SAN FRANCISCO — Sweet Potato with Torched Marshmallows, Riesling Poached Pear Sorbet and Wildberry Lavender are among the imaginative ice cream flavors developed by Jeni Britton Bauer. She founded Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002, years before artisan ice cream became a top food trend.
But in April 2015, her Columbus, Ohio-based business hit a snag, when a discovery of Listeria monocytogenes on production equipment halted operations for a month. The recall cost the company more than $2.5 million. Following an extensive cleaning and eradication plan, including the disposal of more than 265 tons of ice cream, Jeni’s overhauled its production kitchen and implemented improved standard operating and sanitation procedures to reduce risk of future contamination.
Today, Jeni’s is back in action, with distribution in 1,800 stores and 32 scoop shops across the country.
“Soon, we’ll be expanding to include Publix and going national with Whole Foods Market, which will move the needle up on that number,” Ms. Britton Bauer said. “We are growing quickly as a company, with 43% year-over-year sales growth. In 2017, growing our scoop shop base was a big focus for us. We opened eight scoop shops across the country last year, including our first in Washington, D.C. In 2018, we’re driving to expand our wholesale presence.”
At the Winter Fancy Food Show, held Jan. 21-23 in San Francisco, Jeni's is showcasing new pint designs.
“We’re expanding our reach beyond scoop shops and into more grocery store freezers, so we realized we needed our packaging to be louder and prouder about what’s inside,” Ms. Britton Bauer told Food Business News. “Every flavor we make tells a story. Of art, pop culture, people, history. It takes hundreds of people working tirelessly to bring our ice creams to life — family-run dairies, farm partners, our R.&D., sourcing, and creative teams. Our pints should capture and celebrate these stories.”
Food Business News: How do you dream up all of these whimsical and vibrant flavors?
Ms. Britton Bauer: It’s important that I make time to be open to the world’s inspiration. Most often that happens when I’m reading history books or strolling through a museum or hanging out in a library. I look to art and history to spark an idea. I like to challenge myself with “in the box thinking,” which sounds counterintuitive, but it’s how I create flavors that resonate with people.
Can you give an example of a flavor you tried to launch that simply did not work, either never making it to market or being discontinued?
Ms. Britton Bauer: Not a specific flavor — but a whole collection! It was the year we did a “dark holiday” campaign and it was somewhat purposely (and embarrassingly) depressing. If ice creams could be deeply jarring, these were. The flavors were meant to evoke the weight of time — Cumin Honey Butterscotch, Black Forest Cake, Cedarwood and Vanilla. Really great flavors, but there was no joy in the shops. No happiness. We decorated with craft brown, black and gold paper chains. It was an absolutely epic disconnect with the season, our customers, and our communities.
What is your perspective of the competitive landscape and industry trends, and how has it all changed since you’ve been in the business?
Ms. Britton Bauer: It’s important we’re not swayed by trends. We know what we’re here to do and that’s what we focus on. We’ve seen countless competitors come and go who flare up with some hot flavor or thing, then die out forever. And, still, no one is making ice creams like we do: the hard way, literally building them from the ground up, with grass-grazed milk, farm-fresh ingredients and without stabilizers, emulsifiers or synthetic ingredients.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from the listeria incident, and what was the biggest key to your recovery?
Ms. Britton Bauer: The biggest lesson was learning we needed to be better than great at food safety. We needed to strive to be a leader in food safety.
Our biggest key to recovery was the support of our amazing community. They appreciated our transparency and honesty. They were right there with us through all of it. There was a flood of love and encouragement. It reinforced that we’re living our mission, to make better ice creams and bring people together.
What’s next?Ms. Britton Bauer: This March you’ll be able to find us at various Publix locations across the South, which we’re thrilled about, because we’re getting more ice creams to more people outside of our 32 scoop shop locations. But overall, we’re excited about what we know today about ice cream and how we can continue improving and being better for our community. That’s all we care about.