Jeni Britton Bauer has a thing or two to tell artisans who want to create and sell good local food. "Be a rock star. You have to go out there and go at it like you're trying to be President of the United States." In other words, you probably need to do what she did: Work 80 hours a week. Don't take a salary for years. Be on your toes every single day. This is part of Jeni's story, which has become a story of truly local food making good on a wildly successful scale.
We visited Jeni a few weeks ago to hear her story in person, and to visit the kitchen where all her delicious ice cream is made. But that's not all: She's working on a book, and we wanted a sneak peek of the goodies that home cooks are going to get when it's released next summer.
So Emma and I met Jeni Britton Bauer a few weeks ago, on a rainy Ohio afternoon. In person, she lights up the room with a direct buzz of energy. "Hi!" she says, and shakes my hand, when I meet her in her office. She talks fast - really fast.
When you meet Jeni and hear about her business, the immediate thing that strikes you is not necessarily the ice cream itself, but Jeni's entrepreneurial spirit. At age 22 she dropped out of art school at Ohio State University to open an ice cream shop, Scream. After a few years she burned out and took some time off to refine her recipes and her business plan. Then she launched Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams with her brother-in-law, Tom, and now, just a few years later, after being joined by her husband Charly and new CEO John Lowe, her family business is shipping her wildly popular collections of artisan ice cream all over the country. In her view, she is not just making frozen treats, or selling them in shops. She is building a fresh market for really, really good ice cream.
The Test Kitchen
We go on a lightning tour of the warren of rooms where her ice cream is made. She shows me her test kitchen, currently developing recipes for a book to be released in June 2011. Emma and I were delighted to see simple Cuisinart ice cream makers, churning away with flavors like an old favorite from the shops — coriander raspberry. Jeni described some of the recipes that are being developed for the book with help from her two test kitchen chefs. They are working on all sorts of delights: Frozen pies, cookies, lots and lots of ice cream.
The Artisan's Secret Sauce
Jeni stands in the ice cream production room, filmy white net pulled over her hair, and rapid-fire tells me the story of her entrepreneurial background. "I've had many jobs that I've created. The cool thing I tell kids is you can start in second grade or whenever. I made stickers one year. I would start out with my big sign on the playground until they would tell me to put it away." Her family moved frequently, and every year she would try something new.
"The absolutely best product, was when I was in high school, and I took straws and filled them with Kool-Aid that I put in the food processor with sugar — Pixie Sticks! I'd roll up paper and actually fill straws. I'd go around and make 8 dollars or 20 dollars at school every day, selling these at a quarter apiece." Tellingly, she chose to use her hard-earned cash to buy pizza for her friends after school. Entrepreneur as community-builder; that's clearly part of Jeni's story.
Jeni began as an entrepreneur, but she also has a background in art. Her grandmother is an artist, and she decided to study illustration at Ohio State. She worked in a French pastry kitchen to pay the bills, and her mind started spinning with ideas for recreating classic American desserts with French methods. She decided that food could be an art form as well. "When I was at Ohio State," she told me, "there was an installation where they had these giant vases filled with scent. You would walk up and pull the top off and smell the scent inside. I had already been making ice cream at home, and I was like, this is art. If those vases filled with scent are art, then butterfat filled with scent that melts on your palate and explodes in your nose, that's art too."
But it's not enough to have an artist's dream, or even a good product. That is where Jeni steps forward from many of the artisans at work in today's bustling local food scenes. People ask her how it feels to be so successful now. With splashy press in major outlets like The New York Times, Food & Wine, and Food Network over the last several years, she has arrived, right? Wrong. "That's not at all how I see it. I wake up every single day feeling I'm in a fight for my life," she laughs. She's only half-kidding. There is always something to put you out of business, even if you're a locally adored and nationally fêted artisan. There is a wonderful sense of public feeling for artisans and local businesses right now, but it still takes a nearly incomprehensible amount of work to make a living.
"That's what it takes; it's not even about just having a great product. You can have the best product, but if you can't support your business like that..." she trails off. "I've seen so many dairies come and go in that way."
