Jeni Britton Bauer is absolutely obsessive about ice cream. Any other jobs she's ever held--and at one point she worked three at once--she says, "were in service to ice cream." She is not being ironic.
Her fascination began while she was a student at Ohio State University, where she was studying art and art history and developing a serious hobby in perfumery. She started using edible essential oils in some foods, such as butter and pasta, and eventually, ice cream. "When you lick it, it melts, and the scent is released on contact with your tongue," Bauer says. That was her eureka moment. "When I first started making ice cream," she says, "I quit everything else in my life and did ice cream."
Not just any ice cream. Bauer takes great pride in the texture of her ice creams, achieved without eggs, but it's arguably the flavors that have made her reputation. Her bestseller, personal favorite, and biggest challenge is Salty Caramel, made from real caramel rather than the industry-standard artificial flavors that she says taste like "a gas station latte." Her first flavor, Queen City Cayenne, is a blast of milk chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne that was featured on the Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Cumin and Honey Butterscotch never took off. Cedarwood Vanilla was a smash hit.
Not that a dud here and there--although Bauer still says cumin, honey, and butterscotch are meant to be together--have slowed her down. From a small shop in Columbus's North Market, Bauer's ice cream empire has grown to 19 stores, more than 1,700 retail outlets, 550 employees, and about $25 million in annual sales. All this for an ice cream that runs $12 to $14 a pint. Three vending machines at the local airport also serve up the treats, and Bauer's team literally can't keep them stocked. Her first book, the James Beard Award-winning Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, was a New York Times bestseller.
"I never thought we were going to be just one little shop in the North Market," Bauer says. "I get bored too easily. This can be as big as we want it to be."
From Scream to Scale
After her ice cream epiphany, Bauer dropped out of college and, with a business partner who enabled the duo to get a small loan, opened a shop at Columbus's 150-year-old public market, the North Market, in 1996. For four years, Bauer lived on $638 a month while serving up flavors such as Wildberry Lavender and Bangkok Peanut to customers who often drove in from Kentucky and Indiana just for her ice cream.
Still, she says, that business, called Scream Ice Cream, was mostly a failure. Bauer burned out; she and her partner needed to split; and in 2000, Bauer went back to regroup, write up another business plan, and work at being a nanny, pastry chef, and library employee while trying to pay off her debt. She did all this while selling ice cream out of her house using the $1,200 machine her boyfriend--now husband--had bought her. "For me, really, [that ice cream machine] was like an engagement ring," she says. "I knew this guy was going to be around for a while."
Even with the North Market shop closed, and the remains of the business operating out of her home, people were still talking about Bauer's ice cream. "One of the chefs came out of the woodwork and started yelling at me that I hadn't called her," Bauer says. "We got on her menu really fast." It took another year, and no small amount of groveling to the directors of the North Market, to get a $35,000 SBA loan and permission to re-open her shop as Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. From the get-go, there was a line out the door.
A few years later, in 2005, the regulators arrived. They said that Bauer needed a milk-processing license, and that if she wanted to sell wholesale or ship (which she was already doing), she needed to open a separate kitchen. That would cost $250,000--a somewhat terrifying sum. There was no way her shop could support that kind of debt. Bauer rented out a second storefront. "We took out this big loan that was like putting our entire lives on the line," Bauer says. "It had to be successful." It was. The reception was similar to the re-opening of the North Market location: a line out the door and down the block, constantly. Even that didn't bring in enough money to support the kitchen.
So Bauer launched another store in the city's arts district. From there, things started to open up a bit. Her orders were big enough that Bauer could get the attention of the dairies she wanted to work with; farmers were willing to grow strawberries just for her. "That changed the game for us," she says.
While that third store opened the door for Jeni's to scale, Bauer has changed very little about the way her ice cream is actually made. She's just got 150 people doing it now, rather than one. She uses grass-pastured milk and roasts the fruit that goes into her ice creams, explaining that roasting binds the sugar to the water in the fruit, making it less likely that the water will create tiny, verboten ice particles in her concoctions. The marshmallows in one of her seasonal flavors, Sweet Potato with Torched Marshmallows, are made from scratch in her kitchens. When it's time to make another flavor, Buttercup Pumpkin with Amaretti Cookies, Bauer refuses to buy pumpkin purée in bulk, as any sane person would do. Instead, she buys an entire field of pumpkins, which then have to be cut, roasted, and puréed. Last year, the pumpkins were too big and the knives couldn't go through them. This year, she says, they did better.
Bauer would no more outsource the making of pumpkin purée than she would her company's analytics or graphic design, which she says have progressed from "pretty awful, to OK, to starting to be great" over the past 10 years. Even when the company does something badly, she says, at least they learn something from it. As Bauer says, "It's all part of making us the ice cream Jedis."