know we make the best ice creams when we work together. I know we do the right thing when we work together.”

Founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and author of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts

Why ice cream? Jeni’s path to becoming an ice cream entrepreneur began at age 21, when she was studying art and art history at Ohio State University. She developed an interest in essential oils and dreamed of moving to France to become a perfumer. One day she attempted an “edible perfume” by folding cayenne oil into store-bought chocolate ice cream. It was a revelation. Within six months she had opened her first shop, Scream Ice Cream, in Columbus’ North Market. “With so many things we end up doing in life, it’s a weird confluence of things we’re interested in, timing, luck, whatever. You just go with it at some point, and your passion continues to build.”

Untapped potential offers endless opportunity. That’s what Jeni realized when she made that very first batch back in 1995. People weren’t making spicy ice cream back then. They weren’t folding rose petals or basil into grass-grazed milk. In fact, most people didn’t even think ice cream could be a premium product. Jeni knew she could raise the bar for a food that people already knew and loved. “We have this vision, this North Star: What does it mean to us to make the best ice cream the world has ever known?”

It all comes back to people. Jeni initially set out to set a new standard for American ice cream. But very quickly, she saw there was more to it. “I realized ice cream was even more interesting than I thought. Ice cream brings people together.” The dessert, it turns out, is merely the catalyst for connection.

“Every year in entrepreneurship the rules change.” And that’s part of the fun. Each new challenge encourages Jeni’s team to take new steps and push beyond what they thought they could do. That has meant rapid growth: Jeni’s now has 31 scoop shops across the country, from Columbus to Los Angeles, and a Washington, D.C., location is set to open this year. They also sell ice cream in groceries across the country and online.

“I feel like I make a mistake every single day.” But when you’re charting a new course, that’s the only way to learn. “My role in the company has always been to make the best ice creams and learn how to make them better. And to believe in what’s possible.”

Live your values. “We built the company doing what we thought was the right way to build a company.” Jeni never would have considered buying ingredients from a big distributor when she could work directly with local farmers and producers. Instead of spending a lot of money on marketing, they hold an event where proceeds from ice cream sales go to a community organization. And it’s a “no-brainer” that Jeni’s supports women- and minority-owned businesses.

It’s good to be recognized. Jeni’s has been a certified B Corporation since 2014, a certification that recognizes the company’s commitment to social and environmental standards. Once Jeni, her husband, and business partner Charly learned what B Corps involved, they realized they were already following many of the practices, from paying a living wage to using resources in a sustainable way. For example, they started composting because it felt bad to throw out food waste. “We just live this way every single day.”

Look people in the eye. “I know we make the best ice creams when we work together. I know we do the right thing when we work together, when we’re not just up in an office making decisions.” This way Jeni also stays accountable: to her employees, her customers, and the community. “When you look people in the eye, it’s hard to not try to be a good person.”

Put your name on the sign. The first week Jeni’s was open, back in 2002, Jeni was working her way through a mound of dishes at midnight. She’d been there since 6:30 a.m., her feet were swollen, and she had another hour’s worth of dishes to go. She figured she’d leave them for the morning, but as she took her apron off to go home, she saw her name on the sign. “So I turned back around and did the rest of the dishes. And that’s exactly how this company has gone since then. It means something when you put your name on it.”