Ben & Jerry’s: Ice Cream’s Sweetest Story

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 This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #24.

Ever looked in the freezer and wondered how the brands get started? McCain was started by two Canadian brothers. DrOetker, of frozen pizza fame, was the brains behind baking powder. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, or Ben and Jerry, as they’re globally known certainly have an interesting story.

Childhood friends growing up in New York, Ben and Jerry had a shared love for food and a dislike for gym. Their initial bond formed when the gym teacher yelled at them for running the mile too slow and warned they would have to run a second mile. At this point, Ben yelled back, "Gee coach, if I don't do it in under seven minutes the first time, I'm certainly not going to do it in under seven minutes the second time", at which point, Jerry knew he liked him. Over the next few years, their friendship grew until the two graduated from high school and split up to attend separate colleges. It wasn’t until the duo reconvened after their respective educations that the brand we know today truly began.

In 1976 the twosome decided to follow their dreams of running their own business and first set their eyes on opening a bagel shop. After a bit of research they changed their mind, instead turning their attention to ice cream due to the equipment being a lot cheaper. To get an understanding of the challenge ahead they completed a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making from Pennsylvania State University. Upon completion of their course the next step for the two was to find a premises. Armed with a $12,000 investment, they renovated an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont and the first Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop was born in 1978. On their first anniversary they started something that has now become a shop staple: holding the first-ever Free Cone Day on the 5th May 1979. This meant free scoops for all, all day long. This positive connection with the customers has continued to this day and has been the backbone of the brand’s success. As well as being filled with compassion, their ice cream is also famous for something else: the chunks. Noticeable in every Ben & Jerry’s tub, the reason is actually quite interesting. You see, Ben suffers from severe anosmia, meaning his sense of smell and taste had diminished. Kind of a bummer when you’re in any food related industry but with the chunks he was able to at least enjoy the texture of the ice cream and pick out the winning flavours and it is these recognisable pieces that have remained a crowd favourite.

Of course, having been in business for forty years there have been a number of flavours that haven’t quite wowed the crowds. For example their first failed flavours were Lemon Peppermint Carob Chip and Honey Apple Raisin Oreo. Born to be innovators, the aforementioned failureswere actually created due to budgetary reasons as opposed to poor tasting. As Nancy Shullinswrites in an article in December 1987 edition of the L.A Times, at the time they were often forced to use whatever free samples came in the mail that day. Luckily for the two, their frozen innovation created more good flavours than bad, and with their shop an immediate hit they looked to expand. To help satisfy demand, they began to package their ice cream in pints in the 1980s. The reason? To deliver to nearby stores so locals can get their Ben & Jerry fix even if the scoop shop was closed. A year later they opened their first franchise store, and this number has grown year by year ever since. By 1987 sales were at $32 million. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan named Ben and Jerry the U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year, and by the year’s end, the company was operating shops in 18 states. In 2000 the company was sold to international food giants Unilever for $236 million, making the duos initial $5 investment seem a somewhat sound one.

Although businesses are often measured by the height of their profit margins, Ben & Jerry’s have always worked a little differently. Since their first ever Free Cone Day they’ve put their customers first and over the years, this “taking care of the people” has transcended mere ice cream, becoming a force for good around the world. In 1985, the company set up a foundation and committed to funding it with 7.5% of the company’s annualpretax profits. They also devised a three-part mission statement: to make the world’s best ice cream, to run a financially successful company and to “make the world a better place”. The ways in which they try to make a difference are too numerous to mention in this article but here’s a few examples: The company sourced from regional organic dairy farms. It used only milk that did not contain artificial growth hormones. It developed chemical-free containers. It made fair-trade and organic ingredients priorities. When they got bought out by Unilever, there was panic that all this good would soon to come to an end. In fact the opposite happened, with Ben and Jerry’s helping Unilever to change some of their practices.

Although it’s often reported that junk food can be bad for you, Ben and Jerry’s have proven that the company’s themselves can be a force for good and that makes every tub of Chunky Monkey just that little bit sweeter.

Daniel Eggleston