The Artisan's Business Plan
Jeni's business has grown enormously in the last five years. Right now they ship twice as much ice cream as they sell in their stores. This expansion past the purely local arena is yet another lesson for young artisans. "We have to be OK with our artisans growing a little bit. You can't make a big impact on the world. What we're doing now is so much bigger. We're buying entire fields of blueberries, which means we're giving all that money to one farmer. Before, it was literally a flat a week. We can make a bigger impact, as long as we really truly change the world of business as we grow."
For Jeni, a good business means creating a good place to work, and creating a product that makes other businesses successful, as well as her own. While she lauds Val Jorgensen, the farmer who supplies her mint, and Warren Taylor of Snowville, the dairy behind all of Jeni's ice creams, these connections are just as much about community and symbiotic business relationships as they are about local products.
She loves local food, but this is about flavor, not the fetishization of the local, the organic, or the natural at all costs. She does add corn syrup, on occasion, to some of her flavors and she used orange food coloring in the Andy Warhol-inspired push-up pops she created a couple summers ago. She answered the letters that she received from a few angry consumers, and said, politely but forthrightly, that they were missing the point. Her ice cream is about flavor. It is about an experience.
Luscious Ohio apricots, the almond brittle of Norway, the spices of India — they're all fair game. She rhapsodizes over tiny Japanese marshmallows that look like quail eggs. She loves experimenting with colors, textures, new flavors - anything that strikes her as complex and interesting. In the test kitchen I taste a coconut ice cream flavored with black tea, filled with nubs of toasted rice. I taste a scarlet beet and lemon ice cream with poppy seeds that crunch between the teeth. With Jeni, color is always a factor.
Color & Flavor
Vibrant colors run through so many of the flavors: The summer exclusive Strawberry Buttermilk (when it's gone, it's gone!), made with tiny scarlet berries, fragile and fragrant. The rich Dark Chocolate, the bright orange Influenza Sorbet. And it's not just the ice cream; the flagship shop has a ceiling the color of apricots, and walls the color of mint ice cream. There are old-fashioned white tiles underfoot, and another wall is covered with a chalkboard, with the day's flavors written out in looping paint. Pennants in pink, yellow, and purple calico are swagged over the door, part of the celebration of summer flavors. They were handmade by Jeni's mother and grandmother.
And the flavors themselves are terribly inspiring as well. There is Jeni's signature flavor, Salty Caramel, is a rich caramel with a lovely tang of salt, introduced well before the current craze of burnt caramels sprinkled with sea salt. There is her best-known flavor, Queen City Cayenne, featured on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Dark chocolate, with a deceptively light touch of red cayenne, the heat builds and builds, needing one more lick of chocolate coolness to mellow it, until the chocolate and the pepper burn down your throat in a dark and fiery pleasure. There is the Sour Cherry Lambic sorbet, winner of the 2008 Gallo Family Vineyards Gold Medal Award. And then there are the seasonal flavors: Goat cheese with ripe cherries, lemon yogurt with blueberries. There is a delicate cucumber sake sorbet, and sweet Ohio corn with black raspberries. The roasted apricot yogurt soars and dips in a tangy flare and a finish of black tea tannins.
The Artisan & Community
However, in the end, this is just ice cream. Quite possibly the best ice cream you will ever eat, but ice cream all the same. But hopefully it is ice cream that is helping create a modest community around its creation and consumption. And that's all that Jeni wants. "It's about community," she told me, "and I would support anyone who's doing this. I hope you're supporting Jeni's ice creams because you're supporting this cool business that's showing people you can do business differently and enjoy life, enjoy work, enjoy your family, and create something great that is of value to the community. We can all do this if we support each other that way."
To be honest, a lot has been written about Jeni and her little ice cream company; they've become a poster child for Columbus and for local artisan food. I wondered what, if anything, was left to write about. But I found myself excited and energized by this visit. I found her emphasis on the entrepreneurial ethic and the hard work necessary to create a business like this refreshing. Yes, we can all say we love local food, and to support our local markets, but it's another thing to really see and understand the commitment that an artisan has to make to the community in order to create a business like this. It's hard work, and I, for one, am very glad that Jeni is doing it!
• Read about the dairy that supplies Jeni's cream and milk: The Way Milk Should Be: A Visit to Snowville Creamery
(Originally published August 13, 2010)
(Images: Faith Durand & Emma Christensen; Salty Caramel blog)